Donovan Leitch was playing folk music in his native Scotland before anybody on his side of the pond had ever heard of Bob Dylan, from since he was a 14 year old adolescent at the end of the 1950s, but it was to Dylan that he’d always be compared, sometimes dismissively, sometimes as a presumed imitator. Back in the day they were supposed to have been rivals, and Donavan appears as such in the film Don’t Look Back, a documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of Britain. It wasn’t really true. By then, Donovan was already appealing to a somewhat different set of listeners, and emerging as a star in his own right, helped, like so many contemporary UK acts, by appearances on the legendary British TV series Ready Steady Go.
Catch the Wind was released in 1965, and he went on to bigger hits with Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow in 1966. There were other successes after that, including one called Epistle to Dippy (the titular “Dippy” was a soldier in the British Army, not sure how the singer knew him), the pleasantly light-hearted There is a Mountain, and then the anthemic Atlantis, which was released at the end of 1968 and featured the sort of marathon “10-mile fadeout” pioneered earlier that year by Hey Jude (apparently with no copy-catting by anybody, as Atlantis, while released later, was recorded months earlier than the Beatles’ mega-hit). Meanwhile, he enjoyed the company of the sort of friends you only get when they respect your talent, including, perhaps surprisingly, much harder rockers like Jeff Beck and Ron Wood, who appeared on some of his records. Donovan was also known to hang out with the Fab Four, and crossed paths with the Beatles repeatedly throughout the Sixties; he’s there clapping along on the famous Our World broadcast of All You Need is Love, and he was with them during their sojourn to Rishikesh in India, there to seek cosmic truth from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who ultimately failed to impress (when the spiritual leader asked Lennon why they were leaving the ashram, John, being John, responded “If you’re so fucking cosmic, you tell me”). It was because of Donovan that the Rishikesh interlude wasn’t a total bust, as he taught both John and Paul his “finger plucking” style of guitar playing, soon used to great effect on the subsequent White Album, in John’s Dear Prudence and Julia, and McCartney’s Blackbird and Mother Nature’s Son. It’s thus fair to say that some of the Beatles’ most sublime songs might never have been composed without him.
By the end of the Sixties, the flower-powered hippies with whom Donovan was inextricably associated began to go out of style, and he faded from public view, though he continued to play and record for decades after, well into the 2000s.
In retrospect even his early songs, like today’s selection, sound only superficially like Dylan, being far more pop-oriented, and imbued with a sort of Celtic romanticism and wide-eyed innocence that Bobby D. would never have communicated, even if he could have. It’s quite impossible to imagine a song like Jennifer Juniper showing up on, say, Blonde on Blonde. Dylan wasn’t about to write fanciful songs about mythical places, or the trippy joys of smoking banana peels, either. Yet characterizing Donovan as a comparative lightweight doesn’t seem quite fair, even if it’s objectively true, simply because his songs are so, well, pleasant, listenable, melodic, and sometimes playfully tongue-in-cheek. There are sad moments when that’s just what the doctor ordered, yes?
Catch the Wind is beautifully produced and recorded, featuring lovely guitar technique, and harmony from what sounds like a section of echoing mandolins playing from somewhere off in the distance (one wonders if they were recorded from outside the studio and down the hall, which is how McCartney produced the same effect for the far-away booming drums in Mother Nature’s Son – another trick he passed on in India, perhaps?). I’ve always found it irresistibly sweet and comforting, even while the exquisitely trained, somewhat bullying grammarian that forever lives inside me keeps insisting, sotto voce, “to catch the wind, lad, to catch, not and !” My better angels are prepared to grant the artist a little expressive leeway, especially when the minor transgression is committed in service of such a warm, wistful little gem.