I’ve only recently come to realize what an influence ’60s songwriter Donovan Leitch was to the Beatles, perhaps to Paul more than the others. He was such a good friend and prolific songwriter that Paul at one point asked Donovan to contribute a line or two to the song “Yellow Submarine.” Donovan came up with “sky of blue, sea of green” which made its way into the final product. “Yellow Submarine” of course is the gateway song to the Beatles for many children.
But it was George Harrison who first alerted the public to Donovan’s influence on the band when, back in 1995, he said, “Donovan was all over the White Album.”
[By the way, I realize nowadays that many younger people who read this blog may be completely unaware of who Donovan even was. Just do the proverbial Google search and you’ll find he was a ’60s superstar with songs like “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow.” And Paul McCartney sang backup vocals on that song.]
But anyway, Donovan knew the Beatles from London and they had invited him to India when they went on their great spiritual adventure with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Aside from meditating and opening their minds, Donovan and the Beatles had plenty of time on their hands and, at one point, John Lennon asked Donovan to teach him a certain style of finger-picking the guitar.
The story is best related by Donovan to a Nashville writer by the name of David Ross. This is from Ross’ interview with Donovan in 2012:
One day John leaned over and asked, “How do you do that finger style stuff, what is it?”
“It’s moving so fast you don’t know what I’m doing right?” I replied.
“That’s right I want to learn.”
“It’s going to take a few days.”
John looked around the jungle and said “I’ve got time to learn anything here.”
So I sat down and taught him the basic Carter Familyclaw hammer which I’d learned from somebody calledDirty Hugh. And John started 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.
Paul McCartney was interested too, 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. They’re all geniuses in that band. Soon Paul started writing “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son.” George was listening too, but he preferred the Chet Atkins fingerstyle where you hold the guitar pick between the thumb and first finger and play with the other fingers. What I was teaching John (and Paul was listening to), was the complete finger style which I understand Ma Carter transposed from banjo picking to guitar in 1928. George also liked the descending chord structures however, and started writing, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
So what I did naturally became for The Beatles in India a door to a whole new range of songwriting and I’m so pleased that happened. Later George said in the Beatles Anthology, “Donovan’s all over the White album.” And it seems I am. I didn’t invent these things, but I played them so much, it opened doors. The Beatles at that point were at a big watershed in their life. They’d lost their manager, Brian Epstein, discovered mediation and were searching for something different. Well, they certainly got something different from Donovan. A guitar style and a set of chords that opened up an enormous amount of new ways of doing things. And that’s what we musicians do, we pass on styles from one to another.