Childhood Imagined: H.M.S. Donovan at 50
If you’re lucky, you’ve come across Donovan’s There is an Ocean on a late-night Youtube binge. The 35-minute documentary resides somewhere between Bert Jansch’s live “Black Water Side” on the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and The Dead jamming on “Bird Song” at the Old Renaissance Fairgrounds. Following Donovan and his band on a makeshift sailboat tour through some Greek islands, the film captures Donovan in the most interesting period of his career: between the release of his overlooked Open Road LP and the psychedelic children’s masterwork H.M.S. Donovan. The film is exactly what one would expect from the singer in 1970. A loose, pastoral portrayal of the superstar-gone-aspiring-psychedelic-yogi hopping from one remote setting to another, performing impromptu for sometimes enthralled, sometimes indifferent local audiences. We see children, a few teenage fans, but mostly fisherman and their dogs. No matter the audience, Donovan and his crew are spot on—their sounds bookended by idyllic wide-angle shots of the band cruising the Aegean.
Donovan had worn many hats over his rise to fame: folk troubadour, psychedelic popster, THE sunshine superman. Beneath every incarnation, however, was a beaming reassurance of life’s beauty. A consistent belief that, when properly navigated, the universe would deliver the conditions necessary for self-fulfillment. As the seventies reared its head, crushing the sanguinity of the prior decade, Leitch’s career began to taper. Music was getting louder and heavier. Even fellow folkies were switching up their lyrical content to conjure the dark and sinister tones their acoustic guitars could not. The image of Donovan picking wild herbs on an arid hillside was becoming as foreign to the pop charts as a Glaswegian hipster singing to a port of confused Greek fisherman.
There was almost no attempt to amend for the growing chasm between listener demands and Donovan’s personal quest to reassess his artistic roots. The laid back nature of the Greek tour was an intentional byproduct of Donovan’s creative progression. He had just released the excellent Open Road and planned to take this new sound around the world. The minimally produced outing was free from horn charts, strings, and even virtuosic studio hires. A straightforward, self-produced folk-rock effort, the Donovan on this record sought reprieve in a musical upbringing long anchored by the folk music of the British Isles. Freed from a veil of flashy guitar solos or sweeping arrangements, the intentions of the development on the record lay bare.
There is an Ocean presents several energetic performances of Open Road songs, but more interesting to Donovan’s development was the decision to focus so heavily on the performances for children. In these moments, Donovan seemed to be discovering a way to continue singing happy songs to a gracious audience in a scene where doom and gloom were becoming the norm. These qualities, deemed undesirable by an adult audience clamoring for Zeppelin or Sabbath, could be worked into something beneficial, genuine, and new: children’s music. The whimsy and precious nature of these performances – freed from over-production or superfluous spiritual enlightenment – is quite charming. With his impending fatherhood on the horizon, we witness an artist-in-transition. Recorded and released during the touring hiatus that followed the Greek excursion, H.M.S. Donovan presents an artist making playful, thoughtful music to be shared by child and parent.
Donovan had previously delved into children’s music on his 1967 double album A Gift From a Flower to A Garden. A lovely record overall, but one could be forgiven if they didn’t find the musical content to immediately identify itself as being crafted for kids. There was a subtlety that, in a passive listening, could allow one to mistake it for a standard Donovan record (again, the man was built for this gig). HMS goes all out. Songs about weather, colors, bathroom habits, dancing, and animals endowed with the ability to speak abound; a spirited masking of the album’s key concern—thwarting the physical, emotional, and cultural aging process. Innocent enough initially, the longer one examines the work the more distorted and intricate the subjects become.
Returning to the rich literary and folk traditions of the British Isles was the standard pilgrimage to the emblematic roots of a stable UK folk-rock scene, but the homecoming on HMS was far more precise. Donovan prompted a literal return to childhood. While numerous artists were embracing the traditional folk side of the spectrum – Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs, Pentangle to name a few – far less were assessing this tradition directly through the lens of their own childhood impressions—whether real or imagined. Happenstance, two of the most prevalent who fall into this category have intertwined careers. While writing her now-lauded Just Another Diamond Day, Vashti Bunyan was making her way to Scotland’s Isle of Skye; anticipating residence in a Donovan-planned intentional community. The latter’s “Happiness Runs” even makes an appearance as the all-too-appropriately-named vehicle in Bunyan’s “Timothy Grub.” It should be noted that Just Another Diamond Day was not a children’s record. Bunyan – a new mother at the time – simply wrote songs based on her own visions of childhood and the world around her. When writing an album on a horse and buggy trip through Britain’s interior with your young children, an outcome of innocence wrapped in pastoral awe seems unavoidable. And while Bunyan conceived her own characters – an invented menagerie of tall-tale, nursery rhyme, and self-reflection – much of the writing on HMS was borrowed from British literature.
The album commences with an eight-minute tape-manipulated reading of Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” The subsequent “Jabberwocky,” lifts Open Road‘s “Celtic Rock” arrangement, resulting in a succinct interpretation adorned by little more than guitar and fiddle. It’s a solid reminder of exactly why John Lennon requested that Leitch teach him his fingerstyle technique. The heavily produced records before Open Road deflected attention from Donovan’s more-than-competent skills as a guitarist and the minimalist approach on this nearly all-acoustic album reveals just how capable Donovan was in the studio. Keep in mind that, excluding some background vocals on a few cuts and Danny Thompson’s superb single-track performance on “Celia of the Seals,” the credits are limited to Mike Tomson (bass; organ), John Carr (drums), and Mary (fiddle; no last name provided). Nearly half of the tunes feature Donovan alone at the microphone. Perhaps it’s the intimate nature of crafting a children’s record, rehashing childhood, or that HMS was self-produced (arguably in preparation for the birth of Donovan’s own child), but the two LPs that make up HMS remain Donovan’s most personal and intimate studio outings—almost paradoxically given that half the album was penned by others.
