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Hurdy Gurdy Man: Rock Star of the Medieval Music Scene

Hurdy Gurdy Man: Rock Star of the Medieval Music Scene

The hurdy gurdy is a musical instrument, or more precisely, a string instrument, that traces its origin to the Middle Ages of Europe. The hurdy gurdy was initially used to play sacred music, before being adapted to play popular and folk music. Later on, its status was elevated even further when it gained favor for a time at the French court.

Eventually, the hurdy gurdy’s popularity declined, and it became a musical instrument that many would not have heard of. In recent times, however, the hurdy gurdy is enjoying a sort of revival, both in Europe and in North America.

Why is it Called a ‘Hurdy Gurdy’?

No one actually knows the reason the hurdy gurdy is called as such in the English language. As a matter of fact, the English name of this musical instrument was only coined during the 18th century. One speculation is that the hurdy gurdy is related to ‘hurly burly’, which is used to describe an uproar or tumult, hence a possible reference to the noise made by this musical instrument. The hurdy gurdy is known also in French as a vielle à roue , which may be translated as a ‘wheel fiddle’, undoubtedly a name that provides a better description of the instrument.

A hurdy gurdy player. Blind Musician by Georges de la tour, 17th century.

How Does a Hurdy Gurdy Work?

In essence, the hurdy gurdy is a string instrument, like a violin or a guitar. Unlike such instruments, which produce sound (through the resonance of the vibrating strings) by having the strings rubbed by a bow or by being plucked with the finger or a plectrum, the hurdy gurdy produces sound by having its strings rubbed by a rosined wheel. In a modern hurdy gurdy, the musician turns the wheel of the instrument, via a handle (the crank) with one hand (usually the right), while the other hand is used to play the tune on the keys in a keybox.

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Illustration of the parts of a hurdy gurdy.

It has often been remarked that the sound produced by a hurdy gurdy is similar to that of a bagpipe. This is due to the presence of several drone strings outside the keybox, which sound the same note continuously. One of these drone strings is supported by a chien (French for dog), which is a small moveable bridge. By cranking the wheel harder, the chien may be made to vibrate rhythmically, which produces a buzzing accompaniment to the tune.

Origin of the Hurdy Gurdy

The origin of the hurdy gurdy is still a matter of debate. According to one speculation, it was the Moors of North Africa who introduced this musical instrument to Europe. When the Moors invaded Spain, they brought numerous string instruments with them, and one of these could have been a precursor to the hurdy gurdy.

The earliest form of the hurdy gurdy that is known for sure is known as an organistrum. Depictions of that instrument have been dated to the 12th century. The organistrum was a larger version of the hurdy gurdy and required two musicians to play it. It was mainly used in the church for sacred music, though the wooden keys could also be re-arranged in order to play secular music as well.

12th century relief indicating two players needed to play the organistrum. Church of Toro, Zamora, Spain.

In the following century, the size of the organistrum was reduced so that it could be played by one musician – and that’s how the hurdy gurdy came into being. The key action of this musical instrument was also improved. Whereas the difficult key action of the organistrum restricted it to playing slow melodies and simple harmonies, its improvement made the hurdy gurdy suitable for playing dance music. As a result of this, the hurdy gurdy became used less for sacred music and more for folk and popular music.

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The small hurdy gurdy is barely visible under the arm and cloak of the player in this 17th Century painting. Gathering of Gamblers with Hurdy-Gurdy Player circa 1660.

French Love for the Hurdy Gurdy

The hurdy gurdy reached its heyday during the reign of Louis XIV , the King of France. Prior to that, the hurdy gurdy was regarded as a peasant’s musical instrument. As the king was a fan of the Arcadian idea of rural bliss, his court followed his example and thus elevated the status of the hurdy gurdy, which was used to provide musical accompaniment for the pastoral plays that were being produced at that time.

The hurdy gurdy featured in the court of Louis XV’s court as well, though it fell out of favor during the reign of Louis XVI, who was not inclined to participation in the courtly diversions that his predecessors enjoyed. Even his wife, Marie Antoinette , though notorious for her indulgent lifestyle, was not particularly fond of pastoral plays, resulting in the decline of the hurdy gurdy’s popularity. After that, the hurdy gurdy returned to the streets.

Young woman with a hurdy gurdy and a child with tambourine, 18th century.

Nevertheless, this musical instrument continued to be popular in France. For example, when peasants from the French countryside moved to Paris in search of jobs, they brought the hurdy gurdy with them. This musical instrument continued to be in use until the late 19th century, when it was replaced first by the diatonic button accordion, and then the chromatic button accordion, as they were easier to play and less troublesome to maintain.

The Modern ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’

But in recent decades there has been a revival of interest in the hurdy gurdy in Europe as well as in North America. Perhaps the most famous reference to the instrument for people these days is the song ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ by Donovan. Although the instrument isn’t played on the song, it was enough to spark some interest in it.

Today the hurdy gurdy appears in all sorts of different music styles and there are even electric and electronic versions available to modern musicians.

Elf Fantasy Fair 2010 hurdy gurdy. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

A Brief History Of The Hurdy Gurdy

The hurdy gurdy, known in France as the vielle a roue or vielle for short, is an ancient instrument which is undergoing a modern renaissance in Europe and America. First, to dispel a popular misconception: the hurdy gurdy was not played by the organ grinder or his monkey. They used a large music box operated by a crank. Today's hurdy gurdy is roughly the same as those built in the middle ages. It has three to six strings which are caused to vibrate by a resined wheel turned by a crank. Melody notes are produced on one string, or two tuned in unison, by pressing keys which stop the string at the proper intervals for the scale. The other strings play a drone note. Some instruments have a "dog", "trompette" or "buzzing bridge" A string passes over a moveable bridge, which by a clever movement of the crank in the open hand, can produce a rasping rhythm to accompany the tune by causing the bridge to hammer on the sound board. The instrument is held in the lap with a strap to hold it steady. The case can be square, lute back, or flat back with a guitar or fiddle shape. Forms of the vielle a roue existed not only in France, but in Germany, Italy, Britain, Russia, Spain and Hungary.

An interesting related instrument is the Swedish nyckelharpa which was developed around the sixteenth century. It has keys and is played with a short bow. It is enjoying a revival of interest and new custom made instruments are now available.

