Old and New: Catching the Wind With Donovan

Donovan Leitch was in the wind, halted for a day and night in Georgetown.

Like all poets, minstrels, the self-professed Hurdy Gurdy Man was on the move, like a stitch of moon on the rise.

He had done a concert at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center in Rockville, Md., the night before, appearing surely a little like an unexpected apparition and legend there. Next day, he was on his way for a visit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, the scene of a signal triumph only the year before. That’s when he was inducted into the R&R Hall of Fame, an event many of his admirers, of the torch holders with giddy lyrics of 1960s hits like “Sunshine Superman,” “Mellow Yellow,” “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” running through their heads was way overdue.

And he was singing and talking about “Shadows of Blue,” a resurrection album of sorts, perhaps also long overdue, which he recorded in Nashville this year, the place where much of the music began for him. It was full of songs he’d put aside, like notes for a novel or a poem, and they sat in his life waiting patiently along with some new works.

We caught up with him then in the lobby of the Georgetown Inn. He wasn’t difficult to spot: in the flesh, as in the music, there is no one that looks or sounds like Donovan Leitch. We’d run into him before, at the Govinda Gallery, where some years ago he had an exhibition of his “Sapphographs,” at the Kennedy Center with movie director David Lynch of “Blue Velvet” fame where on a Transcendental Meditation event, and most recently and again at the Kennedy Center where he was a part of a star-studded tribute to Woody Guthrie, a man whose life and music haunts him and inspired him.

There’s a singular look to him, and now that look, which had the air of a Celtic Rimbaud, an affable, seductive boy-poet about it, is still there, weathered a bit, deepened, but still, in his sixties, having already lived a few lives, youthfully buoyant and full of eager curiosity. He is one of those singers whose singing voice sounds like his speaking voice. It’s not exactly musical, but it has the singer’s loop of valleys and ridges and side roads.

“By God, it’s good to be here,” he said. “I love Georgetown. So many good memories and good friends and people.”

In his hotel room, a weathered guitar lies on the bed, a green and color-hued guitar, it looks well-used, no spit and polish there. “It’s seen some days,” he said. “But I like it that way.” Whereupon, he launched into a story about Jimmy Paige of Led Zeppelin and his cache of electric guitars, their own, shiny, cleaned and tuned every day, and never played. “He showed them to me once,” he said. “Can you imagine, all of that, finely tuned, no sound?”

“These songs in this album, they were waiting, for a long time,” he said. “It’s like poetry, the time has to be ripe and right. It was right now.”

We can and do, of course, wander over the course of his life, in which an idea or two figure so strongly, come together. If you remember the 1960s at all, smoked some stuff, danced with hippie girls, you were seduced and driven by the music. The music started out in protest and folk music and moved into a rich and deep musical labyrinth which was full of colorful and amazing wizardly characters. In that time, what you did more than anything was move to the music that had lyrics you never forgot. It’s easy to lose track of Donovan in all those names—the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Stones, the Animals, Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Santana, Joplin and Slick, not to mention Otis and Hendrix, and Motown in the background.

But there was also only one Donovan Leitch, a Scottish lad who had his days of street singing sticking his hat out with his pal Gypsy Dave vagabonding and busking but who would become a singer-songwriter and star in that cauldron of folk and funk and rock and roll, with his first hit “Catch the Wind.” “That’s when things went into the stratosphere,” he said. In the collection album, “The Essential Donovan,” you can catch that rising wind. He was a part of it all, with a singular do, and a singular voice, and the do is still there, a little wilder, gray streaked, and the pure eyes and just that voice, with etchings of rock and roll and balladry in it.

No question that he was a star. He has an id and an ego, and lots of his sentences begin with the letter I, but then he has a lot to say and talk about, and when he says “I think”, you tend to listen. But in a conversation like this, a lot of that doesn’t matter—you begin to realize after all these years, how much of an original he is, and how original all of them were. In that hall of fame and the roster of rockers and singers and balladeers and players, there is no other “Donovan,” not even a sixth cousin, although many have said that he was a lot like Dylan. “You can say it if you want,” he said. “I learned a lot and sure there is influence from everybody. Mine included me dad, and Dylan, sure, and Rambling Jack Elliott, who was a friend.”

There is, once you think about it, a touch of the ancient about him—ancient Greece, medieval rover-abouting, the spoken word becoming the sung truth. He was born in Maryhill, Glasgow, and he talks about his dad a lot—one Donald Leitch, a Rolls Royce factory employee, but a man whom Donovan sees as having the touch of the poet.

And that’s it too—that lyric, minstrel thing—his autobiography is “Donovan, the Hurdy Gurdy Man,” which in America is a step removed from Mr. Bo Jangles and the like. The whole book is full of poetics, and lyrics and lines both straight, and crooked. Look at the chapter headings and you can sum him up pretty well: “Rebel,” “Vagabond,” “Windcatcher” and “Folksinger” early on, “Fairytale,” “The World Is Beautiful,” “Sunshine Supergirl,” “Magician” and so on.

You end up talking snatches of memory, lines from poem, and you end up in the end really appreciating his gifts. You look him up, hear the poem he said for acceptance, listen to him sing “Season of the Witch” with John Cougar Mellencamp, how he presents himself as a gift of the muse that is music.

I sat down and wrote this article, while listening to his music. You realize, though the two albums are years apart—that it’s a long time from “Electric Banana” to “Blue Jean Angel”– the early work still seems brand new, while the later songs and music feel sometimes like an echo finally freed as well as finely ground. Those bookends make the old music new, the new music old. They come together in a kind of dance.

Donovan’s been nominated for the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone raved about “Shadows of Blue.” He’ll be in Ireland singing. It’s like, just like the song, he’s still “Catching the Wind,” not a second wind, but something as fresh as the first wind.


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