I Died of Joy (The Spirit of John Muir)

Words and music Creative Commons License 1996 by Jim Bearden

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend Lee Stetson’s one-man show, in the Yosemite Valley theater, entitled “The Spirit of John Muir.” He started out by saying that, although you might have heard that “I” (Muir) died of a broken heart, because of the loss of the battle he fought to save Hetch Hetchy, it wasn’t true. After all, he said, if nature-lovers tended to die of broken hearts every time some wild place was lost, we would be as extinct as the dodo by now! He went on to describe many of his adventures in the wilderness; but at the end of the show, he came back to the “broken heart” theme. He ended by saying that, if you hear that silly rumor again, “You just tell them I died of joy!” This sounded like a great title line, and I was able to use some of the other material from the show to tell some more of Muir’s stories. Of course, a song is much too short to tell the whole story of John Muir, so I hope you will be interested enough to read more about him, and the adventures I’ve covered so briefly here. A good place to start is The Wild Muir, a collection of Muir’s writings about his adventures,  edited by Lee Stetson, many of which he used in the show I saw.

Tell the world I died of joy;
Lived a life I’d only dreamed of as a boy.
Well, they may have drowned Hetch Hetchy, but there are things they can’t destroy.
They didn’t break my heart — I died of joy!

Verse 1:
Aye, good friends, it’s good to see you again;
Heard you calling to my spirit out on the wind.
Now, some people might have told you that I’d died
Of a broken heart, from Hetch Hetchy, but they lied.
Because, if all we nature-lovers died, as often as they said,
Each time they ruined some place of beauty, why, by now we’d all be dead!


Verse 2:
‘Twas ever thus: if you look back in history,
To that first garden, and that very first tree;
Though it was the Lord Himself that gave it birth,
It was soon attacked by everybody on the earth.
And, now, if they’d cut down every ancient tree but one,
Why, they’d soon have lots of reasons why it, too, must come down.


Verse 3:
Ah, but I’m not here to mourn what might have been,
But to celebrate the wonders that I’ve seen;
To share the peace I’ve known in wandering the earth,
And the joy I’ve felt at seeing its rebirth;
The thrill of riding on an avalanche, or a tree-top in a storm;
Or of learning, from the glaciers, how Yosemite was born.


Verse 4:
As a boy, I once had to dig a well
Ninety feet through solid rock, and it was hell.
But one day, poison gas had filled the pit,
And it nearly killed me, before I realized it.
And now I feel like crying out, just as my father called to me,
To people trapped in poisoned cities: “Hey! Get up! Get out! Get free!”


Oh, yeah, they may have drowned Hetch Hetchy,
but there are things they can’t destroy.
They didn’t break my heart …. I died of joy!

Dedicated to the spirit of John Muir, and the inspiration he still provides for us; and to Lee Stetson, for bringing that spirit alive for us today.

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