Sunday, March 22, 2009

Donovan, in Her Majesty's Service


Following on the trail of recent posts about the songs of Donovan Leitch by my pal Relative Esoterica I I want to urge listeners to check out one of his lesser known, though one of my personal favorite, recordings - HMS Donovan. This was recorded after the birth of his first child in 1970, and like "For little Ones" is simultaneously for children but also should appeal to any adult with an ear attuned to poetry set to exquisite melodies and guitar playing with Donovan's particular twist on the folk tradition.

The record is lesser known than most of his others and had poor sales, despite one song that got a good deal of airplay "Celia of the Seals". This has some to do with a change in management and lack of promotion but also with the fact that it does not fit neatly into a "package" theme as some of his records. I personally think that Donovan's pop records at the time were not up to his usual snuff and the "people" were out of phase with him.
For the sake of brevity I include here a summary review of the record I posted in amazon back in 2000 - apologies in advance for my usual overflowery writing;

"While 'For Little Ones' is an intimate journey through the child-like looking glass of Donovan's Scottish Isles, 'HMS' is painted with a broader brush. This is more the loving stumble into childhood via an attic of musicboxes and half-crumbled story books with turn-o'-the-century color leafs. Some things we've outgrown and some things we should never forget.
Some unparalleled, great stuff here: 'Seller of Stars', 'Queen Mab", and 'Henry Martin' - lovely melodies w/ haunting guitar accompaniment somewhere between Bert Jansch and Ramblin' Jack.
The guitar throughout this recording is particularly crystalline and as full as harps in ancient halls. 'The Voyage of the Moon' - who else, I ask you, possesses the musical legerdemain to make you feel the slight pause of the moon with her sail of gauze? 'Song of the Wandering Aengus' - an ending that fades seamlessly into Yeats' celtic Twilight and your heart skips a beat. After hearing Donovan's version it will probably remain the only famous poem I can recite at will. Donovan is the undisputed master when it comes to reviving the vague stirring children have that there IS another world just past the trees and under the hills. (Am I completely nuts on this?) I respectfully differ with Markmatts [here i'm referring to another review] opinion of 'The Walrus and the Carpenter'. For those uninclined towards "folk"-type material, I play this cut first as bait by establishing our man as a visionary in sound. The response is invariably amazement. I find it endearingly Felliniesque - the song of the oysters is a gem and you'll not forget their little legs trotting on..."


"Henry Martin" is a traditional English song about one of Donovan's favorite themes,
piracy, and he employs a wonderful rolling - like the sea - modal pattern on guitar while using his voice to imitate a jew's harp or a hurdy-gurdy; much as one might hear on a sailing vessel of the 18th or 19th century or in some seedy port-of-call. The effect is trance-like and somewhat East Indian.

Here I include his version of the The Song of the Wandering Aengus, the famous Yeats poem set to words that is featured on HMS. In a past post "Hazel Wands, Wells, Wise Fish and Other Irish Fancies" from March 16th of 2006, I wrote a bit about the poem itself which might be of interest.

Many of the songs Donovan plays here are children's poems set to his own, or traditional melodies; here is the Thora Stowell poem, The Seller of Stars

Thanks again to Elizabeth for her fine posts on Donovan!

10 comments:

Trombonology said...

And thanks to you, Tom, for another intriguing review and recommendation. I had happened upon references to "HMS" in the liner notes for some of the Donovan albums, in CD form, that I ordered – taking in so much lately, I've found myself getting a bit confused regarding content; checking out Amazon, I was reminded of the reason I hadn't sprung for this one: It's out of print and all available copies are astronomically priced. I'll have to be on the lookout for one under three digits. The tiny sound samples are highly tantalizing, as is your thoughtful evaluation. ... I was introduced to both his "Lord of the Reedy River" and "Voyage of the Moon," as compositions, by Mary Hopkin's debut album (which I mentioned to you before, I think). Extremely beautiful songs. You may know that on the "Barabajagal" CD there is a demo version – instrumentally fuller, strangely enough – of "Reedy," recorded a couple of years before the "HMS" treatment; jazzy and very lovely. ... It's a big kick for me to exchange Donovan thoughts with you. Gotta get this "majestic" album of which you so glowingly speak.

Tom the Piper's Son said...

I hadn't realized the available copies had been priced so high!
Although I love the record as a whole - I'm a little hesitant proseltyzing now - looking over the songtitles the other day I realized about 15 songs I REALLY enjoy and much of the others i would dump, and by forming an lp/cd with ones i choice I would be left with what I consider one of Donovan.s top recordings. That said, some of the remaining cuts are downright annoying to me...aah well you've got to cut through the sludge to find the diamonds, in this case there are plenty enough diamonds i think.
It's been a long time since I heard that other version of "Reedy" sounds intriguing.
I saw him perform it on TV many years before it made it to record and I was always on the lookout, wondering when and if. I must admit not taking keenly to the Barabajagal record; it seemed to me a little too commercial and cutesy as a whole - maybe that's why i didn't remember "Reedy" being on it. Perhaps it was a later addition? The HMS version is simple and haunting much as I remember the performance. You've got me curious enough to re-dig Barabajagal.

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Trombonology said...

The demo "Reedy" is an extra on the CD version of "Barabajagal." I've found the disc, both album cuts and add-ons, the weakest (indeed, cutesy) among those (Donovan's) I've gotten. From the LP tracks, I like "Where is She" best; from the extras, easily the dreamily beautiful "Reedy"; that one makes me glad I got the CD.

... "I Love My Shirt": UGH!

Tom the Piper's Son said...

I'm so relieved that your take on Barabajagal was similar to mine. Musical likes and dislikes are subjective but, sometimes cheesiness or 'cutesy' are universally perceived.
Case in point; "I Love My Shirt" !
I can't help but think pf Miles Davis' caustic Downbeat blindfold tests: he reviewed one record by saying that if the artist really had some friends they would have taken him aside an told him that what he was doing here was S&#@!
There's a few clunkers - to me - on HMS that stand out like major blemishes. One oft spoke of is "Homesickness" which is a trite rock tune in the midst of the acoustic proceeding with some fuzzy wailing by Jeff Beck. It might have worked in another context but here it sounds like it was like neon bubblegum filling a crack on a Ming dynasty vase.

Matthew H Camp said...

Donovan. What a great example of how the herd remembers that one pop song and remains largely oblivious to lesser known treasures. Fortunately, Tom is always outside the herd, watching and noting their activities from a wider cultural perspective.

Question: Who is the painter behind this great nautical image?

Trombonology said...

"neon bubblegum filling a crack on a Ming dynasty vase"

Absolutely marvelous ... gotta remember that.

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Matthew - The painter goes went by the name of Patrick here but his real name is John Byrne and he is Scottish. Also did paintings for the Beatles and Gerry Rafferty.
here's his site....http://johnbyrneart.com/

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Elizabeth -
After i wrote that about the Bubble Gum and the Vase i saw it in some cheeky Warholian pop art context.
i should have been in advertising!
...eeek!

Tom the Piper's Son said...

matthew -
My apologies; i just realized you said NAUTICAL image! That would be Howard Pyle of course! One of his many piratical illustrations (I will go credit him right now).