The origins of the hurdy gurdy are unknown but one theory says that when the Moors invaded Spain they brought with them many stringed and bowed instruments. There is no proof that the vielle a roue was one of them, but the possibility exists that something similar arrived in Spain at that time and dispersed throughout Europe along the pilgrim's roads.


The earliest known form of the vielle a roue was called an organistrum and bore little resemblance to the modern one. It was so large that one person turned the crank and another played the keys. The wooden keys were arranged in various ways depending on whether secular or religious music was to be played. The organistrum was only capable of playing slow melodies and simple harmony because of the hard key action. It's main use was in the medieval church. The first mention of the organistrum was in a construction manual by Odo of Cluny, which was discovered in the twelfth century and possibly written in the tenth century. There are also other depictions dating from the twelfth century. During the thirteenth century, the organistrum was redesigned to be playable by one person, which encouraged use by blind and itinerant musicians. The improved key action with drone accompaniment made it ideal for dance music. It was adopted for popular and folk music of the day, and use in the church diminished. Even the name organistrum had died out by the fourteenth century. In France, it was known as a symphonia until it was abandoned for popular music in the late fifteenth century. One can surmise that, at this time, the name changed to vielle a roue, which is still used today. The vielle was used only for folk music by peasants and street musicians. It was known all over Europe by about 1650 but remained a peasant instrument for the next one hundred years. By this time the design had standardized to the size and shape familiar today.


Although the vielle a roue was mentioned frequently as a beggars instrument in the early seventeenth century, it appeared occasionally at the royal court along with the musette (bagpipe), providing music to accompany the new pastoral plays. Gradually, courtly diversions about the Arcadian idea of rural bliss gained favor at court. Shepherds and milkmaids were portrayed passing away pleasant hours together. During the reign of Louis XIV, 1660 to 1715, Arcadian pastimes greatly increased because the king enjoyed them and all his court followed suit. Music for the vielle a roue and musette were written by popular composers such as Vivaldi in the baroque period and later by Mozart. Many aristocrats became accomplished performers on these instruments.

During the mid-seventeenth century, writers like Jean Jacque Rousseau castigated the corruption and lax morals at court. He advocated a return to the simple rural life where virtue and integrity came naturally with the hard work of the peasant life. He also encouraged the display of sentiment and emotion to further enhance the delicacy of one's character. His ideas gained favor at court but became twisted. The simple life continued to be portrayed in pastoral plays by highly decorated persons impersonating rural folk playing traditional instruments but behaving as no peasant would.

During the vielle a roue's favor at court, Paris instrument makers started to make elegant instruments with fancy inlay and carving. The mechanism was built into guitar and lute bodies, giving the instrument a better tone. Many fine instruments were manufactured during this period.

This renaissance of the hurdy gurdy continued until the reign of Louis XV was over in 1778. The next king, Louis XVI, was rather puritanical and did not participate in the diversions of the court. The amusements continued under Marie Antoinette but her tastes changed to the neo classical. She abandoned her milkmaid roles for Sappho with her harp. The hurdy gurdy had no logical place in this type of entertainment but it did not disappear entirely from the court scene until the French Revolution. At this time, it simply was left to the streets where it had always been. Use of the instrument for more than a beggars tool gradually retreated into central France in the areas of Auvergne, Berry and Limousin, where the tradition has remained to this day.

After the French Revolution, around early 1800, the peasants began to leave the place of their birth and migrated to Paris to find work. They typically became first water carriers then coal carriers. Many set up store fronts in conjunction with the coal business, where they sold wine from their native areas. By the 1850's, there were many homesick peasants in Paris. They gathered at the wine shops, sitting on benches and wine barrels, to drink, dance and play the familiar old folk tunes on the hurdy gurdy and cabrette (bagpipe).

About 1880, the diatonic accordion began to be added at these sessions, and gained in popularity rapidly because it was easier and less troublesome. The hurdy gurdy had to be tuned carefully and was subject to constant problems from dampness. Originally, the diatonic accordion played a simple melody line but about 1890, a chromatic model was developed which could play a fast melody with runs and grace notes. Starting about 1850, the bagpipe was often played without the drone because of the conflict with the new chromatic music. The hurdy gurdy was not so versatile playing this music, so it's use decreased while the accordion increased in popularity.

The small groups of homesick peasants dancing traditional dances gradually grew larger as more people became interested. By 1910, the dances had grown so large in Paris that large halls were built to accommodate as many as 400 dancers. The instrumentation had changed solely to chromatic accordion and drones cabrette. A whole new style of music and dance was created by the changing times. The polka, mazurka, waltz and musette are some of the creations of that period. The new dance and music gradually trickled back to central France where traditional music was still played and the hurdy gurdy was still appreciated. This time the accordion did not displace the hurdy gurdy, but was merely added. The cabrette, hurdy gurdy and accordion are still playing traditional music in this area today.

The term hurdy gurdy was not coined in England until the eighteenth century. The instrument still occurred as a street instrument in many places throughout Europe till about the twentieth century. During the eighteenth century a variation of the vielle was developed. The Lira Organizzata was a hurdy gurdy with a bellows and organ pipes inside which were operated by the crank and keys respectively. The pipes had a very high squeaky sound. These instruments are being made today and are enjoying a revival of interest.

In the early 1960's France showed an enormous interest in American folk songs and singers such as Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. In a few years, when this material was digested, something new was needed. French musicians noted how the Irish and English were reviving their own ancient and beautiful folk traditions and were reminded of their own traditional songs and instruments. This rekindled interest has now swept France and is the rage of Paris.

There are many new records of both traditional and modern music which feature the hurdy gurdy. Classes in vielle a roue, cabrette, bagpipe, dancing and accordion are very popular. Fifteen years ago, one had to go to Switzerland to get a hurdy gurdy. Now there are more than 50 makers in France. The instrument is now being investigated by the latest research methods. You can get an electronic hurdy gurdy in bright green or candy apple red. By the addition of electronic pickups and other gadgets, the hurdy gurdy is joining rock and roll, jazz and other music. It has been chromatic for years but the drones have to be turned off to play modern music. Now there are electronic drone changers which can instantaneously change the key of the drones, making the instrument much more versatile. There are many groups writing new material for the hurdy gurdy. The current fad is to syncopate the buzzing bridge in a jazz rhythm. Ireland, England, Italy, Spain and Hungary are a few of the countries where musicians are adapting the vielle to their newly composed music.

