About the song

John Denver’s Amsterdam. Now that’s a song that takes us on a journey, wouldn’t you agree? Denver, of course, is a titan of American folk music. His wholesome charm, earnest vocals, and songs that celebrated nature and simple joys made him a household name in the 1960s and 70s. But Amsterdam is a bit of a departure from his usual sunny disposition.

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This song, originally written and composed by the legendary Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, dives into the darker side of life, specifically the underbelly of a port city. Brel, known for his intensely poetic lyrics, crafted a portrait of Amsterdam that’s both gritty and strangely beautiful.

Denver, ever the interpreter, took Brel’s masterpiece and translated it for American audiences. His version retains the emotional core of the original, but with a touch of folksy charm that makes it more palatable.

Amsterdam isn’t your typical John Denver fare. There are no mountain vistas or tales of cowboys here. Instead, we find ourselves in the heart of a bustling port, a place teeming with sailors on leave, seeking fleeting pleasures before heading back out to sea. The song paints a vivid picture of this world, with its bars, brothels, and the ever-present shadow of loneliness.

There’s a sense of desperation in the lyrics, a yearning for connection amidst the transient nature of port life. The sailors, with their pockets full of cash and dreams of faraway lands, drown their sorrows in beer and fleeting encounters. The song doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities, but there’s also a touch of empathy for these men, far from home and adrift in a foreign city.

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Denver’s gentle voice, usually employed to sing of sunshine and meadows, takes on a world-weary tone here. It perfectly complements the melancholic melody, which itself is an adaptation of the English folk song “Greensleeves.” The result is a song that’s both hauntingly beautiful and strangely captivating.

Amsterdam stands out in John Denver’s catalog. It’s a testament to his versatility as a performer, his ability to inhabit a world far removed from his usual optimistic persona. It’s also a reminder of the power of music to transport us, to take us on journeys that are both dark and strangely beautiful. So, when you listen to Amsterdam, prepare to be taken to a world that’s both familiar and unsettling, a place where the shadows dance alongside the flickering gaslight and the sounds of the port echo with a melancholic beauty.

Video

Lyrics

In the port of Amsterdam there’s a sailor who sings
Of the dreams that he brings from the wide open sea.

In the port of Amsterdam there’s a sailor who sleeps
While the river bank weeps to the old willow tree.
In the port of Amsterdam there’s a sailor who dies
Full of beer, full of cries in a drunkin’ down fight.

But in the port of Amsterdam there’s a sailor who’s born
On a muggy, hot morn by the dawns early light.
In the port of Amsterdam where the sailors all meet
There’s a sailor who eats only fish-heads and tails.

He will show you his teeth that have rotted too soon.
That can swallow the moon that can haul up the sails.
And he asks to the cook with his arms open wide.
Bring me more fish, put it down by my side.
And he wants so to belch, but he’s too full to try.

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So he gets up and he laughs and he zips up his fly.
In the port of Amsterdam you can see sailors dance.
Haunches bursting their pants, binding woman to paunch.
They’ve forgotten the tune that their whiskey voice croaks.

And they’re aplitting the night with the roar of their jokes.
And they turn and they dance and they laugh and they lust.
To the rats it sounds of the accordion burst.
Then it’s out into the night with their pride in their pants.
With a slut that they tow underneath the street lamps.

In the port of Amsterdam there’s a sailor who drinks.
And he drinks and he drinks and he drinks once again.
He drinks to the health of the whores of Amsterdam.
Who have promised their love to a thousand other men.

And they darken their bodies and their virtue long gone
For a few dirty coins. And then when he can’t go on
He plants his nose in the sky And he wipes it up above
And he splits like I cry for an unfaithful love.

In the port of Amsterdam.
In the port of Amsterdam.
In the port of Amsterdam.