Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival
Legendary folk musician Donovan on finger-picking, his Irish ancestry and the enduring power of the arts
Now in its 10th year, the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival continues to grow in both strength and ambition – this year’s festival features more than 100 artists and 90 events over a 10 day period.
One of the undoubted highlights of this year’s festival is the concert and songwriting workshop by legendary singer-songwriter Donovan, friend and contemporary of The Beatles and Bob Dylan and an artist synonymous with the greatest decade in pop music history – the 1960s.
Donovan shot to fame half way through the decade on the back of the folk music boom with the release of his first single ‘Catch the Wind'. His first two albums, What’s Bin Did and What’s Bin Hid and Fairytale, both released in 1965, saw him erroneously labelled a Bob Dylan imitator.
Hooking up with Mickie Most, one of the leading British record producers of the era, Donovan went on to record five highly successful albums – Sunshine Superman, Mellow Yellow, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden, The Hurdy Gurdy Man and Barabajagal – which blended folk, jazz, pop, rock, psychedelia and world music influences.
Then a break with Most, coupled with a change in the pop landscape in the 1970s, led to declining record sales. Seen as a relic of the hippie era, it wasn’t until the 1990s – and his influence on band’s such as the Happy Mondays – that Donovan's music was reappraised, and rightly regarded as some of the best released in that golden period of pop music.
Inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, Donovan will also be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, alongside Ray Davies of The Kinks, in a gala ceremony in New York in June of this year. On a visit to Belfast to launch the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival, he spoke of his pride at his forthcoming induction and why he is looking forward to his appearance in Belfast.
'It seems quite apt that I should be part of this,' he comments, happy to be associated with a festival that espouses the creative talents of songwriters from Ireland and further afield. 'After the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2012 people asked what I was going to do. Was I going to go around the world touring and make a bundle of money? It’s never been about the money.'
What he did do was return to Nashville – where his US career had begun with the release of ‘Catch the Wind’ on the Nashville-based Hickory Records label – and completed an album of songs he had first recorded in the 1970s, now released as Shadows of Blue.
'I’ve got tons of cassettes from the 70s,' Donovan adds, 'and there they were, the seven songs, and I wrote three more in the process and went back to Nashville. It kind of traces my journey but also the journey of popular songs. You know the Irish and the Scots – predominantly the Irish – that entered America in the mid-1800s had an enormous impact on the fusions that would lead to popular song...'
Born in Glasgow in 1946, Donovan grew up listening to the songs and music of his family at parties. 'My mother’s side of the family is Irish, but on the father’s side too, when you trace back the female line, I’ve got the two grannies in Glasgow. One’s an O’Brien and one’s a Kelly. Both of them were extremely musical in the Irish way. All the parties they had. That’s where the songs were.
'There were seven sisters, them being my aunts, one of them being my mother. And they all sang. I didn’t know I was growing up listening to folk songs, but the father is very important. Because he was reading poetry, monologues. His was the gift of the gab. He couldn’t sing a note. My mother and her sisters where the singers.'
The family moved to Hatfield, Hertfordshire in 1956 when Donovan was ten, and he was soon listening not only to the new craze of rock ‘n’ roll music, but also to his mother’s Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and jazz records. He began playing guitar at 14 and graduated to playing in local clubs, absorbing the music of the British folk scene in St Albans.
'I was plugged in fully to the bohemian lifestyle of my pals, but I didn’t want to start a rhythm and blues band. I was stuck on playing solo. There was something about what I was hearing in my father’s poetry, and also the songs that were being sung. These were very influential to me. My father was a socialist and when I heard and plugged into Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, it gelled.'
Dropping out of art school, Donovan travelled around the country with close friend Gypsy Dave, busking and developing the crosspicking guitar technique he would later teach to John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
'Father was a bit shocked when I left home,' Donovan recalls with a smile. 'But I had this travel bug. Me and Gypsy Dave were 16 when we met, and we looked at each other and went: "You agree, don’t you? Humans are not the most intelligent species on the planet. Let’s go and find out why, by travelling. Let’s go find where the other bohemian singer-songwriters are, let’s become part of the voice for sanity."
