It's been suggested that this will be the year of the British band at blogfave musicfest SXSW. Ironically, however, last year’s SXSW featured a pair of sets by a seminal member of the original British Invasion, and hardly anyone seemed to notice, or remember. So while others prep for the indiefest, I thought it was high time to take a look back at a man who is so underrated in the US that none of the current generation of folk-rockers seem to bother listening to him, despite obvious musical similarities between today’s indiepop and his better-known tunes. Ladies and gentlemen, the songs of Donovan.
When sixties folk-rocker Donovan appeared at the 1981 Amnesty International benefit The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball alongside Sting, Bob Geldoff, John Cleese, and other famous musicians and comedians known for their commitment to the cause, his contemporaries Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton were immediately recognized and applauded by the audience. But although Donovan’s songs were given their due, he himself was not so well recognized. Instead, as he took the stage, one audience member bellowed "I thought you were dead!" Donovan's response? "Not yet!"
Wikipedia goes on to suggest that the warm reception which followed this exchange "proves" that one-time flower child Donovan was still popular, despite the "anti-sixties" sentiment that existed at the time. More than anything, what the initial exchange says to me is that even as early as 1981, some folks had no idea that Donovan was anything more than a long-gone fragment of the past.
There’s a lot more to Donovan Leitch than Mellow Yellow. He’s an uncredited cowriter of the Beatles song Yellow Submarine. Friend of Dylan; father of actress Ione Skye, best known as Lloyd Dobler's girlfriend in Say Anything. A man who remains committed to Transcendental Meditation, long after most folks packed it away with their macramé and love beads; who is, in fact, starting a TM university devoted to world peace and something called "the universal field" with the support of filmmaker David Lynch.
Okay, that last bit is a bit much. But the main point stands: though most folks remember Donovan for his celebration of hippie drug culture through his lifestyle and his lyrics, once upon a time, Donovan was a singer-songwriter who stood for peace, and was celebrated for his anti-war songs. He gets credit, even today, from others of his generation, who still play his songs in concert, and put them on their late-in-life releases. And in my opinion, he deserves it.
But unlike many of our other Covered In Folk feature artists, despite a minor renaissance in the coversongs of grungerockers Hole and the Butthole Surfers, and a mediocre 1992 grunge/indieband tribute album Islands of Circles, Donovan's abilities as a songsmith seem to have been forgotten by today’s up-and-coming artists, especially the American folk community.
How the mighty have fallen. Today, Donovan still records, and tours Europe and his native London. He has true indiefolk cred, with a myspace and no major label support. He remains a musician constantly trying to recapture the magic. But while so many of his fellow sixties icons successfully reinvent themselves for modern audiences, in America, with the exception of a small but significant fan base, most folks still think Donovan is dead.
A challenge, then, to the new generation of American singer-songwriters. If – as today’s covers demonstrate - Donovan’s songs resonate so well on shows like Crossing Jordan and Party of Five, then there’s clearly still an audience for these lyrics and tunes. And certainly, now more than ever, the world needs songs of peace. Why not try one on, to see how it feels? Here’s some of Donovan’s peers to show you how it’s done, with bonus covers by Donovan both then and now to remind you of his talent.
- Rickie Lee Jones, Sunshine Superman
(from Music From Party of Five (out of print); more Rickie Lee Jones here)
- Richard Thompson, Season of the Witch
(from the Crossing Jordan soundtrack; more Thompson to come in a future coverpost)
- Joan Baez, Colours
(from Farewell Angelina; still fresh after 43 years)
- Lindsay Buckingham, To Try For The Sun
(from 2006 release Under The Skin; more Buckingham to come in a future Fleetwood Mac coverpost)
- The Bobs, First There Is A Mountain
(from Cover The Songs Of...; not folk, but awesome acapella group harmony)
Today's bonus coversongs feature Donovan's 1965 anti-Vietnam anthem The War Drags On, which many have heard but few realize is a cover of fellow sixties folkster Mick Softley. Those who think of Donovan as hippierock will be surprised; this is true acoustic singer-songwriter folk, worth trying if you've never really listened. Plus a few more recent interpretations recorded in the last decade, just to prove Donovan's still got the chops: a cut from the two-disk Pete Seeger tribute Where Have All The Flowers Gone, a nice version of traditional folksong The Cuckoo from Beat Café, Donovan's underrated 2004 return to beatnik jazzfolk, and a "cover" of a Dylan Thomas poem from that same album.