Meanwhile, the hurdy gurdy has come to the United States, no doubt in the hands of traveling Frenchmen. It is said that around 1850, there were a few hurdy gurdys being played in New Orleans. There is mention of one in New York about around 1940. There is an early California dance tune discovered in Watsonville, California, which is actually a French tune called La Valso-vienne. No one knows how it originally arrived from France. A friend of mine remembers a man coming to town with his hurdy gurdy back in the Oklahoma oil days. Any information on the use of the hurdy gurdy in the United States which anyone would like to share with us is welcomed.

Many fine hurdy gurdys, both antique and modern, are to be found at Lark In The Morning in Mendocino, California.

BAINES, ANTHONY, European & American Musical Instruments, The Viking Press, New York, 1966

BROCKER, MARIANNE, The Hurdy Gurdy, Archiv Productions, Hanover Germany, 1972

D'ALBERT, ARRIGO, Mendocino, California

JENKINS, JEAN, Eighteenth Century Musical Instruments: France and Britain, Thanet Press, London, 1973

LEPPERT, RICHARD D., Arcadia at Versailles, Swets & Zeitlinger B.V., Amsterdam, 1978

MUNROW, DAVID, Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Oxford University Press, London, 1976

Jennifer Lucy Allan asks what's not to like about a singular medieval instrument whose sound most closely resembles a heavy metal drone group

A hurdy-gurdy sounds like medieval Sunn O)) like a parade come to collect you for the eternal hot licks of the underworld like a squall of wraiths like a horde of horrifying troubadours in animal heads singing your sins like the wheezing exhalations of the pained geologic earth itself. The hurdy-gurdy is "the Ur-industrial instrument par excellence," wrote Biba Kopf in the sleevenotes to one of Keiji Haino's three hurdy-gurdy albums. If you think that sounds a bit much, consider that this is an instrument with more drone strings than melody strings, capable of creating a deafening hellscape in the right hands. In Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights the soundtrack to hell is a giant and infernal hurdy-gurdy, accompanied by a large lute, a harp, and a man playing a recorder out of his bum.

I first encountered the hurdy-gurdy via a CD rip of one of the albums Haino made as 'The 21st Century Hard-Y-Guide-Y Man', its bizarre punned title scrawled on a CD-R in black marker. The Japanese underground musician made its wooden body and strings sound like metal on metal, exploiting its capacity for overwhelming density and ferocity for blood-curdling rasping that jangles the nerves, and for soft and mournful keening.

A hurdy-gurdy is a medieval instrument that in its basic shape vaguely resembles a violin or a lute, only everything is chunkier, fatter, and it is played differently to other stringed instruments. It is held on the knee, rather than under the chin, and it produces sound by a hand-cranked handle, which turns a rosined wheel that rubs against strings – melody strings and drone strings. Keys can be pressed to play a melody, and the wheel functions like a violin bow. Because of the wheel, the pressure on the strings is constant, although when the handle is vigorously turned, a buzzing bridge called the dog, or trompette, vibrates against the body, giving it the anxious, biting sound that Haino literally leans into.

The undoubted master of the hurdy-gurdy in the UK is Stevie Wishart, who plays both traditional early music and contemporary experimental music. She says the hurdy-gurdy is like "an acoustic synth" and says it was this that first caught her ear about the instrument. "Its sound is all about filtering the frequencies with the wheel-speed and playing with finger pressure directly on the strings as noise harmonics," she explains, "as well as the normal musical notes played with the keys.

"Technically it’s really special. It defies our standard categorisation, since it is neither a keyboard instrument not a string instrument but a mishmash of both, and to cap it all, is unique in being bowed with the rim of a wheel."

Wishart says that in folk and traditional music playing the buzzing bridge is part of a controlled technique – a refined and sometimes pretty part of a composition. But for contemporary and experimental players, it is the feral edge that gives the hurdy gurdy its bite. This buzzing bridge also adds another similarity to electronic music. Wishart says that as a multi-instrumentalist with a background in electronic music, she finds this bridge to be a lot like an in-built acoustic version of a Big Muff distortion pedal. Lots of medieval and renaissance instruments used to have this sort of timbral complexity built into their sound, she explains "before they had their act cleaned up by being included as members of the orchestra".

The horror and despair in the sound of a hurdy-gurdy, the patina of its melodic textures and its unearthly drone mean that the instrument has often cropped up, hundreds (if not over a thousands) years after it emerged, in the Japanese underground, British industrial music, with modular synths or in psychedelic jams. As well as Haino's albums, you can hear it in Cyclobe, Matmos, in the un- psychedelic jams of un-Googleable French band France, among others.

It is its hand crank operation that lends the hurdy-gurdy its haunting nature – it does not produce a solid drone but breathes in uncanny rhythms it has an accent, one shaped by the person that turns the handle. This also means that the heavy circular psych-dirges of France (think extended versions of Tony Conrad & Faust) the music can continue for hours – nobody runs out of puff playing a hurdy-gurdy. The relentless and obliterating churn of a recording like France at Do Den Haag Church ought never to end:

France's hurdy-gurdy player, Yann Gourdon, plays an amplified French hurdy-gurdy (a vielle à roue), harnessing its raw acoustic energy into a full-frequency muscular beast. Gourdon's playing began in traditional music from Auvergne in central France where, historically speaking, the hurdy-gurdy is particularly prevalent, and now applies it to huge drones:

Donavon, arguably, did the biggest damage to the hurdy-gurdy in the near-nonsense bendy acid pop song Haino takes his pun-tastic title from (which contains such lyrical nuggets as “Roly poly, roly poly, holy poly poly, he sang”). The worst part is, 'Hurdy Gurdy Man' doesn't actually have a hurdy-gurdy in it at all, its weighty drone in fact made by an Indian tambura. Donovon claims not only that this session was the spark that came to ignite Led Zeppelin, but was also the moment in which he says, inexplicably, Celtic rock was invented, somewhat erasing the role of the Indian drone instrument that gives the song its weight.

The hurdy-gurdy is, it's fair to say, one of the whitest instruments around. Unlike most stringed instruments, which are Arabic by descent, the hurdy-gurdy is thought to be European in its origins. There is evidence that it has been in constant use in Europe for a thousand years, and was widely known by about the mid-12th Century. It was prevalent in Central and Eastern Europe – there is the Ukrainian lira, Slovakian ninera, the Hungarian tekerolant, as well as types of hurdy-gurdy in Russia, Spain, Italy and the UK. And that's before we get started on variations like the dulci-gurdy (half dulcimer, half hurdy-gurdy). As well as in Bosch's 16th Century painting, there are hurdy-gurdies in etches by Rembrandt, and in an illuminated illustration from the Cantigas de Santa Maria – the early music bible – where two hurdy-gurdy players side-eying each other mischievously as if about to bring down the house for an unsuspecting audience.

