I’ve always loved the music of Donovan. Very few singer-songwriters can use the guitar melody and a voice to create such grand emotion.
The Scotsman Donovan was the original hippy poet singer, at least one of the first. Compared to Bob Dylan, Donovan Leitch had more of a rootsy folk pedigree, but a talent for haunting melodies. Donovan used some odd guitar tunings and had a vocal talent where his voice quivered, a valuable talent for a balladeer.
In 1968, Donovan went to India with the Beatles to study. While there, the Beatles wrote many songs that would appear on The White Album and later albums. Donovan taught the Beatles his unique finger-picking style along with some of his more unusual guitar chords.
In the mid-1960s he befriended guitarist Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones and session musicians Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, later of LED Zeppelin, all of who contributed to his recordings.
Donovan infused many styles of music in his songs. There was certainly a folk base to his early work, but he mixed jazz, classical and even Gaelic influences. Donovan was interested in different cultures and styles of music. As a lyricist, Donovan moved from his folk roots into a metaphysical realm, which in the mid 1960s was perfect timing for the boundary-breaking direction of psychedelia.
Donovan’s primary popularity was during the 1960s, but he has never slowed down, continuing to record and tour. I saw him in 1978 as he opened for the progressive-rock band, Yes. His music may seem dated now, but it was fresh and innovative back in the day.
His album, Donovan’s Greatest Hits (1969), pulled together a collection of extraordinary singles from the mid to late 1960s. The album peaked at number four on the charts, proving the popularity of these songs.
“Epistle to Dippy” (1967) A rocking folk song with string arrangement and harpsichord, a little like Simon & Garfunkel. Jimmy Page on electric guitar. Delightfully psychedelic lyrics. An anti-war message, the song reached number 19.
“Sunshine Superman” (1966) Powered by a groovy hypnotic bass vibe with trippy lyrical content, the song reached number one. “Elevator to the brain hotel – broken down – but just as well.” Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones are featured on the song.
“This is a Mountain” (1967) It feels like a percussive island beat. “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” The song reached number 11. The lyrics refer to a Buddhist saying and how things may be different than what they appear to be.
“Jennifer Juniper” (1968) Nice string arrangement for this bouncy, bright song about a pretty girl with flowers in her hair. A very Earthy set of lyrics, which were about Jenny Boyd, the sister of Patti Boyd, the wife of George Harrison. The song peaked at number 26.
“Wear Your Love Like Heaven” (1967) A beautiful lyrical song that peaked at number 26. You might remember it was used from several cosmetics and fragrance commercials back in the day. Nice horn, organ and vibraphone accompaniment.
“Season of the Witch” (1966) Donovan borrowed a Lou Reed arrangement for this song, with electric rhythm guitar and the spoken lyrics. You might think of the Doors with the bluesy chorus and organ solo. The subject matter of this song predates Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper’s interest in black magic, witchcraft and satanic imagery.
“Mellow Yellow” (1966) The walking beat in the spine of the song guiding the vocals. Great bass by John Paul Jones. The song reached number two on the charts. “I’m just mad about Saffron, Saffron’s mad about me.” Mellow yellow had several connotations including banana skins being smoked to alter your mood. Other interpretations included a yellow vibrator (go figure), although mellow is not usually what you might normally associate with that device.
“Colours” (1966) Popular in England but less so in the U.S. The follow up to “Catch the Wind.” There are several different versions of this song floating around. John Paul Jones can be heard on bass and keyboards. It has a strong country-folk texture.
“Hurdy Gurdy Man” (1968) A heavy, rock arrangement, with lots of echo, distorted guitar and a bit of tanpura, an Indian instrument. Donovan wrote the song in Indian, where he was with the Beatles studying transcendental meditation. John Paul Jones on bass and arrangement. The song reached number five.
Thrown like a star in my vast sleep
I opened my eyes to take a peek
To find that I was by the sea
Gazing with tranquility
“Catch the Wind” (1965) His first single. There are actually three versions of this song, the original single, a re-recording for his first album, and then it was re-recorded again for the Greatest Hits. In America where he was unknown, the song reached number 23. The song was covered by many artists from Glen Campbell to Eartha Kitt.
“Lalena” (1968) A haunting and lovely song, which only got to number 33 on the charts. A beautiful string arrangement with Donovan’s lilting vocals. It shimmers with emotion and poignancy. My favorite Donovan song. This was a stand-alone single, it’s first appearance on an album was Greatest Hits.
When the sun goes to bed
That’s the time you raise your head
That’s your lot in life, Lalena
I can’t blame ya