Donovan Is A Musical Poet For The Ages

Singer/songwriter/poet discusses what inspired his classic songs, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, why poetry is feared, and the musical gold that remains in his vaults
  • Photo: Kevin Kane/
May 09, 2012 -- 2:40 pm PDT
By J. Poet /

One of the singer/songwriters who had to contend with being called the "new Dylan," Scotland's Donovan emerged in the mid-'60s to create his own unique body of work. His musical diversity — his style was marked by elements of folk, jazz, rock, world music, and pop — marked him as an original, with lyrics heavily influenced by the bardic tradition, Scottish poetry and his own interests in spirituality and ecology. Albums such as 1966's Sunshine Superman and 1967's Mellow Yellow helped introduce the world to psychedelic folk rock and hits such as "Sun," "Hurdy Gurdy Man," "Wear Your Love Like Heaven," and the GRAMMY-nominated "Atlantis" established him as an expert tunesmith.

Donovan has recorded sporadically since the late-'70s, but his music has remained a staple on classic rock radio. His recent studio albums include 1996's Sutras, produced by Rick Rubin, 2004's folky Beat Cafe and 2010's Ritual Groove, the latter a double album the he describes as "the soundtrack for a movie that hasn't been made yet," with a single, "I Am The Shaman," produced by filmmaker David Lynch Fresh from his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the singer/songwriter discussed why he is first and foremost a poet.  

Do you have any thoughts on being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
It's a singular honor. My publicist said he'd never seen such a huge reaction before. The wave of joy I felt from so many people was overwhelming. I feel my music has a positive vibe and hope this will bring back a little of the bohemian vibe of the '60s and get people to look at themselves and the planet in the right way. The bohemians and poets of the '60s — [Michael] McClure, [Allen] Ginsberg, [Kenneth] Rexroth, [William] Burroughs, and [Jack] Kerouac — were a major inspiration.

Do you consider yourself a rocker or more a poet or bard?
Rock is an umbrella over many styles of music, but I'm a poet. From "Catch The Wind" on, I wanted to write love songs that were more than, "I love you/Why'd you make me blue?" "Catch" was about [my wife] Linda and I hadn't met her yet. I often have written about things that haven't happened yet. My dad read me poetry when I was a boy, which made me want to be a poet, but there was great resistance on British radio to anything beyond [pop clichés]. The Beatles, the Stones and Donovan were not played on the BBC, but on Radio Luxembourg in Europe and later on pirate radio ships.

For a long time, poets got bad press and were looked on as sissies, but Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen helped change that with their lyrics, so the poet did not fade away. I added poet [to my résumé on] my website about 10 years ago. With poetry slams getting an audience in England and America, young people are interested in the written and spoken word again. They're going back to that bohemian consciousness and talking about women's rights, planet consciousness and spirituality. Throughout history, poets have been locked up, silenced or killed. Two lines of a good poem can move a nation to change; that's why the poet is feared.

You did an event at the GRAMMY Museum in March. Do people ever surprise you with a question?
I enjoy talking about the music and where it comes from. I have people write down the questions beforehand, so one question doesn't become five or 10. I enjoy the give-and-take and getting people to laugh and cry. A guy from Fox TV said I could turn the evening into a one-man show and play universities.

Someone asked, "Is there really a mountain?" [referring to the song "There Is A Mountain"]. The song was a Zen Haiku put to a Caribbean rhythm with a jazzy flute. [Sings] "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is." The mountain is your dream of what you think you're going to do in life, then it fades away as if it was never there, but as you live your life, you see you've never left the mountain. So, yes, there is a mountain, but not for skiing.

Are there any old demos floating around that people have never heard?
A few years back, 400 analog master tapes arrived at my door and we're slowly working through it. There are four albums I recorded and wrote that were never released and endless demos, with just acoustic guitar and vocals. They sound pretty good. It's mostly from the late-'60s and early-'70s, all done on analog tape, and some stuff from the '80s and '90s. It's amazing it was rescued. As we get it all sorted out, it'll be on my website. We have HMS Donovan [a children's album never released in the United States], some live albums, an album with the Jazz Crusaders from the '70s, and more. I wasn't doing a lot of touring back then and a lot of the albums weren't understood. I was singing about ecology and spirituality and things that people are just getting into today.

(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)

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