Monday, November 11, 2013

Song #419 of 9999 - Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan

Song #419 of 9999

Title: Hurdy Gurdy Man
Artist: Donovan
Year: 1968
Album: Hurdy Gurdy Man

Ah, Donovan. Donovan "Did I Mention I Use To Hang Out With The Beatles?" Leitch. Regardless of the excessive name-dropping, it is true he used to hang out with The Beatles, tagging along during the experimental time in their lives while they were searching for inner peace in India. Which is not to say he was merely a taker; apparently, he taught John Lennon a finger-picking guitar style that can be heard on "Julia" and "Dear Prudence" among others. So there is some give and take and perhaps it's not entirely unfair for Donovan to feel like he is underappreciated.

"Hurdy Gurdy Man" is Donovan's foray into a harder rock style with distorted guitars and heavy drums replacing flutes and bassoons. No flower power here. But the melodies are still catchy and sweet and the chord progressions simple but effective. Two things catch my ear as I listen analytically to what's going on.

First, there is some simple but elegant counterpoint in the verse with Donovan's descending vocal line (a recurring theme in the chorus) contrasted against the rising chord progression:

Notice how the melody in the voice arrives at the chord tone late, creating some nice suspensions (6-5, 4-3 and 9-8 in succession). This same idea carries over to the chorus—in fact, the melodic line is almost an exact transposition of the verse melody but over a different chord progression: 

Isn't it fascinating how the character of this melody changes when set over a different chord progression! Over I-iii-IV-V, it's pretty and lilting while it's transposition over bVII, IV, I is almost haunting. Could it be because one outlines a perfect 4th [G-D] while the other outlines a tritone [F-B]?

Which brings me to my second observation: the way the song begins harmonically. It's is in the key of G but the intro begins on the bVII (F)! The chord progression is presented exactly as appears in the chorus but, as listeners, we don't know this. So right from the start, there is some masking of the tonality.

Of course, it's easy to ignore all of these underlying structural elements with a song that has so many timbral delights, including a tambura ("I got it from George Harrison!") and some rhythmic pulsating vocal vibrato which I find to be an inspired choice. One thing we don't hear is a hurdy-gurdy itself (the tambura acts as a substitute), which is a buzzy ancient string instrument that sounds like this! 


  1. If I hung out with the Beatles for even 5 minutes that would be all I would ever talk about as well! Can't blame Mr. Leitch for some good old-fashioned coattail riding. After all, he also first came on the scene as the "Scottish Bob Dylan".

    And also, according to Donovan, Jimmy Page played the solo for this tune. Which, according to Donovan, helped usher in the Celtic rock thing. Which, according to Donovan, helped birth Led Zeppelin. Therefore, by transitive property, Donovan founded Led Zeppelin!

    Of course, Page denies playing the solo! (but it is John Paul Jones on the bass).

  2. "Could it be because one outlines a perfect 4th [G-D] while the other outlines a tritone [F-B]?"

    Makes sense. Great observation!