Blast from the Past: Donovan

The Musician, with acoustic guitar and harmonica

Recently folk music genre blends have been on the rise. With musicians like Breathe Owl Breathe, a local group from Michigan, and well known artists such as Bon Iver, some part of musical storytelling is being redeemed. In discussions with friends I often find myself lamenting that one missing element from popular music is the story. However, stories are always being told and have always been told. I remember when I was younger listening to musicians like The Moody Blues and others in the company of my father. Though I haven’t revisited some of those songs I can distinctly remember the movement of the music, shaping images in my mind; composing stories seemed to be the point, even if I didn’t realize it then.

Similarly, fusion music has been in and out for many generations. Lately musicians might be more inclined to focus on technology, yet I’ve seen more people have genuine responses to a folk band that busts out a mandolin and violin and banjo to play some distinctly unfamiliar music, at least from my generation.

In an attempt to visit some of this music from previous generations I’ve been listening to one artist in particular: Donovan. Most people I’ve mentioned him to don’t recognize the name right away, and yet if they heard his music they would know him. The song that pulled me in long ago was Mellow Yellow, his 1966 hit that reached #2 on the billboards.

Donovan’s music started getting around in the mid 60’s, and it is just as distinct as its time. In fact, the same year that Mellow Yellow reached #2, The Beatles’ tenth album, Yellow Submarine, was released. It turns out that Donovan and Paul McCartney were good acquaintances and influenced one another’s musical careers quite a bit. Though some thought McCartney sang the “Quite rightly” response during the chorus it is actually Donovan again, but McCartney is actually one of the background vocalists on Mellow Yellow. Along with McCartney’s help, Donovan did some lyric development for Yellow Submarine.

Naturally, the Scottish singer songwriter’s grooves changed album after album. To get into his stuff I started by listening to a Best of Album I found with tracks like Mellow Yellow, Sunshine Superman, and There is a Mountain. These songs have a mix of instruments ranging from acoustic guitar, bongo/some kind of hand drum, vocal melodies, and flute, sitar etc. There is a Mountain in specific has a wonderful little Spanish move about halfway through the song. Donovan uses this time to call out to one Juanita, which is one of my Aunts’ names. Weird.

Despite being really catchy, Donovan’s music is amazingly unique, if not for the great number of instruments he experimented with over his career, then at least for his dedication to using truly great vocal melodies in concordance with said instruments. Isle of Islay, an acoustic guitar song in a minor key, has classical Celtic guitar sounds along with amazing vocal work that matches each note he plays. At a little over one minute into the song the guitar has an interlude and its progression continues the wonderful solemn tone.

album cover

Similarly, possibly my favorite song from Donovan, The Tinker and the Crab, relies heavily on his vocals, with a little effect during the chorus, and a flute. With each line he completes the flute pops in to play a little melody that continually changes throughout the song. To listen to it pop over to and search for the song, or, better yet, listen to the whole album (his 5th) that the song is on titled A Gift from a Flower to a Garden.

This album as a whole was originally released in two parts, or as a “double album.” The first half of the release, Wear Your Love like Heaven, was recognized as an album for a drug generation; a generation that would one day be parents. My mother and father were at that time only a little over 10 years old, so they probably experienced more from the second half of the album, titled For Little Ones. Indeed, listening to these albums in their proper context there is a distinctive difference in the tone of the songs found on the first half of the release. Songs like Mad John, with its awkward vocal overlays, and There Was a Time, with its weird guitar effects and vocal work scream of The Beatles more psychedelic songs, while the later tunes on the album have more a melodic and acoustic feel.

Overall, Donovan made his rounds through the business. Once he was arrested for marijuana possession (something I don’t condone) and also experimented with LSD (for evidence of his drug use simply consult his children, one of which he named Oriole Nebula). Karl Ferris, photographer for Hendrix, is responsible for the artwork of A Gift from a Flower to a Garden, which is an infrared picture, and Donovan’s music not only echoes The Beatles but his more folky songs have a lot in common with Bob Dylan, who shared many of Donovan’s musical interest as they grew up.

In the end, if you want to get in touch with the 60s, with all its drugs and funkiness in addition to its focus on folk wonderment, the music of Donovan is not a bad route to go. His career blended folk with jazz, blues, rock, pop, and psychedelic musical moves. An impressive musician, indeed.

  1. #1 by Dustin M. on March 26, 2010 - 1:20 pm

    Hey cool first post Charlie! I can’t say I was the biggest Donovan fan, but I definitely spun the Flower to a Garden record a few times growin’ up. And I didn’t know about his influence/help with the Yellow Submarine album either. I can definitely see it now though…that entire track is a children’s song…haha

  2. #2 by thejambi on March 26, 2010 - 11:01 pm

    Must be he was the fifth Beatle.

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