Note: An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Denver Post.
This year marks the centennial of the adoption of Where the Columbines Grow as Colorado’s first official state song. Surprisingly, there is little public awareness of Columbines, despite the state legislature’s directive that it be “used on all appropriate occasions.”
The neglect is unjust, and the song merits a revival.
The composer of Where the Columbines Grow was Arthur J. Fynn, a Denver citizen of wide interests and abilities. Fynn was born in upstate New York into a poor farm family, probably in 1857. Despite his poverty, he worked his way through a private classical high school and through Tufts College (now Tufts University), where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
In 1889, he landed a job as a Central City school administrator and in 1891 became chief administrator of the Alamosa schools. A decade later he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Colorado, and began a 29-year career as a school principal in Denver.
Fynn apparently was a competent administrator, but he also wrote poetry, published three songs, and developed a national reputation as an amateur archaeologist. He became an expert on the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest. His book on the Pueblos was published by a leading Boston publishing house.
Fynn participated intensively in civic life and lectured publicly on literature, history, ethnology, religion, and archaeology. For 23 years he served as an adjunct professor at the University of Denver.
Two decades after Fynn died, one of his associates claimed that Where the Columbines Grow was inspired by an incident on an archaeological expedition they undertook together. For reasons explained in my new Independence Institute paper, Reclaiming the Centennial State’s Centennial Song: The Facts About “Where the Columbines Grow,” the truth of the story is open to doubt.
Fynn composed the melody in 1911 on a ship returning from Europe, and the Colorado general assembly adopted it in 1915.
The song has attracted more than its fair share of criticism, and the state legislature has entertained several proposals for its de-certification. But whenever lawmakers actually listen to the song they re-endorse it by thumping majorities.
The legislature has been correct to reaffirm Columbines’ status, because the criticism has not been well founded.
For example, one commentator faulted Columbines for being “the state song that forgot to mention the state.” The charge is factually untrue because Fynn’s fourth verse, added in 1921, includes the word “Colorado.” Moreover, the critic apparently was unaware that several state anthems focus on state characteristics but do not mention their state names. Criticisms of the music and lyrics have been similarly uninformed because they have shown no awareness of the words’ symbolism or how those words interact with the music.
Columbine’s music “colors” its lyrics with diminished and augmented chords, accidentals, crescendos, and decrescendos. That music is unusually creative for its era and genre, and its overall effect is faintly haunting.
The lyrics form visual, auditory, and sensory images that aggregate into the colors of the columbine flower. They also contain a series of contrasts. One of these contrasts—“the scream of the bold mountain eagle responds to the notes of the dove”—is based on oppositions within the columbine flower itself, whose petals are soft in front but resolve into talon-ed spurs behind. The same contrast is reflected in the plant’s English and scientific names: columbine, from the Latin word for “dovelike,” and aquilegia, from the Latin word for “eagle.”
In addition to presenting images and contrasts, the lyrics shift time perspectives, moving from present to future to past and back to present. Like the lyrics of Colorado’s other state anthem, John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High, the second verse of Columbines contains an environmental lament.
Coloradans owe it to themselves to re-acquaint themselves with Where the Columbines Grow. The Independence Institute Issue Paper on the subject includes an original score and is available here.