Donovan Philips Leitch (born 10 May 1946) is a Scottish singer-songwriter who, in the mid-to-late 1960s, attained worldwide fame as an icon of the burgeoning "flower power" movement, chiefly through songs espousing the virtues of love and altruism. Though a self-professed contemporary bard in the classic sense of the term—most well-known for simple, acoustic balladry on the guitar—Donovan was, and remains, a hugely eclectic artist, making a majority of his albums Genre Roulettes that experiment to a greater degree than his inexorable public image as a long-haired, tunic-clad "hippie"—a term that the man himself seems to dismiss to some extent—would suggest.
Born and raised in the ruins of post-war factory town Edinburgh, as a teenager, Donovan—inspired by the writings of beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, along with books on eastern philosophies—left home to live like a Bohemian, together with his Heterosexual Life-Partner Gypsy Dave (or "Gyp", for short). Though Donovan's father was a factory lifer, his love of classic English poetry was a large influence on the young Donovan, one that can be heard throughout his discography. As chance would have it, Donovan found his creative muse in music, eventually becoming a skilled guitarist; he was well known for his a distinctive "clawhammer" finger-picking style, taught to him by banjo virtuoso Derroll Adams, whom Donovan idolized.
Donovan became an overnight sensation after a fateful appearance on Ready, Steady, Go!, scoring an early hit with "Catch the Wind". He was quickly deemed by the media a Bob Dylan copycat on account of the many similarities "Catch the Wind" had to Dylan's songs of the period such as "Blowin' in the Wind". They had, in fact, both drawn inspiration from traditional Irish balladry; Dylan himself, as well as Joan Baez, came to Donovan's defense, but unfortunately, he seems unable to ever live it down. Perhaps spurred on by this snag on his path, Donovan reinvented himself for the first time with his 1966 album Sunshine Superman, codifying (if not serving as the Trope Maker) parts of the framework of the new-fangled "psychedelic" music that would explode into the mainstream shortly thereafter.
Donovan continued to release seminal works throughout the '60s — albeit returning to his more humble musical roots as psychedelia grew farther and farther away from his own sensibilities — in his own unique style, exploring genres such as jazz, blues, and calypso along the way. Notably, he was part of the famed group of artists that traveled to India to learn transcendental meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; among them all four Beatles, Prudence Farrow, and Mike Love of The Beach Boys. During his stay, Donovan would pass on his finger-picking style to Paul McCartney and John Lennon, which the two used to write songs that would end up on what would be known as The White Album.
Come the wane of the flower power movement at the close of the '60s did Donovan's own popularity share much the same fate, his chart success gradually dwindling until the mid-'70s when he stopped charting altogether. He would—and still does—retain a sizeable following and status as an Ensemble Dark Horse cult hero, continuing to tour the world and experimenting with new songs, ideas, and sounds. His autobiography The Hurdy-Gurdy Man reveals the path of his life and art in intriguing detail.
As of 2020, he and his wife Linda have begun a project called Eco-Song, dedicated to environmental activist Greta Thunberg and the Fridays For Future movement. It's a collection of 21 songs on this subject from across his career; and it will also be a stage musical, to be performed by children and young adults worldwide.
He is also the father of American actors Donovan Leitch, Jr. and Ione Skye.
- What's Been Did and What's Been Hid (1965)
- Catch the Wind (1965)
- Fairytale (1965)
- Sunshine Superman (1966)
- Mellow Yellow (1967)
- A Gift from a Flower to a Garden (1967)
- The Hurdy Gurdy Man (1968)
- Barabajagal (1969)
- Open Road (1970)
- H.M.S. Donovan (1971)
- Cosmic Wheels (1973)
- Essence to Essence (1973)
- 7-Tease (1974)
- Slow Down World (1976)
- Donovan (1977)
- Neutronica (1980)
- Love Is Only Feeling (1981)
- Lady of the Stars (1984)
- One Night in Time (1993)
- Sutras (1996)
- Beat Cafe (2004)
- Ritual Groove (2010)
- Shadows of Blue (2013)
Tropes associated with Donovan:
- A Cappella: "Things to Wear".
