The year 2005 marks Donovan Leitch’s 40th year in the music biz—a career span that has charted his emergence as a ’60s hippy troubadour, a pop hitmaker, a folk laureate, and a poet, as well as one of those mythic cultural icons who can be identified by a single name. The still vital and impish musician is marking this anniversary with a new album, Beat Café [Appleseed], sporadic tours, and an autobiography, The Hurdy Gurdy Man.
What guitars are you currently playing?
I have some beautiful Tony Zemaitis guitars from the ’70s—Blue Moon, Sunburst, and Green Heart—as well as my current favorite, Kelly, which was made by Danny Ferrington. When I first picked her up, all she would play was Irish tunes. I had to trick her into writing other songs. On the Beat Café tour, I’m taking a Harvey Citron acoustic-electric. The Citron has a very big and powerful sound, but it still sounds like an acoustic guitar.
Which players influenced your style of self-accompaniment?
As you ask, I think of Martin Carthy, who is a giant of the British folk movement. I learned a lot from Martin, and it was Martin Carthy who Bob Dylan sought out when he first visited Britain in 1964. Then I ran into Derroll Adams, who was my direct link with the American folk scene. He had come over to Europe in the late ’50s, and was bumming around with Jack Elliot—who we called the “famous first disciple of Woody Guthrie”—and a Scotsman named Alex Campbell. These three were kind of the wild boys of the folk revival when I was getting into folk music. Two Yankees and a Scot! I didn’t know how to fingerpick until I met Derroll, who played banjo in a very unique way. I would follow Derroll around like Dylan being a disciple of Woody. Soon, I was incorporating Derroll’s banjo styles into the guitar fingerpicking that I had learned from Dirty Hugh [Editor’s Note: Dirty Hugh—a mysterious person who is referred to only as “Dirty Hugh”—taught the teenaged Donovan the fingerstyle technique of the Carter Family.] Banjo is a very unique influence on this folk style that I play—that picking and dancing over the strings. Many people thought I was playing an alternate tuning, when I was really just playing four strings on a standard-tuned guitar.
How did your “beat-box” style of rhythmic slapping develop?
Not many people know that I was a drummer first, but I realized that to be a drummer, you needed a band. Then I started getting restless and becoming bohemian, so I really couldn’t resist changing to [solo] guitar. But the rhythmic qualities of the drummer remained intact, and I started feeling the guitar as a rhythm section—like Bo Diddley. Bo was originally a drummer, as well, and he hit the guitar in a way that sounded like a snare drum. The slapping became more prominent, however, through my understanding of Bert Jansch’s music. Jansch was making this chunking sound with his fingers, and I thought, “That’s good. I’ll do it, too.”
Some of my enduring images of you are those 1966 photos from the infamous Maharishi trip to India with the Beatles.
It has been said that I spent more time socially, musically, and spiritually with the Beatles than any other musician of those days. In fact, I became the only person who ever added lyrics to a Beatles tune when I reworked two or three lines on “Yellow Submarine.” I also showed John Lennon the clawhammer fingerstyle that Dirty Hugh taught me, and John went on to write “Dear Prudence,” “Julia,” and “Crippled Inside” with a whole new pattern. In the ’60s, we were experiencing the same sort of crazy fame. We did not need to be this famous. We actually wanted to present the bohemian manifesto in lyrics and music. When we journeyed to India, we were seeking how to walk away from the extraordinary event that had become too big for us.