'The revolution was on. So we hitchhiked aged 16 down to Cornwall looking for that group of people and soon we found them.'
In late 1964, Donovan was offered a management and publishing contract, and within a year he was a star. His early music revealed the influence of Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who had also been big influences on Bob Dylan.
Derided by some as a ‘Dylan Clone', Dovovan’s musical contemporaries knew better and he was soon friends with the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones as well as The Beatles, even meeting Dylan himself in May 1965, an event that was captured in DA Pennebaker’s documentary film Don’t Look Back.
'Bob Dylan was interesting but Woody Guthrie was the real one that drove me on,' Donovan admits. 'Because there was something about promoting awareness that I found in Woody. Bob came later. But The Beatles and ‘Dyl’ and Gypsy and I immediately became fast friends.
'When you look back now and see the songwriting of me and The Beatles, probably more than any other songwriters we were exploring a way of promoting the deeper level of consciousness which produces awareness, compassion and understanding. And that led to the meditation, of course.'
By 1966, Donovan’s music had developed as he immersed himself in jazz, blues and Indian music as well as reading books on mysticism and Eastern religion. His most creative and original phase as a songwriter and recording artist began with his close collaboration with Mickie Most, and the release of Sunshine Superman, arguably one of the first psychedelic pop records.
'The times they suggested some breakthrough, and they came from the DJs and pirate radio and the music that was coming through. But there was a great resistance from the establishment,' Donovan says. 'We all got targeted. I got busted first, followed by The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And this was very intentional, to stop what they felt was an attack on the establishment.
'At the same time, millions of young people were feeling after the Second World War an enormous urge to bring this higher level of consciousness. Now it’s only been 50 years since that day and 50 years is not a long time. It’s an extraordinary thing that’s going on now with the Internet. We would dream of the Internet. Our generation dreamed about communicating with people all over the planet at the same time.'
Donovan developed a strong interest in Eastern mysticism and played a role in awakening the interest of The Beatles in transcendental meditation. In early 1968, he was part of the group that travelled to India to spend several weeks at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh.
The visit gained worldwide attention thanks to the presence of all four Beatles as well as Beach Boys lead singer Mike Love and actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence (who inspired John Lennon to write ‘Dear Prudence’). It was during this time that Donovan taught Lennon and McCartney various finger-picking guitar styles, which the pair would go on to use on The White Album.
Donovan remains an adherent of transcendental meditation. His partnership with filmmaker David Lynch’s Foundation on TM has led to him giving presentations about the benefits of the meditation technique. He also believes that music has always played an important role in opening people’s minds.
'I have to say The Beatles and I felt in service,' he says. 'We felt that we were part of a tradition and could pass the knowledge on... How can any music and one guitar do any good whatsoever? It wasn’t all about entertainment, although we’re bloody good entertainers as well.
'Songwriters are very important architects. We have become extremely important for the future reverence for the condition called human life and reverence for the planet. How can that grow when religious leaders and political leaders have no reverence whatsoever?'
Songwriting, and the importance of songwriting, is obviously very close to Donovan’s heart, and he promises something special at both his concert and the workshop he will be giving as part of this year’s Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival, the concert already having sold out.
'I will be doing an unplugged concert. You’ll get everything you’ve come to hear, but in between the popular songs I think I’ll be exploring a lot more guitar picking,' he reveals. 'I know there’s going to be songwriters in the audience, so I might give a few secrets away, secrets I shared with The Beatles in India as chord structures that open up songwriting.
'Also in the workshop I’ll be exploring the chord structures that the folk, blues, jazz flamenco and pop world learned. Rhythm and Blues as well. People keep thinking you got to keep going to the future. But think of it as a tree. The roots feed the branches, the branches feed the flowers, the flowers feed the fruits, so all new music actually comes from the roots.
'And anybody who returns to jazz, blues, country and folk will be fed. You’ll be feeding your modern music. There’s no shame in going back to the roots. In fact, the roots are always there. We think they’re in the past but in actual fact they’re the living roots of popular music.'
Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival runs in various venues from February 28 to March 9. Donovan opens the festival at the Holiday Inn on February 28, and will also take part in the Music City concert on March 1.