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Donovan recalls how he helped to influence the Beatles White Album

By Ronan McGreevy | 22 October 2013 | The Irish Times

He inspired songs such as Blackbird and While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Donovan photographed by Dara Mac Dónaill (2013)

Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Last night folk singer and Beatles contemporary Donovan gave a sold-out lecture at Trinity College Dublin’s Long Room Hub on how he influenced the band’s sprawling 1968 masterpiece, The White Album. It was one of a series of 12 lectures on each of The Beatles’ albums taking place to mark the 50th anniversary of the band’s only Irish concert.

The Beatles were at the height of their powers after the release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. They could have luxuriated in the belief that they had nothing to learn from their peers, but their celebrated visit to India in February 1968 was to provide an incentive for them to expand their musical education.

The lecture was inspired by comments made by George Harrison in the documentary The Beatles Anthology, first broadcast in 1995, when he said that “Donovan was all over The White Album”.

Donovan accompanied the band on their six-week trip to India to meet the Maharishi and practice transcendental meditation away from the relentless glare and expectation at home.

Guitars

They only had three acoustic guitars with them and Donovan showed them a couple of guitar techniques he had picked up from his interest in folk, country, jazz and flamenco music which found their way on to The White Album.

While they were in India, Donovan taught them the claw-hammer style of guitar picking developed by Mother Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family in the 1920s. “I’d learned it from somebody called Dirty Hugh” said Donovan. “One day John asked me to show him how to do the fingerstyle. I remembered how to do it and he was fascinated. Being the genius that he is, he developed it so fast that he could do it on any chord structure.”

Donovan was all over the White Album.

~ George Harrison

After that, he began writing a completely different kind of song, which happens. But it wasn’t just the picking, it was the descending pattern from A-minor to G to D to F which is the basis of many a blues and flamingo style, from House of The Rising Sun onward.

John started writing Dear Prudence but the one that touched me the most was the one to his mother, Julia. John knew I wrote songs about my childhood and could write in that style and he wanted to write a song about the childhood he felt he never had. John said my mother’s name was Julia and he started picking.

He recalled that he could not show the same technique to Paul McCartney because he was left-handed. “It was upside-down and back-to-front for him, but of course he’s so smart he was just walking around us while I was teaching John and he picked it up anyway, cause you know, he was a genius.”

New Technique

The new technique was evident in John Lennon’s compositions Dear Prudence, Julia, and Mother Nature’s Son.

Donovan also taught them an A minor descending bass pattern first used by Bach but later used by American jazz musicians. It was to provide the inspiration for McCartney’s Blackbird and George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

“I didn’t own these techniques, I just passed them on, but this simple guitar style and those chords had given them a whole new horizon.” he said.

By Ronan McGreevy | The Irish Times

22 October 2013

Singer Donovan gave a lecture on the White Album, one of a series of 12 lectures on each of The Beatles’ albums taking place to mark the 50th anniversary of the band’s only Irish concert.

Donovan Leitch Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Last night folk singer and Beatles contemporary Donovan gave a sold-out lecture at Trinity College Dublin’s Long Room Hub on how he influenced the band’s sprawling 1968 masterpiece, The White Album. It was one of a series of 12 lectures on each of The Beatles’ albums taking place to mark the 50th anniversary of the band’s only Irish concert.
The Beatles were at the height of their powers after the release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. They could have luxuriated in the belief that they had nothing to learn from their peers, but their celebrated visit to India in February 1968 was to provide an incentive for them to expand their musical education.

Donovan accompanied the band on their six-week trip to India to meet the Maharishi and practice transcendental meditation away from the relentless glare and expectation at home.

Guitars

They only had three acoustic guitars with them and Donovan showed them a couple of guitar techniques he had picked up from his interest in folk, country, jazz and flamenco music which found their way on to The White Album.

The lecture was inspired by comments made by George Harrison in the documentary The Beatles Anthology, first broadcast in 1995, when he said that “Donovan was all over The White Album”.

While they were in India, Donovan taught them the clawhammer style of guitar picking developed by Mother Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family in the 1920s.

One day John asked me to show him how to do the fingerstyle. I remembered how to do it and he was fascinated. Being the genius that he is, he developed it so fast that he could do it on any chord structure.”

He recalled that he could not show the same technique to Paul McCartney because he was left-handed. “It was upside-down and back-to-front for him, but he was a genius too. He picked it up just by listening.” Donovan said.

New Technique

The new technique was evident in John Lennon’s compositions Dear Prudence, Julia, and Mother Nature’s Son.

Donovan also taught them an A minor descending bass pattern first used by Bach but later used by American jazz musicians. It was to provide the inspiration for McCartney’s Blackbird and George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

“I didn’t own these techniques, I just passed them on, but this simple guitar style and those chords had given them a whole new horizon.” he said.

By Ronan McGreevy | The Irish Times

22 October 2013