It was not possible to escape the jaunty music of the traditional hurdy-gurdy player on the streets of 19th century London, where they could be heard along with singers, violinists, actual mechanical organ grinders (with monkeys) singers from Italy, Ethiopian serenaders, brass bands from Germany, and Scottish bagpipers. In 1851, in his proto-sociological study of the poor and labour in London, Henry Mahew reckoned there were a thousand street musicians working in the city, with a good number of hurdy-gurdy players. One blind player encountered by Mayhew had worked the streets in the city for 40 years. Because of its volume, its players were one of the targets (often confused and grouped in with barrel organ players) of 19th century noise complaints about street musicians, who rattled the nerves of the petty bourgeoisie with a din of persistent playing, and were known to start up a song at all hours. The thing that makes it so appealing to experimental musicians now – particularly to those looking to bring up a squall of sound that can be maintained for a very long time – is precisely what meant it shredded the nerves of the 19th century gentility. Traditional hurdy-gurdy songs, like >this one on Folkways by French folk player Henri Vasson are sinewy and gangly creatures in comparison to the muscular reps of something like France, although they share a regional identity.

It was the Balkan style of playing that excited Ossian Brown, one half of the English experimental duo Cyclobe and a member of Shirley Collins’ live band. In an interview with The Quietus , Brown said he had been in awe of the hurdy-gurdy from the moment he heard it in a 1970s BBC adaptation of M.R. James's Lost Hearts, "which has a fantastically chilling scene of a strange blue ghost child playing hurdy-gurdy at the foot of a young boy's bed". It was, he said, "immensely haunting" but compelling in a way that sparked his curiosity. He subsequently searched it out in early Baroque music and traditional and provincial folk music from France. He eventually found “a marvellous and extremely beautiful Vielle à roue” made by Pajot, in the mid 1800s – a famous family of French makers who built instruments in Jenzat, France from the end of the 18th Century up until WWII. Brown said that he was most strongly drawn to Hungarian and Ukrainian folk music, played mostly by peasants, labourers or travelling street musicians. “I found the way they played, taking a raw and less ornamental approach, very exciting,” he explained. Brown’s hurdy-gurdy composition ‘The Split Ash Tree’ was a highlight of Shirley Collins’ comeback album Lodestar:

Wishart comparing the hurdy-gurdy's sound to synths and pedals perhaps renders Matmos's pairing of the instrument with modular synths on The Civil War album less surprising than it was back in 2003. Because their hurdy-gurdy didn't have the 'dog', they reconstructed it electronically and bent the left and right channels out of line with one another for the track 'Regicide'. In an interview at the time Daniel describes these divergent gurdies as sounding "like the floor in the room is tilted, or the tape is getting chewed up".

While the hurdy-gurdy's capacity to fill space with its unrelenting multi-tonal dirge is for some the absolute sonic dream, for others it is the stuff of nightmares. Its distinctive sound, made by those technical restrictions mean it often doesn't quite fit in a group, and Wishart pointed out that its complex construction and confusing playing technique also does not lend itself to musical notation. Its grating, rasping bark also means it cuts through anything it plays with – she says she's even occasionally broken tweeter speakers in the studio when recording. When considered like this, it's no surprise that experimental musicians have picked up on the hurdy-gurdy's uniqueness, what, as Wishart says, makes its sound "as old as it is new".

The hurdy-gurdy can creep, or it can pounce, and that buzzing dog has teeth. It might sound more like a horde of infernal players from hell than a single hand cranked instrument, but herein lies its power. Wishart thinks that because of these various peculiarities, the hurdy-gurdy has been free to roam in a way other instruments can't. It is out on its own, she says, "something of a cultural and social nomad – a free-musical spirit".

Ethan James, 56 Played Music From Heavy Metal to Medieval

Ethan James, a member of the ‘60s heavy metal band Blue Cheer who shifted in the 1980s to a behind-the-scenes role as producer and engineer on dozens of recordings, has died. He was 56.

James died June 19 in San Francisco after an eight-month battle with liver cancer, said a longtime friend, Lisa Mitchell Silverman. “Very few people knew he was ill,” she said. “He didn’t want people to worry.”

After leaving Blue Cheer, James became a trusted mentor of a younger generation of emerging punk, alternative and roots-rock bands before changing careers yet again in the late 1980s to focus on playing and promoting medieval music.

James was born Ralph Burns Kellogg in 1946 in Pasadena and moved with his family in 1957 to Sacramento, where he taught himself to play piano, guitar, bass and drums. To pursue a life in music, he moved to San Francisco after high school and became a member of the band Mint Tattoo. He later joined pioneering heavy metal band Blue Cheer just after the group charted its biggest hit, a remake of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.”

James toured and recorded with Blue Cheer into the ‘70s, then decided to build a recording studio of his own in Los Angeles, creating Radio Tokyo Studio in Venice. James’ studio quickly became a popular hangout for such bands as the Bangs (later the Bangles), Black Flag, the Minutemen, Jane’s Addiction and numerous others.

“He was very interested in hearing different bands and seeing what people came up with, rather than trying to mold something,” Greg Ginn, guitarist with Black Flag and founder of SST Records, home to various acts that worked with James, said recently.

The Plimsouls’ Eddie Munoz said James “stood tall in a scene that needed focus.”

Former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt said James was the person who recorded and mixed the Minutemen’s “Double Nickels on the Dime” album.

“He mixed all 45 songs in one night,” said Watt, who also worked with James in post - Minutemen bands Firehose and Dos. “Ethan had much respect for another’s music and was never dominating or controlling.”

During this period, James assumed his new name because, according to Silverman, “He never liked the name Ralph, and after he researched it, he said he found that the most successful people had two first names.”

James sold the Radio Tokyo studio in 1989 to concentrate on a newfound infatuation with the hurdy-gurdy, a medieval instrument that sounds like a cross between a violin and bagpipes. He spent much of the 1990s playing and recording medieval music and released a series of albums of hurdy-gurdy music.

