The Scottish bard talks us through his spiritual and songwriting journey from the sixties to the present day...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 8 Jul 2014
  • min read
Although Donovan’s outward engagement with music might have seemed a little patchy over the years, away from the limelight he’s a spiritually motivated and deeply dedicated folk songwriter.

Over a madcap career spanning six decades, the Scottish bard has written and recorded more than 600 songs and has shaped the face of the British songwriting tradition.

He began as an itinerant folk musician, creating gentle acoustic masterpieces such as Catch The Wind and Colours, and tapping into the political zeitgeist with his unique take on Buffy Sainte Marie’s protest anthem Universal Soldier.

But it was his third album Sunshine Superman that heralded the dawn of Britain’s rich and long-lived psychedelic movement and sparked a journey that took Donovan to India with The Beatles and to American to play with Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

From 1966 through to 1969, Donovan scored a string of eleven Top 40 hits in a row, including Mellow Yellow, Sunshine Superman, There Is a Mountain, Wear Your Love Like Heaven, Hurdy Gurdy Man, Jennifer Juniper, Lalena and Atlantis.

By harnessing the winds of social, spiritual and political change, his music has since gone on to soundtrack the lives of thinkers, dreamers, hippies and philosophers around the world.

As the godfather of the UK’s psych-folk scene, Donovan has been honoured at the Green Man festival, been inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and has scooped a coveted Ivor Novello Award for Catch the Wind.

A fastidious songwriter, Donovan went to Nashville to record his latest album, Shadows of Blue, which was released last year.

Through the songs, Donovan traces the 18th century immigration of Irish Scots to America and explores how they went on to help create and influence the its folk, blues, country, bluegrass and early rock n roll movements.

We recently struck up an email conversation with him to learn more about his unique songwriting force. The following interview is lifted from our correspondence…

is the very first song I remember hearing on the radio as a child - it was almost shockingly weird to my young ears…
Your first experience of my song There Is a Mountain is certainly a good place to start - I am known for the eclectic sounds, poetry and unusual subject matter of my compositions.

What is your own earliest musical memory?
Glasgow in the 1940s - the songs my mother and aunts used to sing  a capella - Irish laments and the lilting funny Scots songs. I didn’t know I was listening to the great store of Irish Scots traditional songs that had helped create modern popular music. I also heard Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole, from the records of my mother and father.

What first prompted you to start writing songs of your own?
My father Donald did not sing, he recited poems and monologues at the parties in Glasgow. And he would wake me up when he came home from the factory to kiss me goodnight and then he would softly chant a poem to me, sending me into my sleep again.

So I learned the ballad forms and heard the sound and fell in love with the music of words. Donald was a bard who memorised hours of poetry. I realised that poetry was a high art that carried the human experiences. All this I absorbed before the age of five.

It prepared me for what was to come - songs and chanting poetry were natural to me. It is said songwriters must learn from the songs and poems of the masters, and the history of folk traditions. So before I wrote any lines or picked up a guitar, I sang others  songs, as all must  do.

At five I am  told I sang with a blind pianist at a Robert  Burns night, the popular folk hit of the time There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly by Burl Ives. I’d memorised all the lines.

What do you remember most about your prolific songwriting period in the mid to late sixties?
I am still prolific and your question is vast.

Your question is four questions in one...

First folk movement:
I was from the first folk movement, as you can see from my childhood absorption of Scots and Irish folk music first hand.

I already had the psychedelic experience before I made records, and I found that the books of the Shamanic Healers were true. There exists within us the Other World of The Mystical Reality, The Spiritual Unified Field from which all material physical life emerges. This was astounding to experience with the Natural Magic Plants.

But it was to meditation that I was led from the books, to make the inner experience more permanent. So the psychedelic music that I am known for on my album Sunshine Superman was partly from the experiences of the journey within on the magic plants, but mostly, it stated for the first time the path to the inner world which was emerging in my generation’s journey.

When I was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, they announced: 'Donovan single handedly initiated the psychedelic revolution with his album Sunshine Superman in 1966.' The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper would not come out for a year after my album.

Music from different cultures:
Before I made records, when I was 16 and 17 I was part of Britain’s Bohemian scene, and  listened to folk, blues, jazz, classical, Indian, Japanese, Spanish, South American, Caribbean and baroque music on vinyl records and in the clubs.

I absorbed all of this and fused it with my music before The Beatles. I read all the books of Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Esotericism and ancient mythology before I went to India. In fact, it was this study of philosophy and spirituality that led me to seek out a teacher of meditation.

The Beatles and I were close then because of all that we both read and studied and absorbed before India.

So it was not the experience of India that influenced my music, rather the journey to India was intended to study under a true guru, to teach us to meditate correctly.

You disappeared from public view for a while – I understand you were on a more personal journey during that time. How do you look back on that period now?
I achieved all that I set myself to do by 1970 so I dropped out of touring. But I continued to record 13 albums in the seventies. The periods of retreat were needed .

Your music has always been a lot weirder and more esoteric than a lot of your folk musician peers. Where does that more obscure approach come from?
See my previous answers for an explanation. Also, I never learned to read or write music so I am free to break all the rules.

I studied all the forms of music I wanted to know. In practicing the forms of other types of songwriting and musical styles, one can, after 10,000 hours of study, forget the study and now the forms are naturally yours.

Just as painters had studied the forms of their masters in the workshops of Italy in the 1500s they went on to discover new ways to paint, from the ancient basic forms.

So when an emotion or phrase or line from a book stirs me, I pick up the guitar and, out of the movement of chords I play, I can hear melodies arising. It is essential to not listen with the logical mind, so practice of meditation and absent mindedness is the way to half listen to your playing of the chord structures of the forms you love.

Then you hear the melody appear and you try the line that has appealed to you or has come from the poem inside you that tries to help your pain.

How do you think your songwriting has evolved over the years?
The basic forms are the same. I am now a master and can create the circumstances for the songs to appear. Then I catch them, care for them and record them.

Some of your songs are political, some are spiritual, some are very human – how do your songs convey your values and world views?
I realised I am from the bardic tradition. That is the Scots, Irish, Welsh tradition where a poet songmaker would learn all the forms of poetic skill, and after 21 years in the ancient bardic schools of  Scotland, Ireland and Wales, he  or  she could  compose on any experience of the human condition. In truth, the poetic, musical art is a healing art and only recently has it been called entertainment.

Looking back, what do you make of your canon of songs?
I have recently rediscovered 250 unreleased songs and I had forgotten I wrote so many of them - I have 300 songs that are released. It is now up to you writers to comment on my work. I leave it up to you.

I can say this – there’s no one like me and I am difficult or impossible to copy as composer, guitar stylist or performer.

It is my pleasure to have helped so many through difficult times with my poetry and music. And listening to my music and poetry now, I am amazed how much I have achieved and been blessed with by the muses.

What do you make of new British folk music?
It is so good that the roots are always returned to. For it is the branches and leaves and flowers and fruit that we mostly see and hear in the great tree of poetry and music, and yet they cannot be nourished or appear and flourish without the roots. It is the smart artist and composer that returns to the musical roots. The roots feed the new musical talents that appear on the pages of M magazine. I am proud to be part of PRS for Music and thank you all for protecting the songwriter forever.

For more about Donovan, and to listen to/purchase his latest album, please visit

Donovan has been published by Peermusic since 1963.