Donovan was an interesting singer-songwriter who appeared in the 60s with an unfair “Bob Dylan look-a-like” label. His most successful period was in the 60s, but he has continued making records since. So, I decided to take to look at the Top 10 Donovan songs.
Quite A Surprise
You may be surprised to know that he has released 29 studio albums and thirty-three singles. There have been eight live albums and an incredible sixty two compilation albums. But, there are other things about him you may be surprised to learn.
John Lennon played finger-picking guitar style on the wonderful “Dear Prudence” on The Beatles White Album. Donovan taught him the technique. He was best friends with Joan Baez and Jeff Beck and had two future members of Led Zeppelin as his in-house session-musician band.
The Minstrel Boy
Donovan arrived in our consciousness as a bit of a low-key hippy with his paisley shirt and wandering minstrel image. He resembled something from a ‘pre-existent’ Carnaby Street, if that were possible.
He had his own style that remarkably became fashionable in those circles. But there was always so much more to him than that. Donovan’s best songs could paint images in our minds as he used words to create pictures.
Staying the Course
Some artists will try to maintain their presence by changing styles to suit what they think the record-buying public wants. But that was never the route that Donovan chose. He had a simple ideology of pacifism and innocence that was born out of integrity for his art.
He was born Donovan Leitch in a suburb of Glasgow in the 40s and came to prominence in the British Folk scene of the 60s. Donovan’s music carried plenty of influence. Much of it was Folk-orientated. But that was infused with Jazz and Pop and also a bit of Psychedelia. You could call Donovan’s style of music “eclectic.”
The same as a young Bob Dylan in many ways. Woody Guthrie and Rambling Jack Elliot, as well as the Folk Music master of the time, Pete Seeger. He lived the life of what in the UK was called a “Beatnik.”
In true wandering minstrel fashion, Donovan busked his way from place to place and lived a very Bohemian lifestyle. He got his first record deal in 1964, and people didn’t know quite what to make of him. Dylan came over to the UK in 1965, and the similarities were noted.
Donovan wasn’t copying Dylan…
Could anyone? But they had the same early influences, especially Woody Guthrie. So, there were always going to be things you could recognize as common to both in the music they wrote and sang.
Since he arrived in the mid-60s, he has always managed to retain some sort of presence. He was very much out of style at the time of Punk and other following genres. But he just did what he did. And that was to write good songs and make good records. So, let’s take a look at the Top 10 Donovan songs, in my humble opinion.
Top 10 Donovan Songs
This is a song that isn’t to be confused with a track by David Crosby of the same name. Donovan’s “Guinevere” was included on his Sunshine Superman album from 1966. This is a rather somber song to start this list, but it does something I mentioned earlier. His lyrics paint a picture of Guinevere’s life in the Royal Court of King Arthurs’ Camelot.
He doesn’t need to be specific about the feelings she may have been experiencing; the words do it for her. He talks about the “Royal domain.” And the sadness is described as “The Dark Foreboding Skies.”
Then, he paints the picture that despite having everything she could ask for still, she isn’t happy, “Silence o’er Royal Camelot.” No happiness and laughter as far as she is concerned, just silence. A master musical portrait painter at work.
Let’s go back almost to the beginning with this song, “Jennifer Juniper.” It was released in 1968 and taken from the album, The Hurdy Gurdy Man, and reached #5 in the UK and #26 in America.
It’s a soft, gentle ballad that features a wind section comprising a bassoon, flute, French horn, and oboe. Typical of the time, it is a simple song that seems to capture the innocence of the music of the period.
However, the subject matter is not so straightforward…
“Jennifer Juniper” is about George Harrison’s then-wife’s sister Jenny Boyd. Donovan, Jenny, Pattie Boyd, and The Beatles were all about to embark on their journey to India.
Jenny was a model, but after discovering Transcendental Meditation in India, she gave it all up. Later, she ran a clinic for those with substance abuse problems. She also had an antique store in the most fashionable market in Europe at the time, Chelsea Market, selling antiques. The store was called “Jennifer Juniper.”
Season Of The Witch
This song was included on his third album, Sunshine Superman, from 1966. It was not released as a single, but since its release has become a favorite song of Donovan fans.
Compared to the singles that came before this song was released, it is a complete change of style. Dark and moody with a wailing vocal, it is a long way from his Folk days. In a way, it was one of the songs that heralded the imminent arrival of the Psychedelic movement.
The song is highly thought of amongst other musicians, and there have been plenty of cover versions. Perhaps the best is by Al Kooper on his Super Session album. This is a song that some might have placed in the top three of the best songs by Donovan.
Some would say this is one of his best songs, and it would be hard to disagree. It was his fifth single and taken from the album of the same name. The single came out before the album. It reached #2 in the UK and #1 in America in 1966.
Interestingly, it was at this time that two future members of Zeppelin started providing session parts on his songs. John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page both played on this track.
It was a song written to his future wife, Linda Lawrence. He had made up his mind she would be his wife using lines like, “You’re going to be mine.” One of his most notable tracks and, again, a diversion from what had gone before.