From writers of legendary stature (Carroll, W.B. Yeats) to the relatively unknown, (Thora Stowell, Agnes Grozier Herbertson) Donovan sets several children’s poems to music. The renderings seem wholly sincere, almost as if attempting to conjure the period in which they were originally authored. There’s something remarkably pre-war, even pre-industrial about the setting Donovan crafts on the record. Listening as a 21 st century American, there’s the same feeling one may find reviewing an early printing of A.A. Milne’s Now We Are Six or discovering a collection of children’s books in a great-grandparent’s attic. Donovan is fabricating nostalgia on HMS. Tying in authors intimately linked with childhood creates an imagined community actively engaged in aural communion—a collective memory initiated through the act of listening. Outside of ingrained cultural influences, the individual’s positive experiences in their youth are the most vital to impart on their own children. Overwhelmingly, these come from specific static sources—a written verse or inimitable illustrations of a particular children’s book. There’s a reason (apart from the terrific interior design) nearly every parent continues to reach for the 75-year-old Goodnight Moon when putting their children to bed. Transplanting his audience into the traditional notion of childhood, Donovan forces a coming-to-terms with aging, reminding the listener of how far removed they are from their own formative years. This reckoning is directly addressed on the catchiest of the literary songs on the album, Frida Wolfe’s “Lost Time.” A fingerpicked acoustic shuffle exploring time consciousness from a child’s perspective, bouncing bass and drums join Donovan as he reviews the many detours taken by the child on his way to and from school. A fiddle saws through a wordless bridge. All join forces for the final verse’s acknowledgement that this worthwhile time spent in nature didn’t need to be reclaimed, and an ode to dying youth is chanted as the song closes.
Of course, these loaned tunes aren’t the only moments of interest. Always a fine wordsmith, Donovan has a number of originals spanning the four sides. Similar to how the music was arranged to match the mood of the words he borrowed, his originals were composed to match the tone of – as he credits them on the gatefold – the ‘child poets.’ And like the many books of rhyme and verse that inspired it, HMS indulges in an imagination run wild. “Journey to the Moon,” features Donovan turning the crescent moon into a raft upon which to sail a cosmic ocean, establishing a society in the heavens. A tale of interplanetary colonization relayed to the listener atop perfectly plucked guitar strings. “Celia of the Seals” is supported by Pentangle’s Danny Thompson on bass. The tune is a mixture of fantasy and activism. Journeying into the far north to commune with Celia, a maiden who watches over the young seals on the shore, our narrator is soon witness to the bludgeoning of these creatures. Celia – spiritually linked to her subjects – writhes in collective agony as her flock is skinned and left on the shore to bleed out.
Like A Gift From a Flower to A Garden, in a few isolated moments one may forget that the record is geared toward children. The already-dated psychedelia of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” may entertain for its use of tape manipulated voices, but the young listener would likely grow distracted over the course of its eight-minute run-time. “The Lord of Reedy River” is medieval downer folk at its finest, but again, there’s not much for a kid to catch here—aside from a nap. Traditional Scottish sea ballad “Henry Martin” is another album highlight. The resonant open tuning that Donovan employs for his droning version recalls the haunting instrumental rendering from Bert Jansch’s masterwork, Jack Orion. But again, the tale of an entire ship’s crew drowning in the cold North Atlantic hardly seems a suitable subject for children. Many of the original and traditional tunes could exist, in some version or another, on Open Road, Hurdy Gurdy Man or Barabajagal. It takes “The Star,” or “The Pee Song,” or a “Wynken Blynken and Nod” to recall the setting here. Simply put, an album intended for children is not without its fair share of cautionary tale or tragedy. In the grand tradition of children’s literature, verse, or playground song, these are warnings of the more sinister ways of the world. One could imagine a child’s horror upon witnessing the figurative slaughter previously mentioned in “Celia of the Seals.” Donovan is counseling his young listeners. A foreshadowing of what may be expected in navigating a society where the wholesomeness of the lessons learned through these songs are forgotten.
Half a century later, H.M.S. Donovan remains an oddity. A poorly selling, borderline ignored piece from one of the biggest stars of the counterculture era. Backed into a corner by the changing tastes of his audience, Donovan went full-tilt into the exact stylings that tired mainstream listeners. HMS remains a deeply personal record, where instead of focusing on chart placement, the singer seemed to be actively recruiting receptive listeners into his worldview. The record acts as a pedagogical tool, not just for the intended audience of children, but to those older fans who stuck with the artist through this developmental shift. In many ways this was the only logical conclusion of Donovan’s early career: remarkedly idiosyncratic; marked by an innocence of songs revolving around flora and fauna and idyllic visions; acting as humble servant to beauty—be it in nature, the cosmos, a favorite shirt, or moments shared with loved ones. Those lucky enough to pay attention in this moment received the necessary tools for unlocking a perpetual childhood; metaphysical fountains of youth lie in the grooves. Fifty years on, we are left a Donovan remarkably similar to the sailor-garbed one on HMS’s sleeve. His recent collaboration with David Lynch proclaims, “I am the Shaman.” He damn well may be right. | j rooney