Donovan gives Woody Guthrie lyrics new life
By Chris Richards,
On a recent Friday afternoon in a West End hotel suite sat Donovan, the Scottish troubadour once called mellow yellow, officially called Donovan Leitch, now 66 years old.
On his person: two necklaces — one beaded, one gold — a fuzzy cardigan, a weathered T-shirt, jeans, boots of black suede.
On his coffee table: Horace’s complete odes in paperback, a laminated photo of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, a book of John Lennon’s scribblings.
And in his hands: a large envelope filled with drawings, letters and lyrics by American folk icon Woody Guthrie.
“Where’s the one about the girlies’ legs?” Leitch asked, searching the envelope for a Guthrie verse about knockout women and beaten-down factory men. “He moves all over the place,” Leitch marveled, “from sex, to capitalism, to prison farms, to the atom bomb.”
Leitch was in Washington preparing for Sunday night’s Kennedy Center Guthrie centennial tribute concert, featuring Lucinda Williams, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, John Mellencamp and many others. These were just photocopies of the documents bequeathed to Leitch by his late mentor Pete Kameron, a manager who once worked with Guthrie. Leitch was plotting to surprise the Guthries onstage Sunday, announcing that he’d be donating the original documents to the family — and by setting one of the lyric sheets he found in Kameron’s parcel to music.
Raised across the ocean, Leitch says he never felt far from Guthrie’s America. His father, a union man who assembled jet engines at a munitions factory in Glasgow, often read to his son from the family library. By age 3, Leitch had already taken a liking to W.H. Davies, the Welsh poet who hopped American trains in the 1890s, and Robert W. Service, the “bard of the Yukon,” whose “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” Leitch can still — and did — recite from memory.
Leitch discovered Guthrie’s music at 17, after he had read Kerouac but before he had heard Dylan. “Suddenly, the road was there, the Depression was there, the anti-establishment songs were there, the song of freedom and unions and peace,” Leitch said.
The young songwriter decorated his acoustic guitar with the slogan that Guthrie had famously emblazoned on his. THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS. “Only, I took off the word ‘fascists,’ thinking they had gone from the world,” Leitch said. “I’m not so sure now.”
When a journalist asked young Leitch what his guitar could kill, he remembers answering with bright eyes: “It kills ignorance, greed, hypocrisy, fear and doubt.” That sunshiny idealism is largely what Leitch is remembered for. His early hits — “Season of the Witch,” “Mellow Yellow” — signaled an international arrival of youthful innocence and hope, all swaddled in psychedelic colors.
For his 1965 debut album, Leitch recorded “Car Car,” a cover of “Riding in My Car,” one of Guthrie’s many children’s songs, which he planned to reprise at the Kennedy Center on Sunday. As for the new song he hoped to premiere, he searched for it in the stack. There were letters mailed to Kameron in the days when Guthrie had gone from performing at mining camps to playing Mafia-run cabarets, and lyrics, including 25 verses of “Fellershippy Papers,” an epic Guthrie ballad about the tedium of filling out paperwork.
“Look at this!” Leitch said, waving a letter in which Guthrie asks Kameron to defend his work from censorship. As Leitch recited his way down the page, Guthrie’s anger dilated into sweeping lyrical zigzags. “If he had a guitar in hand, that would have become a song,” Leitch said.
Finally, the drawing Leitch was looking for surfaced from the stack. “It sounds like a children’s lyric,” he said, examining the lines typed in all caps above two canoodling stick figures. “A loving lyric.”
Tracing his index finger across the page, Leitch practiced the melody he planned to sing Sunday night:
YUMMMY YUMMY YUMM
GIVVA ME SOME
Then he smacked his lips, kissing the air in front of him, and asked,“Isn’t that beautiful?”
But when Leitch took the Kennedy Center stage early during Sunday’s sprawling program, he didn’t sing it, and the letters weren’t mentioned. After leading the capacity crowd through a singalong of “Riding in My Car,” he took a bow and sauntered off.
During intermission, Leitch explained that Guthrie’s son Arlo was unable to attend the concert as planned, and Leitch didn’t feel right singing the song without Arlo there.
Those beautiful unheard lyrics stayed that way.