I was delighted to read on 18 January, 2009 that Donovan had been honoured with a medal by the French Government and made an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters. One wonders if President Sarkozy’s wife, the singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, had anything to do with his nomination.
Madame Christine Albanel, French Minister of Culture, called Donovan "a living pop-folk legend, a genuine poet and true humanist."
That must have pleased Donovan, who has always been confident about the significance of his musical innovations and his contribution to the arts and society.
Receiving the medal, Donovan said: "I take it for all the work I've done over the years to bring poetry back to popular culture. To get an honour like this confirmed to me that it was successful, that my work was accepted on my terms, rather than becoming an entertainer. I wanted to be entertaining, but to bring to the world a sense of meaning again."
“I was a pioneer”, he told me once in Sydney; “the proof is that I was introduced and accepted and encouraged by Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Joan Baez. I left Society as an artist and a bohemian, only to find I became part of society as an artist. The arts have a great role to play in presenting the human condition. Leaving Society only put me in the centre of it… I’m accepted as a living historical part of British, Irish and Scottish Celtic music.”
Donovan may have been briefly compared to Bob Dylan in his early days, as both presented a folkie, protest-singer image and both played the harmonica on slings and wore caps, like their common idol, Woodie Guthrie. Donovan has written about the importance of other influences like Derroll Adams and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (another Dylan influence) But beneath the folkie-image of both Donovan and Dylan, there was a wealth of blues, jazz and poetry.
On the blues side, Donovan was more influenced by the guitar-picking of Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Gary Davis. He liked acoustic country blues and jug-band music, as well as Cajun Blues. He wasn’t much influenced by electric Chess R ‘n’ B or Chuck Berry. To some extent he was influenced by the Bo Diddley (and Buddy Holly) sound and New Orleans swamp, the G-F chord progression which he believes came from the fiddle music of the Celts (from Brittany-Nova Scotia-New Orleans), and which was an important part of the Celtic-African Cajun mix.
The Celtic and French Celtic roots were major influences. From the age of 17, he told me, he became less of a protester and more of a promoter of cultural links by “becoming the most popular international singer-songwriter who presented the Celtic flavour”. There’s a lot of Celtic influence in English popular music too, he says. He feels very Celtic, and loves the special sound of Celtic voices, of actors and singers; the Celts were orators and literary and musical geniuses. He was born in Glasgow on 10 May, 1946. It wasn’t a far jump from Glasgow to Ireland. He lives in the south of Ireland, in County Cork.
He sees himself first and foremost as a poet. His father read him poetry from a very early age, Robert Service, W. H. Auden, the hobo poets, the Woodie Guthries and Jack Kerouacs of the literary scene of the twentieth century, but also the poetry of. noblemen, like Byron, Yeats, Keats, Shelley, Burns .Donovan was always interested in poetry: “Most of my songs are poems in a way”.
He was attracted to the Beatnik, Bohemian and folk scenes, the music of Bert Jansch, the Troubadour Club in Old Brompton Road, Les Cousins in Greek Street.
I asked him about one of my favourites of his songs, “Sunny Goodge Street”. He told me he used to go up to Goodge Street every weekend, aged 15-16, to the West End, from the provinces, from St. Albans, Hatfield, Welwyn Garden City. His family had moved south from Scotland in 1956. He would spend the day or weekend digging the sights, the blues, the folk music; he wasn’t performing then, except at parties, but he soon started hitch-hiking and busking on street corners in St. Ives (1963).
“Essentially I play harmonica. As far as song-writing is concerned, my philosophy is: Keep the Chords Simple, three chords will do.”
Yet Donovan was also influenced by Billie Holiday, the jazz of Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus and by classical music. “Classical music and jazz came together in Sunny Goodge Street”.
John Cameron, the Cambridge-educated classical composer and arranger, helped to put down on paper many of the sounds in Donovan’s head, writing arrangements for albums and singles like “Sunshine Superman” and “Jennifer Juniper”
“John heard a very British, Britten-like, influence in “Jennifer Juniper”, and he used the cor anglais, flutes and harpsichords. Very English!”
Back in 1965, one of my university friends (the poet, Michael Rosen) used to tease me for liking the wistfully romantic “Catch the Wind” (b/w “Why Do You Treat Me Like You Do?”). He’d thought I only liked the tough electric sounds of Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker. It was true that I loved their music more than anything, but few songs made me feel happier or freer when hitch-hiking down through Europe in the mid-sixties than Donovan’s “Colours”. Michael Rosen’s own favourites (Desert Island Discs, 6.8. 2006) included Big Bill Broonzy’s “Black, Brown and White” and Ewan McColl’s “Fourpence a Day”, I was to discover over forty years later.
Some critics have found his idealistic attitudes naïve and gullible. Donovan credits his mother with having taught him to express his thoughts “without concern for scorn” (Sleeve Notes, “Donovan, Troubadour”).
Donovan composed “Writer in the Sun” when in Greece with his old friend Gypsy Dave, when he was convinced that his career was over. Arranged by John Cameron, it was recorded in 1966. Perhaps that was his true swan-song, the moment which marked the end of his best work, if not his recording career. Over forty years later, I sit here in Corfu, sadly humming that poignant song:
“And here I sit, the retired writer in the sun,
The retired writer in the sun, and I'm
Blue, the retired writer in the sun”.
(Lyrics Copyright Donovan Leitch)
He has said that he was a big fan of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet and was re-reading Clea in Greece.
Perhaps he had Durrell in mind, too, as another 'retired' writer in the sun.
Whether Celtic, American or English in origin or influence, the best of Donovan’s songs continue to reverberate in the mind. It’s a pity about the artificial vibrato he adopted later. For me, the best of his recordings come from that magical period 1964-1966, from “Catch the Wind” to “Writer in the Sun”.
He fully deserved his French medal. The British have been slow to recognise and honour his achievements, but they have been fully documented by the man himself in “The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy-Gurdy Man” (2005). Of all the 1960s survivors and “icons”, Donovan has managed to retain an aura of artistic integrity and noble idealism. I salute him; my enthusiasm for his early work has been vindicated by the bestowal of the French honour.