- Author Appeal:
- Colors, fabrics and fairy stories (or references thereto) are part and parcel of Donovan's lyrical universe. Do not turn this into a drinking game.
- "Mellow Yellow" (there's the color thing again...) was written in honor of a specific type of saffron bread of which Donovan was fond.
- And Starring: "Barabajagal" is invariably credited to Donovan, Jeff Beck, singer-songwriter Lesley Duncan, and soul songstress Madeline Bell.
- Antiquated Linguistics: Loves using some good old-fashioned Shakespearean English from time to time. And not just in his interpretations of works from the era. For one, "Get Thy Bearings" inexplicably never features these Exact Words in its lyrics.
- Artistic Stimulation: It was the '60s. In fact, he was famously one of the first "busts" of one Sergeant Norman Pilcher, who made it his life's mission to take down those good-for-nothing druggie artists... invariably going outside the bounds of the law to do so. Not at all a "drug casualty", though Donovan seems to have given it up in his old age anyway.
- As Long as It Sounds Foreign: "Barabajagal".
- Ascended Fanboy: To Derroll Adams.
- Baroque Pop: Well, naturally.
- Baleful Polymorph: "Lord of the Reedy River". It's actually unbeknownst how balefully the lady who fell in love with the titular swan views her situation — she may have (and the song clearly implies) done it herself, in which case it's not baleful at all. The creepy and ominous atmosphere of the song doesn't give off a very comforting vibe, in any case... possibly for the people who "sadly mourn and sigh" over her supposed loss.
- Careful with That Axe: A very mild example, but some songs ("Henry Martin" being the obvious example) have the man breaking into a strange kind of excitable vibrato. Considering the man's usual(ly) mellow delivery it counts under his standards.
- This is puirt à beul or mouth music. Close as he is to his traditional Celtic roots it's only a wonder that he doesn't do it more often. The closest American equivalent is scat.
- Cloud Cuckoolander: Has a distinct love of absurdist, child-like humor similar to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. H.M.S. Donovan is definitely the epitome of this facet of Donovan... to the point of being probably one of the all-time favourite children's records of Cloud Cuckooland. It features interpretations of Carroll's works, fittingly.
- Concept Album: A Gift from a Flower to a Garden is a Distinct Double Album divided into one record with psychedelic production (Wear Your Love Like Heaven) for adult hippies, and one with minimalistic, often acoustic, accompaniment (For Little Ones) for their offspring, "the children of the children."
- Commune: In 1968, Don tried to start one for artists and musicians on the Isle of Skye. It didn't work out.
- Cover Version: Not really a guy for it, parts of H.M.S. Donovan being a marked exception, as well as "Universal Soldier", written by Buffy Sainte Marie.
- Darker and Edgier: Hurdy Gurdy Man is distinctly more roughly composed and produced than his other work—particularly the title cut, as well as the stark and sparse "Tangier"—and has a more somber attitude towards the whole flower power movement he influenced so.
- Distinct Double Album: A Gift from a Flower to a Garden is notably one of the first of its kind to be released as a boxed set. The records were still available separately, though.
- Dr. Feelgood: The unnamed subject of "The Fat Angel" (the title itself is actually a reference to "Mama" Cass Elliott) must be a close colleague of Doctor Robert. May in fact be a reference to Donovan's real-life "doctor."He will bring happiness in a pipe
He'll ride away on his silver bike
And apart from that, he'll be so kind
In consenting to blow your mind
- Epic Rocking: "Rocking" it's not, but Donovan's reading of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" goes on for eight solid minutes.
- Everything Sounds Sexier in French: One section of "Jennifer Juniper".
- Filk Song: The spoken intro of "Atlantis" is basically a synopsis of Ignatius Donnelly's 1882 book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World.
- Friendly Rivalry: Bob Dylan never bore any ill will against Donovan, and in fact invited him for more than one party. In fact, Donovan is both seen and discussed in Don't Look Back, the documentary on Dylan's mid-'60s period. Dylan did view him as a rival to some extent, however.
