Behind the Song Lyrics: “Sunshine on My Shoulders” by John Denver

John Denver was a unique singer/songwriter for a few reasons. For one, Denver was the second person in music history to have written two official state songs—West Virginia’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and Colorado’s “Rocky Mountain High.” In addition to his lyricism, Denver’s soft approach to mainstream folk music set the artist apart from others in his era. 

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Proof of Denver’s charm, “Sunshine on My Shoulders” reached the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1974. Denver collaborated with songwriters Dick Kniss and Mike Taylor for the track, and the result sounds like a warm embrace of the natural world. The lyrics further convey a sense of contentment and love. 

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy / Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry / Sunshine on the water looks so lovely / Sunshine almost always makes me high, Denver sings. 

Despite the song’s overtly joyous feeling, Denver did not initially set out to write a song like “Sunshine on My Shoulders.” When he began writing the track, Denver was enduring a bitingly cold winter in the northern United States. “I was so down I wanted to write a feeling-blue song,” he told Seventeen magazine in 1974, “[but] this is what came out.”

After the song was written, “Sunshine on My Shoulders” was released on Denver’s 1971 album titled Poems, Prayers & Promises. The song runs at five minutes and ten seconds on the album, and it was released as a single two years later. The single version of “Sunshine on My Shoulders” is significantly shorter than the record rendition at three minutes and eighteen seconds. For this shorter single, Denver cut out the second verse of the song and added string instruments on the track.

In 1973, “Sunshine on My Shoulders” was used as the theme song for the docudrama titled Sunshine. The film followed a young mother’s fight with cancer which inspired a spin-off TV series in 1974. 

Overall, Denver’s feel-good lyrics and sounds in “Sunshine on My Shoulders” are equal parts timeless and timely.

If I had a day that I could give you / I’d give to you the day just like today / If I had a song that I could sing for you / I’d sing a song to make you feel this way.

Listen to “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” below.

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