The British chart-topping 1960s folk singer Donovan was the only pop star poet to receive France’s most prestigious cultural award awarded to him personally by the French Government. The hippy era singer of poetic-style ballads once won the heart of nations and clearly won French hearts too.
Born 10 May 1946 the balladeer was first discovered on TV’s Ready, Steady, Go programme. His fame spread abroad, especially to the United States where the open road style of music was taking a Route 69 road to stardom.
Donavan has a laid back easy listening folksy style which is complemented by the whimsical lyrics of the songs he sings. One of the first folk-rock stars, Donovan, now 74 enjoyed seven UK top 10 hits between 1965 and 1968.
His influence on music cannot be overstated. One of the most popular recording artistes of his day, his originality led him to team up with legendary Mickey Most. His circle included Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Jones, and The Beatles.
It was Donovan’s finger-picking guitar style that influenced John Lennon and Paul McCartney. This was before the Scottish born heartthrob took a back seat in the music scene.
The simplicity and catchiness of Donovan’s songs spanned the generations at a time when the generation gap was invented. It was a period when success was based on talent, not marketing. Favourites included Mellow Yellow, Colours; Catch the Wind, Universal Soldier and many more.
Against this background, there is an odd air of grandeur to the French cultural award, Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters. It seems fitting that the same Paris that gave Fredric Chopin the sobriquet ‘poet of the keyboard’ should honour Donovan as the poet of the ballad.
As French Culture Minister Christine Albanel pinned the medal to the singer’s trademark lengthy purple and velvet jacket, Donovan said, ‘I am very pleased. I take it for all the work I have done over the years to bring poetry back into popular culture.’
The singer, born more prosaically Donovan Phillips Leitch, added: ‘To get an honour like this confirmed that to me it was successful that the work was accepted on my terms, rather than becoming an entertainer.’
Donovan was oddly compared to Bob Dylan when it was Woody Guthrie that both Donovan and Dylan emulated in their first work. The true similarity between them is that they are Poets of the highest Order.
He later revealed that his love for poetry had been inspired by his father who read to him as a young child. In an aside to his home country, the singer whose lyrics live on in the hearts of many, especially the over fifties, he appeared to criticise Britain’s approach to culture.
‘The Midem music industry conference and France have established themselves as a supporter of the arts. Perhaps Britain should put more attention on the arts. Of course, one is recognised abroad more than in one’s own country. We are more exotic abroad.’
The singing legend worked with U.S. film director David Lynch to encourage meditation in schools as a way to improve pupils’ concentration and behaviour. At the time, sixty-thousand students are mediating for ten-minute sessions at the start and end of each day. ~ Michael Walsh
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