- Genre Roulette: Donovan's albums are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: "Mellow Yellow" features a rather sneaky reference to some sort of new-fangled device called an "electrical banana" that's sure to become a sudden craze. Dildos, man. It's dildos.
- Greatest Hits Album: He's been the subject of self-curated career retrospectives, hastily cobbled-together patchworks made to capitalize on his sudden burst of fame, and at least one Essential Donovan... pretty much the works.
- Great White Hunter: Race doesn't necessarily come into it, but "Celia of the Seals" is a scathing attack on the massive seal hunting occurring in the Irish isles around the late '60s.
- There really was, and is, a Celia. Her name is Celia Hammond. She was a model who showcased sealskin coats until she realized the cruelty involved and used her fame and wealth to bring attention to the seals' plight. She also opened a chain of clinic/shelters for feral cats. Most recently you will have heard of her successful lobbying to clear hundreds of homeless cats out of the area where the London venues for the 2012 Olympic Games were to be built.
- It Makes Sense in Context: The song title "Happiness Runs".
- Last Note Nightmare: "Lord of the Reedy River". It concludes on the F minor sixth chord that ends the first line of each verse, giving it an up-in-the-air, to-be-continued feeling.
- Live Album: A fair few are sprinkled throughout his discography.
- Long Title: "In an Old-Fashioned Picture Book", "The Lay of the Last Tinker", "Voyage Into the Golden Screen", "Legend of a Girl Child Linda", "The Sun Is a Very Magic Fellow", "The Land of Doesn't-Have-to-Be"... the list goes on. The majority of these examples are from the A Gift from a Flower to a Garden album, too.
- Man of a Thousand Voices: Donovan does many of the voices on "The Walrus and the Carpenter", easily recognizable even with his voice distorted to sound like one of Alvin and the Chipmunks.
- Mind Screw: "The Walrus and the Carpenter" uses voice distortion and disparate song sections that do little to alleviate the already creepy atmosphere of Carroll's poem.
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: The majority of his catalogue doesn't even register, but he's been known to kick it up to three-four if need be.
- Mood Whiplash: "Little Ben" and "Lord of the Reedy River" break the otherwise child-friendly atmosphere of H.M.S. Donovan into tiny atoms out of nowhere. If you were trying to use the album to lull your kid to sleep, there is now a chance they may never sleep again... or they'll be fine, but you might not.
- Mythology Gag: Love Is Only Feeling was named after a lyrical passage from "Someone's Singing".
- New Sound Album: Pretty much his entire post-'70s discography. Sunshine Superman too.
- Obsession Song: "Lord of the Reedy River" is about a woman who falls in love with a swan to the point of wanting to become one herself. She does.
- Ode to Intoxication: "The Trip", as well as several of his psychedelic-era works. But then, of course, they might not even have existed without said intoxication...
- One-Man Song: "Henry Martin", "Little Ben", "Skip-a-Long Sam", and more.
- One-Woman Song: "Jennifer Juniper", "Guinevere", "$ueen Mab", "Celia of the Seals"—and, you guessed it—more.
- Performance Video: The autobiographical video documentary The Journey of Donovan has an entire bonus disc dedicated to these, in addition to the snippets shown in the main feature.
- Protest Song: Earning him even more comparison to Bob Dylan was the same kind of anti-war attitude, encapsulated particularly in "Universal Soldier". Later songs would see him raise questions about societal and political issues much more subtly, exemplified by "To Susan on the West Coast Waiting", which is very specifically a protest of The Vietnam War (but it's a gentle, slightly optimistic ballad). The Open Road has a number of songs with snappy, snarky lyrics about religion and government. As of 2020, recognizing the need for unifying theme songs in the youth anti-climate-change movement, he's put out Eco-Song, what he considers the best of his own work along these lines, for young people to use.
- Punny Name: 7-Tease.
- Raised Catholic: Donovan's mother was one, while his father was a protestant.
- Race Fetish: "West Indian Lady".
