Donovan – 1967

Sometimes we don’t give enough credit to the quiet ones. My track of the day, Donovan’s “Widow with a Shawl (A Portrait)”, was another hugely influential English folk song that propulsed England’s folk-rock movement forward, and it did so in such a way no one expected. During the time he recorded this track in late 1968, his own career was seen as a failure. His early releases like Catch the Wind and Fairy Tale were deemed too derivative of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, as he tried to keep up with the times with releases like Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow he started to tenuously take steps into his own voice.

Laying inside those last two albums with all their experiments with early psychedelia, Jazz, and blues, Donovan would include tracks like “Three Kingfishers”, “Sand and Foam”, or “Guinevere”, all originals that sounded like nothing else out there. It was his first attempts at creating Gaelic Folk music that could prove this much, psychedelia for all its “new sound” connotations had existed in pagan or non-traditional forms of music for much longer than we realize it.

Before the recording of the For Little Ones album which became the second half of 1967’s A Gift From a Flower to the Garden, Donovan had released two brilliant hit singles “Epistle to Dippy” and “There Is a Mountain” which showed a thoroughly experimental rock lean. However, Donovan was growing tired of psychedelia. By this time, he had done drugs and worn the clothes, and came across disillusioned. He’d seen how a lot of his friends were using this new hippie lifestyle as an excuse to try harder stuff like heroin, and cocaine or engage in selfish relationships, using and losing partners with little regard for love.

Rather than chastise them for this change in mood, he retreated into his English home, took up meditation, cleaned himself up, got married and had his first child. If he wanted to make some kind of statement proclaiming the greatness of sobriety and a new way to enlightenment he had to walk the walk, and not just talk it. This went doubly so for his music.

Wear Your Love Like Heaven album cover.

He took a huge risk for this album. Originally slate to be released as a box set, with the first two LPs a musically elaborate pop/rock side being dedicated to the memory of the psychedelic generation, and the second LP being a sparse folk side dedicated to a future generation that could transcend its current stasis. The first LP side Wear Your Love Like Heaven would present the Donovan that they knew, the recent one that had done electric rock which touched on psychedelic feelings prevalent in the time. That side that had such brilliant songs like “Wear Your Love Like Heaven”, “Sun”, “The Land of Doesn’t Have to Be”, featured expansive studio tricks and sounds that could match any of the best music released during this time.

For Little Ones album cover.

The second LP though, For Little Ones, would present a Donovan they didn’t know and one that could make music that lives outside of time. As if presenting a purpose: that he didn’t need all those effects, and superfluous sound present in the rocking side, to move you. Donovan set aside this whole side to play children’s songs of his own creation. These songs spoke more to the childhood any generation could lose, of an innocence needlessly lost when too much of adulthood starts to creep in. Inspired by the banjo playing of Deroll Adams, he would record mostly acoustic numbers that were simple meditations on Scottish life and spirituality. This simple side though spoke in deeper volumes than what Donovan was letting on.

A Gift From a Flower album cover.

You can hear the shift in sound, his vocals sound more Gaelic-accented, the guitar playing switches to a clawhammer technique which was more exploratory and memorable, his become lyrics more poetic and impressionistic…and the mood and atmosphere “insular”, in both its Gaelic and non-Gaelic meaning. This shift in musical dynamics and symbolism revealed much more than splashing a ton of sonic ornaments did on the first LP. This is something influential that other artists would aim to capture but could never capture quite as clearly as in “Widow with a Shawl”.

Simply follow the flowing guitar Donovan plays. As the guitar unfurls, Donovan’s vocal phrasing unconsciously follows the rhythm of the first sound you hear when you play the song. Singing in a way that goes beyond simple balladry, into the realm of chivalry, respect and honor, he uses simple tools to speak to an unique emotion that could only be presented in this way, using his background. Donovan saw that psychedelics can only take you so far, for so long, and can’t detach your worldly problems. Rather than stop with that realization, he made the case of a more holistic way to get somewhere higher both musically and spiritually. It speaks more of him as a person who would rather understand life, than abstract it even further. Just as an aside, I think that evens speaks to the cover that graced the album. Anyway, more of that thought tomorrow…

Listen to Widow with Shawl (A Portrait) at Grooveshark.

Bonus track time, the positively gorgeous autumnal waltz of Lullaby of Spring from the same album…

Listen to the Lullaby of Spring at Grooveshark.

and the recently unearthed “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” short film…