“He became the hurdy-gurdy guy in L.A. for a while,” Ginn said. James also performed a piece Mozart composed for the instrument with the San Francisco Mozart Festival Orchestra.

“He was really dedicated to the instrument,” said multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, who played with James a number of times in recent years in concerts in San Francisco. “It’s a wonderful, disturbing instrument, but can be really beautiful too. He could do anything with it. It just blew us away the sound he got out of that thing.”

James later took up the Swedish nyckelharpa, a multi-stringed instrument played with a bow, and traveled to Sweden to further study the instrument.


In Extremo began as two projects: a nameless, purely Medieval band, and a rock band. They became known at that time through frequent appearances at Medieval market meetings, at which they performed their acoustic pieces and sold CDs of their renditions of traditional songs. On 11 April 1995, during the recording for that year's season, Michael Rhein (alias Das letzte Einhorn, "The Last Unicorn") found the project name "In Extremo".

Most of the band members perform under stage names. The initial members of the Medieval band were Das letzte Einhorn ("The Last Unicorn", vocals), Flex der Biegsame ("Flex the Flexible", bagpipes), Dr. Pymonte (bagpipes), Conny Fuchs (who left the band before the official release date, due to her pregnancy, and was replaced by Dr. Pymonte) and Sen Pusterbalg (replaced shortly after the official release by Yellow Pfeiffer, "Yellow Piper", bagpipes). The rock band originally consisted of Thomas der Münzer ("Thomas the Coiner", guitar), Der Morgenstern ("The Morning Star", drums), and Die Lutter ("The Lutter", bass guitar). Der Münzer subsequently left the band and, as of 2000 [update] , the band's guitarist is Van Lange ("The Long One"). As noted below, almost all of the band members play multiple instruments.

The increasing number of visitors, success of their CDs, and the popular interest, as well as cross-pollination from groups such as Corvus Corax and Bathory, encouraged In Extremo in 1995 to attempt to start a band combining bagpipes and other traditional instruments with rock guitars. The result was the current incarnation of In Extremo, a rock group that integrates modern instruments like the drum set, electric bass and guitar with the acoustic elements previously used for the Medieval songs, and which plays both types of music as well as a hybrid of the two. [1]

In August 1996, they began work on the first In Extremo album, which already contained two tracks of the new rock project. Because the album had no official name, it became known as Gold because of the golden cover. In February 1997, like the single Der Galgen ("The Gallows"), it quickly sold out in Medieval markets.

In Extremo played separately as a Medieval and a rock band, until on 29 March 1997, when they played their first live rock concert. Since that time, they have given this date as their date of establishment. The two projects were officially merged on 11 January 1998. April 1998 saw the first "high occupancy" In Extremo concert in the Rabenstein castle in Brandenburg.

Over the years, their music became more heavy metal based, while at the same time becoming increasingly commercially successful. The classical instruments, however – bagpipes, shawms, and lutes – still play a large role. The band is likewise noted for their conspicuous stage costumes and known for using pyrotechnics in their concerts, including Der Morgenstern playing cymbals which have been set on fire.

On 26 February 2010 In Extremo announced that Der Morgenstern left the band because of musical differences via their homepage. On 11 June, Florian "Specki T.D." Speckardt was announced as his replacement on drums. Since then, they have proceeded to release 3 albums: Sterneneisen, Kunstraub, and Quid Pro Quo, all of which have reached the top 10 in the German charts, with Sterneneisen and Quid Pro Quo both having number 1 positions for a time. Their 13th album, Kompass zur Sonne, was scheduled to be released in May 2020, [2] but was delayed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On 30 July 2020, they played an online livestream concert for Wacken World Wide. [3]

Appearances Edit

The band's first major appearance was in the first part of the 2001 video game Gothic. A group of traveling musicians called 'In-Extremo' plays their version of the song "Herr Mannelig", from the album Verehrt und Angespien, by the gallows outside the Old Camp Castle in the second chapter of the game.

With their success, the music programs also began to pay attention to In Extremo. They were invited on the television program Viva Interactive, where they gave a fifteen-minute call-and-response and played two songs. They rejected at that time an invitation to Top of the Pops to play Küss Mich ("Kiss Me"), because it was, according to Das letzte Einhorn, not their environment. Nevertheless, they did accept a further invitation to TotP in 2005 and played Nur Ihr Allein ("Only You Alone").

At the same time, their audience grew with live appearances, from marketplaces to festivals like Rock am Ring, the Taubertal Festival, and the Nova Rock in Austria. Their largest public appearance however, had In Extremo opening for the farewell tour of Böhse Onkelz in June 2005, with about 120,000 spectators.

In Extremo last participated on 9 February 2006, in the Bundesvision Song Contest of Stefan Raab for the Free State of Thuringia Das letzte Einhorn was born in Dingelstädt and grew up in Leinefelde. Both cities lie in North Thuringia. The group occupied the third spot with "Liam (German)". Before, they had introduced themselves on 2 February on the TV show TV total.

In Extremo played further in 2006 at the Wacken Open Air, as well as on the M'era Luna Festival in Hildesheim. At the end of 2006 they played in the framework their "10 Year Anniversary Tour" in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Success Edit

The first In Extremo album that attracted attention was Verehrt und Angespien ("Worshipped and Spat At"). It achieved an at the time sensational 11th place in the German album charts. The subsequent album, Sünder ohne Zügel ("Unbridled Sinners"), got to the 10th place.

The band had much success with the album "7" it came in 3rd place on the German charts. The video of the single Küss Mich was frequently shown on German music television. The singles reached high chart placements.

The eighth album Mein Rasend Herz [4] ("My Racing Heart") achieved third place on the album charts in 2005. [5] Three singles were published from this album: Nur Ihr Allein ("Only You Alone") on 17 May 2005, Horizont ("Horizon") on 12 September 2005, and "Liam (German)" on 3 February 2006. On 10 February 2006, the second live CD/DVD, "Raue Spree", was published, coming in at 4th place of the German charts. In addition, the CD "7" and the DVD "Raue Spree" achieved gold status at the beginning of 2007.

The ninth album Sängerkrieg [6] ("Singers' War") went first place on the album charts of Germany on 23 May 2008. [7] In Austria it reached the thirteenth and in Switzerland the twenty-second place. In Germany it was the 41st best-selling album of the year in 2008.