- Real Life Writes the Plot: Many of Donovan's early songs were references to his own experiences as a "man of the road"; some blatant ("To Try for the Sun"), others in more metaphorical terms.
- Record Producer: Mickie Most famously helped produce Donovan's most commercial work, carving his own niche in the psychedelic revolution that was to come.
- Referenced by...: William Shakespeare: More than once. In fact, Donovan was at one point hired to adapt Othello in his contemporary music style in the '60s. It fell through, but "Under the Greenwood Tree" was eventually released.
- Revisiting the Roots: Every so often, Donovan releases an album of this sort.
- Scare Chord: "The Walrus and the Carpenter" breaks into a dissonant keyboard part with a disconcerting descending bassline completely out of nowhere to herald the time to "talk of many things." And if you know the poem already, it only gets worse from there.
- Self-Backing Vocalist: Donovan is usually the sole voice to appear on his albums, so this is a given.
- Self-Titled Album: The albums H.M.S. Donovan and Donovan.
- Serious Business: When he first tasted success, Donovan was booked on the same shows as the likes of the The Who. Disillusioned with the raucous crowds attending such concerts and feeling like the music itself lost focus (much the same way The Beatles did, actually) Donovan demanded that his concerts be in more intimate settings in the future. It's worked for him ever since.
- Shout-Out: Apart from the titular reference to Cass Elliott as discussed previously, Donovan name-drops Jefferson Airplane in "The Fat Angel". They were a relatively obscure act at the time, so you've gotta figure the Colbert Bump must have been in effect.
- Silly Love Songs: Yeah, there are a few. But most of his "love" songs deal with love in a more universal way; loving your fellow man and what-have-you.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: On the face of it, he seems like a clear-cut idealist, and that's true to some extent. But several of his songs feature subtle (or not-so-subtle, on The Open Road) cynical undertones about politics and injustice.
- The Something Song: "The River Song", "The Love Song", "The Pee Song" and "The Great Song of the Sky".
- Soprano and Gravel:
- "The Walrus and the Carpenter" and "Mr. Wind" feature pitch-altered vocals that come off as this. In the former, the ill-fated oysters are only a few octaves below Alvin and the Chipmunks, and the walrus is the definition of Evil Sounds Deep.
- Live performances of "Happiness Runs" has Donovan directing the women in the audience to sing the titular words, while the men are made to provide their best impersonation of a French horn.
- Something Blues: "Bert's Blues".
- Spoken Word in Music: "The Walrus and the Carpenter" is at least a half song/half radio theatre play. Donovan himself plays the part of the narrator a majority of the time (taking great care to interject "...the walrus said" at appropriate points), though others are also involved.
- Step Up to the Microphone: H.M.S. Donovan features rare vocal turns from artists other than himself.
- Stylistic Suck: H.M.S. Donovan features a loose, inclusive approach to performance to increase its perceived childlike ambience. Some corpsing here, some missed chords here... it works.
- Take That!: "Hi It's Been a Long Time" is an uncharacteristically scathing one to an old flame.
- This Is a Song: "The River Song" and "Song of the Naturalist's Wife". "The Song of Wandering Aengus" is a curious example, being an adaptation of Yeats' poem of the same name. It's only now become a song through Donovan!
- Three Chords and the Truth: His stock in trade. Carried over from the bards of old, natch.
- Title-Only Chorus: "Wear Your Love Like Heaven".
- Trope Codifier: For psychedelic pop/rock.
- Unbuilt Trope: "Barabajagal", from 1969, is essentially Alternative Dance a good decade-and-a-half before the genre even existed, with its mix of groove and psychedelia. Happy Mondays even cited the song as an influence.
- Villain Song: "The Walrus and the Carpenter", "Jabberwocky", "Henry Martin". "Lord of the Reedy River" is an indeterminable case; it's just that vague.
- Word Salad Lyrics: ...Well, it is psychedelic and all that. when the mere title of your song is "Wear Your Love Like Heaven", "Legend of a Girl Child Linda", or "Voyage Into the Golden Screen", that about says it all.