I first heard Donovan after borrowing the album ‘Cosmic Wheels’ from Waterside library. I was about 13 and it was the first record I borrowed. I remember watching as the assistant marked where the scratches were on a sheet, so they could check, when I returned it, whether I’d added to the damage.
That LP was so different from the stuff I was listening to at the time, and led me to get another Donovan record, ‘Slow Down World’. In the midst of the worst years of the ‘Troubles’ some of the lyrics stood out in a way that got me thinking that music wasn’t all about fun and nonsensical chants.
‘Food in abundance, beggars and banks, God in his heaven, and his priests in tanks’, he sang.
‘Composure in the little pill, courage in the beer, Mummy and Daddy and the life of fear, Human relationships cast away…’
Lyrics like these got me searching for similar music and, of course I found the likes of Dylan and Neil Young - and more Donovan records. I was enthralled with songs like Ballad of a Crystal Man, with lyrics like…
‘As you fill your glasses with the wine of murdered negroes
Thinking not of beauty that spreads like morning sun-glow.
Seagull I don’t want your wings,
I don’t want your freedom in a lie.’
‘I pray your dreams of vivid screams of children dying slowly
And as you polish up your guns your real self be reflecting…’
‘Vietnam, your latest game, you’re playing with your blackest Queen,
Damn your souls and curse your grin
I stand here with a fading dream.’
I recalled borrowing that album while interviewing Donovan ahead of his visit to Stendhal. I had let slip that I’d been a fan since ‘discovering’ him in 1973, and he turned the tables on me and asked me several questions about his songs. At first, I admit to being flummoxed by this unexpected turn of events and my mind went blank. I have about 20 CDs of his music, yet I couldn’t name one song when speaking to him.
However, with his gentle conversation, I recovered my composure and was soon swapping lines of some of my favourite Donovan songs with the man himself. I was even treated to a sample of his unique voice on the phone, as he sang out the vowels to explain how they form a lament, for contemplation and emotion, while consonants are for movement, for dancing to.
Donovan’s name sits comfortably in the lexicon of Sixties legends, including the Beatles and Bob Dylan. While principally known as a folk singer, the Glaswegian created some of the greatest masterpieces of ‘psychedelia’ and was a key player in the innovation of that halcyon period, fusing folk, jazz, pop, rock and even funk. At the peak of his fame, Donovan was arguably the biggest singing star in the world.
His lyrics tell of the many experiences that make up the human race and the planet it inhabits - love, hate, colours, nature, the human condition, war, peace, fear and positivity. Yet, amazingly, even his most downbeat lyrics combine with the rhythm of the music to create a feeling of hope.
Donovan himself suffered early in life and overcame difficulties. He developed polio at the age of seven, and was known in the neighbourhood as “the wee polio boy, Donovan”.
“They were dark days in Glasgow,” he tells me.
As he quizzes me about his music, I admit that sometimes I abandon listening to the lyrics and just ‘feel’ the music. I feel silly telling him this. What do I feel, he asks me, and I answer: “Melancholy but a melancholy that feels uplifting at the same time - does that make any sense?”
“My songs provide hopeful melancholy,” he responds, adding that while his songs may work on an intellectual level, they are really aimed at touching people on a deeply emotional level.
I note that, while his musical styles have changed, his philosophy has not altered at all. To my mind, he’s always promoted peace, pacifism, and a pastoral existence, man in harmony with the world and the universe.
His music seems to be discovered by each new younger generation – what youth today hasn’t heard Sunshine Superman or Mellow Yellow? Or the brilliant Season of the Witch?
Donovan believes the ability of his songs to reach that emotional level plays a large part in that reach across the generations – as many young people will contact him to tell him how they learned through his music that they are not alone in the way they feel, and in the experiences they are enduring.
One person told him that his music had helped her deal with feelings about being bullied, while a teenager hearing Sunny Goodge Street for the first time said he’d seen his own life unfolding.
“My music has been described as timeless, the high, lonesome sound – the Gallic blues,” says Donovan.
