Friday, March 9, 2012

Donovan's "Colours"

I found myself arguing the other day on the internet with someone whose politics differ from my own (imagine that - arguing on the internet), and I pointed out that he was guilty of a rhetorical fallacy, post hoc, ergo propter hoc to be specific - the false logic of the belief that because one thing occurs after another, the first must have caused the second. I was lucky enough to be in college at a place and time where classical and traditional rhetoric and logic were still taught - were honored and cherished, in fact, to the extent that we had to know the names of all of the fallacies and tropes and techniques by their original Latin names. That was pretty much par for the course back in those days if you majored in the humanities, but it has been, I fear, like so many other good ideas from education in an earlier age, abandoned in favor of easier, more "user-friendly," and less exacting approaches to learning writing and argument.

But it's not that everyone actually learned either logic or rhetoric back then - the history of the time is as rife with monumental mistakes and colossal blunders as is any other historical period. And then as now, far too many people fall effortlessly into the post hoc fallacy - it's an easy trap to be snared by. For many of us who are pop-folk fans, it all begins with the Kingston Trio channeling and extending The Weavers, right? All those other pop-folk stars of the late '50s and early '60s must have been following the KT, right? Well, not exactly. Groups that won record contracts and emerged in mainstream pop music in '59 or '60 included what appeared to be coattail groups like The Brothers Four and The Limeliters. Trouble is - both of those groups were absolutely contemporary with the Kingstons, and the Brothers began singing together two years before the KT was organized, as did the original members of what became the Chad Mitchell Trio. Though their popularity and record contracts may have sprung from the Trio's success, their existence as vocal groups did not do so at all.

One of the enduring misapprehensions about Scots singer-songwriter Donovan Leitch is that he was an imitator of and acolyte to Bob Dylan - mainly because the era of Donovan's greatest popularity and record sales occurred chronologically after Dylan's ascent to stardom. But the development of Donovan's musical style and his earliest compositions were actually nearly simultaneous with those of Bobby D, and the Scots performer was quite understandably more influenced initially by UK folk legend Martin Carthy and the Beatles - and all you need is ears to hear to sense that though Donovan greatly admired Dylan's songwriting, he wasn't trying to ape America's boy genius at all. Dylan's involvement with folk music was a short-lived flirtation; much of his most memorable work features rock rhythms with those brilliantly imagist lyrics. Donovan, on the other hand, came down briefly with a mild case of folk-rock which led him away from his true love - which was British-inflected acoustic guitar-based folk music. The best of Donovan's work should be compared to real American folk writers like Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs, not to Dylan.

Where Dylan and Ochs channeled the rebellious anger of the early and mid-60s, Donovan was writing tunes that pre-dated the "flower-power" movement with which in memory they remain most closely associated. I would venture that his best-known song and the one likeliest to endure is the wonderfully folk-sounding "Catch The Wind" from 1965, two years before the Summer of Love:



I don't think Dylan ever wrote anything this pretty, and his ventures into borrowing English and Irish melodies for his own lyrics just never worked for me. The originals - like "The Leaving of Liverpool " ("Fare Thee Well"), "The Parting Glass" ("Restless Farewell"), and "The Patriot Game" ("With God On Our Side") are invariably better than Dylan's pastiches - much, much better. Dylan just does not connect emotionally to the Anglo-Irish sensibility that shaped and informed Donovan and his best work.

And any list of Donovan's best folk tunes must include "Colours." It is a simple song that I have seen derided as drivel (as indeed all of Donovan's work has been) by those who consider themselves part of the hipster cognoscenti - you know, the folks who identify with the leather-jacketed, handsome, and stubble-faced actor who impersonates the Macintosh computers in those recent commercials in contrast to the portly, be-spectacled, Dockers-wearing PC guy. I suppose if that kind of image appeals to someone - for my money, only the irretrievably shallow - then Donovan is not their cup of tea. But then, genuine folk music wouldn't be either, and Donovan comes a lot closer to the real McCoy in this song than most other singer-songwriters ever have. The proof of that pudding is below - most of the best cover versions of the song are Donovan plus someone else - like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. You really have to be a stubble-faced Shallow Hal to accuse those two of purveying drivel.

First, Donovan himself in 1965 on the TV show Shindig, shortly after the song was released:



Baez lent the incredible purity of her soprano to her version on the Farewell, Angelina album:



The two combined for a duet on the song at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival:



Pete Seeger just did not lend the considerable weight of his integrity to just anyone, and here (as often on his Rainbow Quest show) he showcases his guest while providing sublime instrumental and vocal back-up:



The Derrol Adams to whom Donovan alludes was an American who became a kind of godfather to the UK and continental folk revivals - we have a discussion of his work in the article on his "Portland Town".

Toward the end of its first ten years, the Kingston Trio had moved away from adaptations of traditional songs and had fully embraced the singer-songwriter movement, being among the first to record songs by writers like Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson, Hoyt Axton, Rod McKuen, and more. They do a straightforward take on "Colours," which wasn't released until after the original group broke up. This rendition is from the group's final performances at the Hungry i in San Francisco:



There are pages and pages of mostly amateur cover versions on YouTube, undoubtedly because of the musical and lyrical simplicity - and I would like to think honesty as well. But three professional versions caught my eye. First, eclectic genius Van Dyke Parks, guru to Brian Wilson possessing his own very unique vision of folk music, came up with this in 1968:



Parks at his best - as Lindsey Buckingham told John Stewart that a good record should be, repetitive and hypnotic.

Finally, Alias Julius is the stage name of a young rock singer-songwriter from Detroit who is now based out of Tampa. She sings lead here on this delightfully country-tinged version:



History is written by the victors, they say, and it is alas too true. Somebody will always be saying that John Stewart sounds like Johnny Cash - and that Donovan was a slavish imitator of Dylan. Not hardly in either case, I say - unless of course you happen to be a stubble-bearded hipster who never learned to avoid the post hoc, ergo propter hoc delusion.

Addendum, April 2012

I somehow neglected to mention that Donovan is a member of the induction class of 2012 for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is about the only institution that recognizes the contributions of folk singers to popular music. As above, Donovan did folk, rock, folk rock and more - but in this fine interview in Billboard Mr. Leitch speaks at length about his folk roots and influences.

Donovan Interview In Billboard

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