Besides the electric guitar, bass, and drum set, In Extremo defines itself by unconventional (for a rock band) instruments mainly of Medieval origin. They include hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes, Uilleann Pipes, shawm, nyckelharpa, harp, cittern, tromba marina, hammered dulcimer, Klangbaum, and various types of drums and percussion. Bagpipes are the most conspicuous of these instruments, as Dr. Pymonte, Yellow Pfeiffer, and Flex der Biegsame all play bagpipes, sometimes all three at once. All of the band members play multiple instruments, and frequently rotate instruments between songs Das letzte Einhorn frequently plays a cittern during certain songs, such as Ai Vis A Lo Lop.

Their bagpipes were partially made by Dr. Pymonte, but are also partially built by a well-known pipe builder. The band also uses a custom-built frame drum covered in zebra skin, called Das Pferd ("The Horse"). Most of the other acoustic instruments, such as their shawms, are only made by a few other instrument builders.

Some lyrics are not written by the band, but some – like the instruments – from traditional songs written during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Many of the lyrics to the band's repertoire of Medieval songs come from church writings (e.g. Wessebronner Gebet), Benedictine writings (e.g. Raue See), or are "trad. arr.", meaning traditional songs with unknown authors, rearranged by the band (e.g. Merseburger Zaubersprüche, Tannhuser, Poc Vecem). The band also frequently uses songs from the Carmina Burana, a Medieval collection of songs, as well as lyrics written as poetry by the 15th-century French poet François Villon (Rotes Haar, "Red Hair" and Erdbeermund, "Strawberry Mouth" translated into German by Paul Zech).

The band also uses poems from later writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Der Rattenfänger, "The Ratcatcher") and Ludwig Uhland, who wrote Des Sängers Fluch ("The Singer's Curse") – which In Extremo changed to be called Spielmannsfluch ("The Minstrel's Curse"). For the album Mein Rasend Herz, In Extremo originally wrote the lyrics to the song "Liam" in German, after which it was translated into Irish by Rea Garvey, who was also a guest singer on the song.

The history of the hurdy-gurdy

The origin of the hurdy-gurdy remains unclear. Source material provides no specific proof that the instrument was used in the East before its appearance in Europe. During the Gothic period a large ancestor of the hurdy-gurdy, the organistrum, was used in cloisters and monastic schools to teach music, perform religious polyphony and provide correct intonation for the congregational singing. The name "organistrum" was probably derived from the Latin "organum," meaning in its broadest sense an instrument on which several parts of the instrument's "body" are adapted to a certain function and working together analogous to the organ. Due to the size of the organistrum (between 1,5 and 2 metres long and fiddle-or guitar shaped), it must be played by two men, set horizontally across their laps. One man operated the tangents while the other turned the crank, making the three strings sound simultaneously. The pitches on an organistrum were set according to Pythagorean temperament. An early depiction of an organistrum is to be found in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (Spain, 1168&ndash1188) in a sculpture over the "Portico de la Gloria."

The most important role of the hurdy-gurdy was its function in secular music. During the early thirteenth century it had been completely transformed into a much smaller, portable device known as a chifonie (French) or symphonia (from Greek sym-phonos = harmonious sounds), played by a single musician. Numerous literary references from the Middle Ages show that the hurdy-gurdy was found among other string instruments, usually paired with the plucked varieties. Sometimes it was associated with bourdon instruments such as the vielle (the medieval fiddle).

The complete page from the Luttrell Psalter to Psalm 99, with marginal figures playing handbells, a portative organ, bagpipes, a symphonia, and the nakers. British Library London. Elders playing an organistrum.
Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

The hurdy-gurdy was frequently used to accompany the chansons de geste with instrumental preludes and interludes and, when appropriate, to double the vocal line. Although the hurdy-gurdy found many supporters in secular life during the fifteenth century, there is evidence from various depictions that it was still popular in religious circles. One fine example is an illustration from the Italian manuscript, called the Sforza Book of Hours 1 Milano, c. 1490) today housed in the British Library London (3 for images). A page with an Alleluya hymn shows as a decorative motif an angel playing an oval-shaped hurdy-gurdy, similar to the commonly known form, with seven or eight keys (some are hidden by the angel's hand), giving it a range of an octave. 2

The early medieval form of the hurdy-gurdy was the box-shaped symphonia, here a reconstruction according to the motifs in the Luttrell Psalter.
A look inside a symphonia. The interior pegbox, two drones, tuneable tangents, a bridge leading the strings, and the resin-coated wooden wheel connected to the crank outsideand the resin-coated wooden wheel connected to the crank outside the instrument are visible. The strings are cotton wrapped to keep the circular bow&mdashthe wheel&mdashfrom wearing through the strings.

Retrowange nouvelle (Jaques de Cambrai, Trouvère thirteenth century), played on a symphonia by Riccardo Delfino, hurdy-gurdy maker ( Helmut Gotschy's site)

The hurdy-gurdy eventually left the cloister environment altogether and became firmly established as a minstrel instrument. Its spread was facilitated by wandering minstrels and troubadours, who found employment in increasing numbers at the flourishing courts and towns. Gradually, the church began to accept their participation in religious processions and similar events. In this way the hurdy-gurdy insinuated itself into every social level of Western society, from the nobility to simple village peasants. One could hear it as an accompaniment to dance music as well as in the orchestra at the popular mystery plays.

The reputation of the hurdy-gurdy began to slowly decline as increasing numbers of poor took it up in order to eek out a meager living although some had hoped to aspire to the status of the troubadours who received generous compensation ("laden with gifts"). However, due the swelling numbers of hurdy-gurdy players and the shift in musical taste which demanded greater polyphonic capabilities than the hurdy-gurdy could offer, the instrument fell out of favor amongst the nobility and was relegated to the very lowest social classes composed of peasants, beggars and blind musicians. 3

De liereman (The hurdy-gurdy player)
Nicolaes Maes
c. 1656/58
Dordrechts Museum De liereman (detail)
(The hurdy-gurdy player, detail)
Nicolaes Maes

As a result of its decline in prestige the hurdy-gurdy was tagged with names like the German Bauernleier (peasant's lyre) or Bettlerleier (beggar's lyre). While Michael Praetorius in his Syntagma Musicum (1619) called it the Bawren vnnd vmblauffenden Weiber Leyre ("a lyre for peasants and traipsing women"), Marin Mersenne in his Harmonie universelle (1636) specifically calls it a blind beggar's instrument, "played only by the poor, and particularly by the blind who earn a living with the instrument." 4

The loss of the hurdy-gurdy's respectability is evident in almost all paintings of the time showing a hurdy-gurdy player. A decree from 1651 had already instructed the public order official to make sure that travelling musicians had proper licenses: "The hurdygurdyists, both men and women should be removed completely so that we no longer need to see their vulgar and disorderly talk and gestures which the traveling musicians delight in cultivating together with other impertinances." Paintings by Brueghel and Bosch also reflect the negative symbolic value imputed to the hurdy-gurdy by emphasizing a supposed connection between physical and moral blindness (see also below: Kahren Jones Hellerstedt).