“They are songs of longing and wishing and dreaming – whatever family we are born into – whether it’s a poor family or a rich one – whatever level we are born into, we are all still on the same journey, with the same difficulties, the same quests.”
Donovan says he is “really pleased” to be playing at Stendhal during a year that marks the 50th anniversary of his arrival on the music scene, and having had a house in Cork since 1989, loves Ireland. And 50 years on, he can still sit cross-legged on a sheepskin. He says that’s what he will do at Stendhal, while playing acoustic versions of his songs.
“When I sit cross-legged, it puts the audience at ease. Playing at Stendhal is very apt, as I have a Scots Irish mix. I was able to begin the 50th in Dublin, and then in Limavady, in the North,” he says. “I’ll play all of the hits in the acoustic fashion, as well as a couple of new songs. I am delighted to be coming to what they call the North of Ireland, though it’s still Ireland to me. I’m very proud to be asked to play at Stendhal.”
His roots are hugely important to him, and Donovan sees himself as continuing the tradition of the Gallic Bards, people steeped in the history and traditions of clan and country, as well as in the technical requirements of their verse. In that sense, he has moved the tradition away from poetry and used modern techniques and devices to put his poetry to music and spread his message across the world.
“I am probably the most well-known Gallic singer-songwriter in the world,” he says, before displaying an extraordinary knowledge of how Scots and Irish music travelled to America and evolved before returning to Europe in different forms, including rock ‘n’ roll.
He boasts two Irish grandmothers – Granny O’Brien and Granny Kelly – and has happy memories of parties when the children sat under the table while a chair was pushed into the middle of a room. That’s how he developed his own love of poetry and song.
“A tipsy relative would be coaxed to sing or recite, and all songs were sung a capello,” he recalls.
“I feel very much part of that tradition of tough Protestant Scottish communities. My father, Donald could recite like a bard. I am a great believer that the Irish and the Scots are really the one tradition not two, separated only by religion.
“Not to get too serious about the bardic thing, I have the songs of childhood, the angst of growing up, the meeting of a loved one, the making of children. I put my music in commercials and films – commercials have the biggest audiences in the world – in order to draw attention to my music.
“These songs are not just looking to sell a product but to touch people with music. Great poetry speaks almost of a sense of loss but hope can be transformed. It’s not the end, it’s a cycle. Bardic poetry is still being preserved in a teaching sense in the Western Isles of Scotland. The teaching is that it’s not about the meanings, it’s about the feelings. Listen to the sounds of the vowels…”
Donovan’s unique voice creates a haunting lament, as he works his way through the vowels, singing out only the letters A, E, I, O, and U.
“The vowels are continuous,” he explains. “Consonants are the sounds that stop, they make the body move. They are the sounds of dance. Vowels release the emotional parts of our lives and that’s why they are used in the Blues and the great laments.”
Donovan’s influence on the evolution of modern music was recognized when he was inaugurated into both the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. But while he is proud of those achievements, his focus continues to be on delivering his message through music and poetry.
Fifty years on, with such an amazing life lived this singer with unimaginable success and a host of massive sell-out concerts, albums and singles behind him, hasn’t lost the love of performing, inspiring and bringing hope to yet another generation through his music.
He explains to me about the stone circles, the four astrologic phases of the year and how the bards brought hope that as one season gave way to another, and great battles were fought, the year would be born again.
“Without that hope in the songs, the race would not survive,” he adds.
He has taken his message of hope, and alongside film-maker David Lynch, also toured the world to show that transcendental meditation, which he has practiced since the 1960s, can bring about peace, harmony and enlightenment.
Sadly, rather than slowing down as Donovan urged in the early 1970s, the world seems to be speeding ever more quickly along a path where ‘greed consumes you with its need.’
But Stendhal seems the perfect setting in which Donovan can continue to deliver his message that hope can bring change for the better. I’ll certainly be among those feeling that hopeful melancholy.
• Donovan performs at Stendhal on Friday, August 8. Tickets available from www.stendalfestival.com, Ticketmaster and local vendors.