There Is a Mountain
Another of his songs that is, firstly, “different” and, secondly, highly thought of. The single was released in 1967 and reached #8 in the UK and #9 in America.
It has a very recognizable flute part that sets the tone musically and is clearly influenced by his Folk Music roots. It’s an interesting reference to the writings of Qingyuan Weixin. He discussed the difference in how we view physical things. Especially things like mountains and rivers.
Having said that, only when you come to appreciate them for what they are can you see them as what they actually are. That is described in the lyrics of the song, “First there is a mountain.” But, then, putting forth the idea that “Then there is no mountain.” Because we look at them how we are conditioned to, and then, once we have come to an understanding, we see it as exactly what it really is, “Then there is.”
This is a much-loved Donovan song that was his second single and follow-up to “Catch The Wind.” Released in 1965, it reached #4 in the UK and #61 in America. It was included in his second album, Fairy Tale.
We shouldn’t be surprised to know that this is Donovan in Folk Music mode. Since it was only his second single, he would have been “told” by the record label what they were going to release. Having established a style for him, they needed to keep his image and this style as they saw it. Obviously, Donovan didn’t necessarily agree with them.
When they were compiling a Greatest Hits album, he went back in and recorded the song again. The album version featured Big Jim Sullivan on guitar and John Paul Jones on bass. It also featured Clem Cattini, who nearly became Zeppelin’s drummer before they hired John Bonham.
This is a song with no little controversy surrounding it. It was written by Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Saint-Marie. She released it, but it wasn’t a commercial success. Donovan released it in 1965, and it reached #5 in the UK but failed in America.
It was believed the song was about the Vietnam War. But, as American combat troops hadn’t arrived there when the song first came out, that might not be accurate.
This is a different kind of protest song as it doesn’t blame governments. It blames the people who join in accepting the idea it is okay to kill and that war will solve the problem.
There are no distinctions made between nationality, religion, or ideology. They all fight for their causes, but for the same reason as everyone else, so they are all the same.
There were some protests. One-half of the Jan and Dean “surf” duo wrote a song called “Universal Coward,” attacking Buffy’s song. However, Donovan’s version of the song, emphasizing his pacifist beliefs, struck a chord with a lot of people. That made it a success in some countries. His version is still highly-thought of today.
So we move into the Top 3 now with this popular Donovan song from 1966. It reached #8 in the UK and #2 in America. And it had some interesting reviews.
Some claim that it refers to a ladies’ vibrator called the Mellow Yellow in the shape of a banana. Donovan saw it advertised in the paper.
There are some interesting contributions to the track. John Paul Jones plays bass guitar, and jazz guitarist John McLaughlin plays guitar. Paul McCartney can also be heard vocally. Although it isn’t Paul who whispers “Quite Rightly,” that is Donovan himself.
Hurdy Gurdy Man
By 1968, the “Folk Singer” had gotten somewhat heavy. This song came out of the blue and was a huge change of musical direction, and some say a major risk.
No one need have worried. “Hurdy Gurdy Man” became one of Donovan’s most successful songs and is worth its place here at #2. It reached #4 in the UK and #5 in America.
Donovan wrote the song on his sojourn with The Beatles in India. George Harrison gave him a four-stringed tambura which Donovan plays on the track.
For Someone Else?
Donovan thought others could do a better job of the song. He favored Jimi Hendrix but decided in the end to do it himself. Probably a track where Jimmy Page on guitar and John Paul Jones on bass also contributed.
There seems to be some confusion about what the song is all about. A Hurdy Gurdy is a complex hand-cranked musical instrument that had to be wound up and carried around.
It was especially popular in European Folk Music traditions, and you can still buy them today. The hurdy-gurdy player would travel between villages, ‘Singing songs of love.’ To whoever would pay him.
The instrument was popular from the time of the Renaissance and, by the 18th century, was a common site in villages and at special events. The “Hurdy Gurdy man” was quite a celebrity of the time.
Catch The Wind
And so, to #1 on this list of the Top 10 Donovan songs. I make no apologies for placing this song here. For me, despite all the various styles of music he played, this was Donovan at his very best. Released in 1965, it was his first single and reached #4 in the UK and #23 in America.
There is something innocent and simplistic about this acoustic-based love song. The lyrics once again paint a picture. This time of a man wishing he could be with someone but knows it would be futile to try. And, he might as well, “Try and Catch The Wind.”
The song has had dozens of covers, but no one quite catches the emotion of the Donovan version. Quite simply, a brilliant song from a very gifted writer and singer.
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The Top 10 Donovan Songs – Final Thoughts
The song “Hurdy Gurdy Man” may have been a little bit about how he saw himself if he had lived two hundred years before. As a teenager and into his early 20s, he traveled around as they did, singing his songs.
He became a Wandering Minstrel-like figure and never really lost that image. It was a little of how we saw him, which only added to the mystique. But, as I said earlier, he was far more than that and far more than just another singer copying Dylan.
Perhaps the real testament to his abilities is more about the songs we haven’t included rather than the ten that we have. For more great selections, check out some of those that didn’t make it onto our list of Donovan’s Top 10 songs.
Until next time, happy listening.