WHEN Donovan Leitch wrote Hurdy Gurdy Man in India in 1968, he had little inkling of the strange afterlife his transcendental dirge would go on to have. In the past decade,
especially, the haunting ballad, with its aura of slowly rising dread, has become Hollywood’s go-to tune for existential terror .
David Fincher’s Zodiac and James Wan’s The Conjuring are just two of the creep-fests to lean on the piece’s unnerving cadences and swirling mystery (who or what is the Hurdy Gurdy Man?).
Early this month Sky, for its part, chose to soundtrack the first trailer for its big budget Celts v Romans romp Britannia with Donovan’s
“One never knows,” says the now 71-year-old folk icon at his home near Mallow, Co Cork. “I understood when I was making it that it was something very powerful and, shall we say, larger than a love song. When you think of ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ and hear the drama in it, you know it is relating to something quite serious in the human condition.”
Before our interviews, Donovan’s manager had asked that I read a short press release chronicling the musician’s achievements. The potted biography was keen to emphases his relationship with The Beatles.
This might in other circumstances carry the whiff of name-dropping. However, Donovan has no need to boast. He was genuinely close to The Beatles, the hazy psychedelia of
records such as ‘Sunshine Superman’ (1966) a clear inspiration for Sgt Pepper and, in particular, the White Album — which the band wrote after spending time in India with their Scottish friend.
There they all studied transcendental meditation at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. This, for The Beatles, represented a step into the unknown. However, for Donovan there was a sense, in the East, of returning home. He’d grown up hooked on Celtic mythology and saw in India a reflection of the pagan spirituality which underlies Celtic folklore but was largely obliterated by Christianity.
“In India, John Lennon said, ‘How do you do that thing with your guitar picking?’. I had a set of chords that were unusual — I’d been developing them from folk and blues. So I passed them along.”
Ear-wigging in the background was Paul McCartney. He was so struck by Lennon and Donovan’s tinkering that he incorporated the style into his own writing, resulting in one of The Beatles’ great ballads, ‘Blackbird’.
However, it was George Harrison with whom Donovan developed a particular bond. The junior Beatle was shy and visibly overawed by the genius of Lennon and McCartney. Donovan encouraged him to find his own voice.
“He was younger than the other guys — not the songwriter every day that John and Paul were. We kind of bonded. We were reading all the same books and jamming.”
Donovan was born into a working class family in Glasgow in 1946. His father worked at the local factory but was a poet at heart, with a particular passion or Yeats — a love he passed down to his son.
His parents were from opposite ends of Glasgow’s religions divide — a chasm that was vividly illustrated when a registrar was reluctant to accept Donovan’s first name on the grounds it sounded too Irish (a bribe of whiskey overcame his objections). Aged five, Donovan contracted polio — though he refused to be defined by the condition and, as a child, became a champion swimmer.
He moved to Ireland in the early 1970s. After a ten years of success and endless touring Donovan was burned out. So, on the advice of his management team, he got away from it all at Castlemartin Estate in Co Kildare (later purchased by Tony O’Reilly). It was supposed to be a quick, recuperative trip. Yet, the longer he spent in Ireland the greater the empathy he felt, with the landscape, the people and the history.
Eventually, he took the plunge and bought his own property near Mallow, where he lives today for part of the year with his wife Linda (when not touring he passes the rest of the time at a villa in Spain).
As a singer, Donovan seems himself in the Gaelic tradition of wandering troubadour. Though the family left Glasgow when he was ten and moved to Hertfordshire, this rich
cultural heritage remains central to his artistic identity.
“When I made Sunshine Superman in ’66 it was only after a while that it become clear that it would be the first psychedelic album and that it would herald the return of Gaelic-Celtic mythological lyrics,” he says. “I was fusing jazz, rock, classical rock and indian music — I was fascinated to see what would happen if you brought all these elements together. At the time other bands were still making pop songs.”
Donovan was also likened to Dylan — though sometimes the comparisons were not intended as praise. In the more cynical sections of the
British rock press it was suggested that the Scottish singer had moulded himself too consciously in the Dylan vein. Actually, says Donovan they were both drawing on the same, far older inspirations.
“We came from the folk blues world. Any nobody from the folk blues world could avoid being influenced by Woody Guthrie, who is actually of Scottish-Irish ancestry. Dylan being three or four years older than me — he was the first comparison. It was a bit like when the Beatles came along and they were compared to the Everly Brothers.”
“The audiences used to say, ‘Are you a Donovan fan or a Dylan fan?’ It was all very naive really. Was the fame distracting? Well, it didn’t stop me recording Sunshine Superman.”
As a Celtic songwriter and resident of Cork he is naturally delighted to headline the city’s up coming folk festival. He is deeply proud to call the county home and playing here is, he says always a highlight.
“ I was invited almost every other year. I keep putting it off because I was doing other things. This year – it just seemed perfect.”