Tambourines and Hurdy Gurdies

Donovan and Dylan

Yesterday was the birthday of a singer and songwriter named Donovan Leitch. He turned 64.  In September of 1965 he had a hit with a song called Universal Soldier. He was one of those people who sang about peace and love.

The first concert I ever attended was Donovan at the Loyola Field House in New Orleans. He played solo with just an acoustic guitar. I can still remember how his beautiful voice seemed to float in the air like incense.

Some considered Donovan to be a lightweight, a would-be Dylan, a copy-cat. I gave him more credit than that. He could be rather syrupy at times, and he didn’t have the hard edge that Dylan had.  Even so, to my mind, Sunshine Superman was one of the best albums of that period and I think it helped pave the way for the prog-rock to come.

Donovan was also responsible for turning me onto Eastern philosophy. Partially responsible, along with the Beatles. I think it was in the summer or fall of ’67 that Life magazine ran a big spread of the Beatles and Donovan and the Beach Boys going to India to hang out with the Maharishi. A lot of great color pictures. Everyone looked very cool. I thought Eastern spirituality was very cool, and so did many others. All of the sudden my favorite rock artists started turning out music that was Eastern flavored and they all had their own gurus.  The Rascals got into Swami Satchidananda and Integral Yoga and for the Who it was Meher Baba. I can’t remember the others.

The Beatles disassociated themselves with the Maharishi, after he allegedly hit on Mia Farrow in Rishikesh, which inspired John Lennon’s song on the “White Album” called Sexy Sadie. Donovan became involved with some other guru whose name escapes me now. I think Mike Love was the only one who stuck with Maharishi and TM.

At first, I was merely aping my heroes. I wanted to be cool, too. However, there was something more going on. I wanted to find my own religion. Technically, I already had one. I was a Christian, a Presbyterian to be specific. But at that time I lived in New Orleans and I was disgusted by the way the men in the church I went to acted so pious in the pews on Sunday mornings and then told “coon” jokes outside when the service was over. It made me feel uncomfortable about Christianity. I blamed the religion instead of the men, even as Dylan famously put it, they were not to blame, only pawns in some game. I came to understand that prejudice, as we used to call it, was a form of brainwashing handled down from generation to generation.

In any event, Christianity no longer spoke to me, if indeed it ever did.

The first book of Eastern philosophy I read was a book of quotes by Gandhi.  It’s wonderful to discover something at an early age that stays with you for the rest of your life. That book set the ideal of non-violence in my mind and it has never left.

Indirectly, Bob Dylan opened the door to Buddhism; it was through him that I found the Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac-the Dharma Bums.

Buddhism made sense to me, although I didn’t understand it very well.  There weren’t a lot of books available on Buddhism then, and the one’s that were around, I found confusing. I didn’t understand Buddhism but it felt right.

The rest is . . . well, a long story, and it’s not what I wanted to write about in this post. I hate to admit this, especially since you have read this far, but I don’t really have any point to make here. I just wanted to say something about Bob Dylan.

Bob also has a birthday this month, on the 24th. He’ll be 69. Wayfaring to the Endless Further with the rest of us, he’s been on the “Never Ending Tour” since 1988 and I’ve seen between 20 and 25 of those shows. I can’t say that I have cared for much of Bob’s stuff since Time Out of Mind, but I hope he keeps on keeping on like a bird . . .

Now in Bob Dylan fan circles right now there is a big hullabaloo over these recent comments by Joni Mitchell,Bob is not authentic at all: He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.”

She’s right, he is a plagiarist. Always has been. However, that is also part of the folk tradition and the great poetry he’s written by far outshines any individual lines he might have stole. I long for a bit more creativity from Bob these days, but I also imagine it’s tough being the greatest living songwriter and having to come up with new material, which some will invariably  compare to past work.

One thing that has amazed me in the last twenty years or so is how young people are drawn to Bob. I once sat next to this nineteen year old kid at a Dylan concert at the Greek Theater (I was in my forties then) and he was raved enthusiastically about his admiration for Bob like he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. What was it that fired a guy his age up about an old man like Dylan? If you are a Bob fan, you know the answer to that. If you’re not, then it doesn’t matter.

I would like to introduce you to a young man who is also a Bob fan and every Friday on his blog it’s Bob Dylan Friday! He is obviously a guy with excellent taste in music. His name is RT and he just wrote a literary essay on Mr. Dylan, so check it out. The blog is called sometimes rhymes.

Well, that’s all I wanted to say. I know it was “too much of nothing,” but that’s the breaks. Just wanted to tip my hat to Donovan and Dylan. Their music has enriched my life and pointed me in many wonderful directions. Happy birthday to both.

Here’s a YouTube link to Donovan’s song based on the Heart Sutra: Nirvana.

And here’s a YouTube link to me doing a Bob Dylan song (Yeah, I know, I misspelled the song title).

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2 thoughts on “Tambourines and Hurdy Gurdies

  1. Awesome post, and many thanks for the shout-out!

    I think my favorite thing about this post is the number of small Dylan lines hidden throughout (“I hope he keeps on keeping on, like a bird…” & “too much of nothing”). That just makes me smile so much, like discovering pirate’s gold.

    Donovan is another hep cat — although I’ll be perfectly honest and admit that I discovered him as a “wanna-be Dylan.” I think that was an apt description of some of his very early songs, but he blossomed into his own shape with time. And, like you said of Bob, both harken from the folk-tradition of borrowing and allusion.

    That folk-tradition is part of what makes it hard for me to use the word “plagiarist” with Dylan. While he’s not 100% upfront about appropriated lines, I feel like he just expects us to assume he’s going to do it. Maybe that’s giving him way too much credit though.

    Also, like you, I discovered Buddhism and Eastern religions through the Beats, whom I was turned onto by Bob Dylan. Frankly, Dylan helped save my life quite a few years back; if I had never discovered him, and all those others because of him, I have no idea where I would be right now — only that it wouldn’t be good. They gave me a map to the resources I would need to better myself.

    Now this comment is getting rather long, so I think I may need to cut it off.

    Thanks for posting this — and I really dig your cover of “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” man.

  2. I was there-my 1st acid trip too. I agree with all you wrote-I dismissed him after that and came back to loving his music/him for the wonderfulness it was!

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