A Hurdy-gurdy Player Surrounded by Village Children(detail)
David Vinckboons
Oil on panel, 43.2 x 73.6 cm.
Private collection

The hurdy-gurdies represented in Dutch/Flemish seventeenth century paintings generally refer to the Renaissance form as it appears in Michael Praetorius' Syntagma Musicum (Leipzig 1619). These were universally playable instruments adapted for Renaissance and early Baroque dance music and for the accompaniment of ballads.

In the late seventeenth century, the hurdy-gurdy enjoyed a rebirth at the French court since it appeared to evoke the nostalgia of rustic past. During the reign of Louis XIV the Arcadian ideal of the tranquility of a country life in accordance with nature, gained great favor at the court. The king frivolously indulged in every kind of rural pastime, and the whole court followed. About 1720 the great Versailles luthier Henri Bâton developed the classic lute and guitar shapes used for hurdy-gurdies to the present day. He also improved its harsh, rasping sound, making it more suitable for chamber music. His son Charles wrote numerous suites and sonatas for one or two hurdy-gurdies with and without continuo as well as chamber concertos for the hurdy-gurdy together with other instruments. Other builders such as Pierre and Jean Louvet (middle eighteenth century) or Jean-Nicolas Lambert sought to improve the capabilities of the instrument. Their instruments possess a remarkable beauty, inlaid with pearl and surmounted by a carved head at the end of the pegbox.

A hurdy-gurdy in Baroque guitar-style form based on the designs developed by Henry Bâton. It has a quieter and distinctively sweet sound and the decoration shows the traditional carved peghead and inlaid edging.

A lute-form hurdy-gurdy. The large body gives the drones a large base. The curved shell gives the melody and the 'trumpet' gives the necessary carrying power.

During the eighteenth century the hurdy-gurdy shared its repertory with the small bagpipe, the musette or "musette de cour" (see The Bagpipe). However, since the encompasses of the two instruments were different, their repertories, though overlapping, were not interchangeable. Furthermore, while the hurdy-gurdy remained largely an amateur instrument, the musette gained a permanent place in the opera orchestra, especially for the popular pastoral plays of the time. Numerous composers, such as Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, or the aforementioned Charles Bâton, and even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Vivaldi wrote music for the hurdy-gurdy.

By 1760, the hurdy-gurdy had begun to decline as a salon instrument, but it continued to be used for playing arrangements of popular tunes, especially by street musicians. The tradition of the Savoyards, 5 who had fled the poverty of their homeland to make their living on the streets playing the hurdy-gurdy, provided stories for many musical stage works. In the nineteenth century, the hurdy-gurdy was found throughout central France and in parts of Brittany, northern France and Belgium. It was frequently played with bagpipes for public dances and at weddings where the repertory consisted of waltzes, mazurkas, bransles and bourrées.

By the twentieth century the hurdy-gurdy began to die out, but in the revival of folk traditions in the 1960s it arose again and led to the foundation of festivals (above all in Saint Chartier, Indre départment, central France) and even a hurdy-gurdy museum at Montluçon (Auvergne, France) which possesses one of the largest collections of its kind, now serving as center for studies. Today the hurdy-gurdy is occasionaly employed by rock and jazz musicians.


Donovan was born on 10 May 1946, in Maryhill, Glasgow, [6] [7] to Donald and Winifred (née Phillips) Leitch. His grandmothers were Irish. [8] [9] He contracted polio as a child. The disease and treatment left him with a limp. [10] His family moved to the new town of Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England. Influenced by his family's love of folk music, he began playing the guitar at 14. He enrolled in art school but soon dropped out, to live out his beatnik aspirations by going on the road. [11]

1964–65: Rise to fame Edit

Returning to Hatfield, Donovan spent several months playing in local clubs, absorbing the folk scene around his home in St Albans, learning the crosspicking guitar technique from local players such as Mac MacLeod and Mick Softley and writing his first songs. In 1964, he travelled to Manchester with Gypsy Dave, then spent the summer in Torquay, Devon. In Torquay he stayed with Mac MacLeod and took up busking, studying the guitar, and learning traditional folk and blues. [12] [13]

In late 1964, Donovan was offered a management and publishing contract by Peter Eden and Geoff Stephens of Pye Records in London, for which he recorded a 10-track demo tape (later released on iTunes), which included the original of his first single, "Catch the Wind", and "Josie". The first song revealed the influence of Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who had also influenced Bob Dylan. Dylan comparisons followed for some time. [14] In an interview with KFOK radio in the US on 14 June 2005, MacLeod said: "The press were fond of calling Donovan a Dylan clone as they had both been influenced by the same sources: Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Jesse Fuller, Woody Guthrie, and many more." [ citation needed ]

While recording the demo, Donovan befriended Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, who was recording nearby. He had recently met Jones' ex-girlfriend, Linda Lawrence, who is the mother of Jones' son, Julian Brian (Jones) Leitch. [15] The on-off romantic relationship that developed over five years was a force in Donovan's career. She influenced Donovan's music but refused to marry him and she moved to the United States for several years in the late 1960s. They met by chance in 1970 and married soon after. Donovan had other relationships – one of which resulted in the birth of his first two children, Donovan Leitch and Ione Skye, both of whom became actors.

Donovan and Dylan Edit

During Bob Dylan's trip to the UK in the spring of 1965, the British music press were making comparisons of the two singer-songwriters which they presented as a rivalry. This prompted The Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones to say,

We've been watching Donovan too. He isn't too bad a singer but his stuff sounds like Dylan's. His 'Catch The Wind' sounds like 'Chimes of Freedom'. He's got a song, 'Hey Tangerine Eyes' and it sounds like Dylan's 'Mr. Tambourine Man'. [16]

Donovan is the undercurrent In D. A. Pennebaker's film Dont Look Back documenting Dylan's tour. Near the start of the film, Dylan opens a newspaper and exclaims, "Donovan? Who is this Donovan?" and his associates spur the rivalry on by telling Dylan that Donovan is a better guitar player, but that he had only been around for three months. Throughout the film Donovan's name is seen next to Dylan's on newspaper headlines and on posters in the background, and Dylan and his friends refer to him consistently.

