Scottish singer/songwriter Donovan Leitch recently visited Nashville where he was cutting tracks and preparing for upcoming live dates including a 2013 World Tour. Writer Jon Freeman and I got a chance to talk with this icon from the psychadelic sixties, responsible for countless hits including “Sunshine Superman,” “Season Of The Witch” and “Mellow Yellow.” Here is a revealing excerpt from that interview about Donovan and The Beatles where the troubador speaks about traveling to India with the Fab Four and his influence on their music during that time. (Find the entire interview on MusicRow.com)
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Dylan introduced me [Donovan] to The Beatles in an interesting way at the Savoy Hotel in May 1965. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and myself had come together and it looked to me at that point like here is where folk invades pop music. We three were hanging out at the Savoy, and one night The Beatles came around to see Bobby and we met and became fast friends. We kind of come from the same background, Liverpool and Glasgow are both harbor towns. Lennon and McCartney are Irish names and I’ve got Irish on my side too, and we all had an overly excited obsession with writing songs. So The Beatles and I got on very well and found ourselves sharing the same interests and humor. We also found ourselves together in India in February 1968.
It was extraordinary that we would come together in such an exotic and distant place. The only instruments we had were acoustic guitars, no amps or drums. When we arrived George ordered tablas for Ringo (who didn’t like them much), a sitar and a tamboura.
We meditated, ate health food and were healthier than we’d been in years. After long days of meditation we’d sit around in the evening and make music. It was almost like being back at college again. The fame was a million miles away and we were just sitting around playing. What fascinated The Beatles, I realized, was that I was playing all these country blues, flamingo and finger styles which they hadn’t done. By the age of twenty I’d absorbed everything from the Carter Family to Big Bill Broonzy to flamingo to Martin Carthy’s folk styles. I was playing constantly.
One day John leaned over and asked, “How do you do that finger style stuff, what is it?”
“It’s moving so fast you don’t know what I’m doing right?” I replied.
“That’s right I want to learn.”
“It’s going to take a few days.”
John looked around the jungle and said “I’ve got time to learn anything here.”
So I sat down and taught him the basic Carter Family claw hammer which I’d learned from somebody called Dirty Hugh. And John started writing a completely different kind of song, which happens. But it wasn’t just the picking, it was the descending pattern from A-minor to G to D to F which is the basis of many a blues and flamingo style. From “House of The Rising Sun” onward. John started writing “Dear Prudence.” But the one that touched me the most was the one to his mother, “Julia.” John knew I wrote songs about my childhood and could write in that style and he wanted to write a song about the childhood he felt he never had. John said my mother’s name was Julia and he started picking.
Paul McCartney was interested too, but of course he’s so smart he was just walking around us while I was teaching John and he picked it up anyway, cause you know he was a genius. They’re all geniuses in that band. Soon Paul started writing “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son.” George was listening too, but he preferred the Chet Atkins fingerstyle where you hold the guitar pick between the thumb and first finger and play with the other fingers. What I was teaching John (and Paul was listening to), was the complete finger style which I understand Ma Carter transposed from banjo picking to guitar in 1928. George also liked the descending chord structures however, and started writing, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
So what I did naturally became for The Beatles in India a door to a whole new range of songwriting and I’m so pleased that happened. Later George said in the Beatles Anthology, “Donovan’s all over the White album.” And it seems I am. I didn’t invent these things, but I played them so much, it opened doors. The Beatles at that point were at a big watershed in their life. They’d lost their manager, Brian Epstein, discovered mediation and were searching for something different. Well, they certainly got something different from Donovan. A guitar style and a set of chords that opened up an enormous amount of new ways of doing things. And that’s what we musicians do, we pass on styles from one to another.