After news broke of Donovan’s induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the musician reflected on some of the obstacles that he’s faced in his life:
The news earlier in February of my Songwriters Hall of Fame induction came so fast after my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2012 that I was delighted. A light is shining on all of my work, and this award means a lot. The inducted song maker has to be influential, not just a writer of great songs: you would have had to move songwriting forward in some way. My fans are saying: “It’s about time!”
Throughout my life I’ve met a lot of resistance. I met resistance at school. I said: “I’m going up to London to make a record,” and my friends laughed: “You’re joking!” Of course, when I made a record, they realised that I wasn’t. I grew up with polio when I was a child, and I had a lame leg – but I swam and won competitions. I got a lot of resistance as a kid as sick children do; you’re different from the others. But my father helped me with that – he read me poetry.
I had 13 top 40 hits, but many times people couldn’t quite put their finger on what I did. Was I a folk singer? Was I a poet? Was I hanging out with the Stones? Why was I going to India with the Beatles? I was like a chameleon – I swapped influences all the time. But it’s always good to have a bit of resistance when you start in any business. It makes you ask yourself how much you believe in what you’re doing. Certainly, there was a lot of resistance from the government when I started out. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Donovan were writing songs about an alternative society that was about to invade popular culture. We were in bohemian clubs and talking about yoga and meditation, and there was a refusal to accept us.
In the 1960s, there was an extraordinary media battle going on, which was whether you loved Donovan or you loved Dylan. Bob Dylan loved Woody Guthrie and so did I. We both wore hats and played the harmonica. But he and I got on very well. He was being a New York poet and just speaking his mind and we hung out – we became friends off stage. But the media made it look really bad, and they compared me to him as if I was a copy. That lasted for four or five months, but my singles were on the charts before Bobby’s.
I also found resistance to my songwriting. Most of the songs that were written up until 1964 in the pop charts were about falling in love, falling out of love and dancing. I looked to America. They had Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez, and they were trying to sing songs about social issues, civil rights and the women’s movement, so I got caught up in that in the late 50s and 60s until there was resistance. I got slammed, not just by the press, but also the folk world, who said that folk musicians shouldn’t make pop records. But I thought, if you take a pop record and put something in it that’s meaningful, then maybe we can spread that word – the word of brotherhood and world consciousness. The total freedom of the internet is what we were all dreaming of in the 60s, the idea that if you could communicate with everyone anywhere, without anyone having anything to say about it, then that would be amazing. Now it’s not so much the singer-songwriter who is doing this, it’s the people who are, and that’s really what should be happening.