Donovan finally appears in the second half of the film, along with Derroll Adams, in Dylan's suite at the Savoy Hotel despite Donovan's management refusing to allow journalists to be present, saying they did not want "any stunt on the lines of the disciple meeting the messiah". [17] According to Pennebaker, Dylan told him not to film the encounter, and Donovan played a song that sounded just like "Mr. Tambourine Man" but with different words. When confronted with lifting his tune, Donovan said that he thought it was an old folk song. [18] Once the camera rolled, Donovan plays his song, "To Sing For You", and then asks Dylan to play "Baby Blue". Dylan later told Melody Maker: "He played some songs to me. . I like him. . He's a nice guy." Melody Maker noted that Dylan had mentioned Donovan in his song "Talking World War Three Blues" and that the crowd had jeered, to which Dylan had responded backstage: "I didn't mean to put the guy down in my songs. I just did it for a joke, that's all."

In an interview for the BBC in 2001 to mark Dylan's 60th birthday, Donovan acknowledged Dylan as an influence early in his career while distancing himself from "Dylan clone" allegations:

The one who really taught us to play and learn all the traditional songs was Martin Carthy – who incidentally was contacted by Dylan when Bob first came to the UK. Bob was influenced, as all American folk artists are, by the Celtic music of Ireland, Scotland and England. But in 1962 we folk Brits were also being influenced by some folk Blues and the American folk-exponents of our Celtic Heritage . Dylan appeared after Woody [Guthrie], Pete [Seeger] and Joanie [Baez] had conquered our hearts, and he sounded like a cowboy at first but I knew where he got his stuff – it was Woody at first, then it was Jack Kerouac and the stream-of-consciousness poetry which moved him along. But when I heard 'Blowin' in the Wind' it was the clarion call to the new generation – and we artists were encouraged to be as brave in writing our thoughts in music . We were not captured by his influence, we were encouraged to mimic him – and remember every British band from the Stones to the Beatles were copying note for note, lick for lick, all the American pop and blues artists – this is the way young artists learn. There's no shame in mimicking a hero or two – it flexes the creative muscles and tones the quality of our composition and technique. It was not only Dylan who influenced us – for me he was a spearhead into protest, and we all had a go at his style. I sounded like him for five minutes – others made a career of his sound. Like troubadours, Bob and I can write about any facet of the human condition. To be compared was natural, but I am not a copyist. [19]

Collaboration with Mickie Most Edit

In late 1965, Donovan split with his original management and signed with Ashley Kozak, who was working for Brian Epstein's NEMS Enterprises. Kozak introduced Donovan to American businessman Allen Klein (later manager of the Rolling Stones and in their final waning months, the Beatles). [20] Klein in turn introduced Donovan to producer Mickie Most, [21] who had chart-topping productions with the Animals, Lulu, and Herman's Hermits. Most produced all Donovan's recordings during this period, although Donovan said in his autobiography that some recordings were self-produced, with little input from Most. Their collaboration produced successful singles and albums, recorded with London session players including Big Jim Sullivan, [22] Jack Bruce, [23] Danny Thompson, [24] and future Led Zeppelin members John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page. [25]

Many of Donovan's late 1960s recordings featured musicians including his key musical collaborator John Cameron on piano, Danny Thompson (from Pentangle) or Spike Heatley on upright bass, Tony Carr on drums and congas and Harold McNair on saxophone and flute. Carr's conga style and McNair's flute playing are a feature of many recordings. Cameron, McNair and Carr also accompanied Donovan on several concert tours and can be heard on his 1968 live album Donovan in Concert.

Sunshine Superman Edit

By 1966, Donovan had shed the Dylan/Guthrie influences and become one of the first British pop musicians to adopt flower power. He immersed himself in jazz, blues, Eastern music, and the new generation of counterculture-era US West Coast bands such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. He was entering his most creative phase as a songwriter and recording artist, working with Mickie Most and with arranger, musician, and jazz fan John Cameron. Their first collaboration was "Sunshine Superman", one of the first psychedelic pop records. [21]

Donovan's rise stalled in December 1965 when Billboard broke news of the impending production deal between Klein, Most, and Donovan, and then reported that Donovan was to sign with Epic Records in the US. Despite Kozak's denials, Pye Records dropped the single and a contract dispute ensued, because Pye had a US licensing arrangement with Warner Bros. Records. As a result, the UK release of the Sunshine Superman LP was delayed for months, robbing it of the impact it would have had. Another outcome was that the UK and US versions of this and later albums differed – three of his Epic LPs were not released in the UK, and Sunshine Superman was issued in a different form in each country. Several tracks on his late 1960s Epic (US) LPs were not released in the UK for many years. The legal dispute continued into early 1966. During the hiatus, Donovan holidayed in Greece, where he wrote "Writer in the Sun", [26] inspired by rumours that his recording career was over. He toured the US and appeared on episode 23 of Pete Seeger's television show Rainbow Quest in 1966 with Shawn Phillips and Rev. Gary Davis. After his return to London, he developed his friendship with Paul McCartney and contributed the line "sky of blue and sea of green" to "Yellow Submarine". [27]

By spring 1966, the American contract problems had been resolved, and Donovan signed a $100,000 deal with Epic Records. Donovan and Most went to CBS Studios in Los Angeles, where they recorded tracks for an LP, much composed during the preceding year. Although folk elements were prominent, the album showed increasing influence of jazz, American west coast psychedelia and folk rock – especially the Byrds. The LP sessions were completed in May, and "Sunshine Superman" was released in the US as a single in June. It was a success, selling 800,000 in six weeks and reaching No. 1. It went on to sell over one million, and was awarded a gold disc. [28] The LP followed in August, preceded by orders of 250,000 copies, reached No. 11 on the US album chart and sold over half a million. [28]

The US version of the Sunshine Superman album is in chamber-style folk-jazz arrangements, and features instruments including acoustic bass, sitar, saxophone, tablas and congas, harpsichord, strings and oboe. Highlights include the swinging "The Fat Angel", which Donovan's book confirms was written for Cass Elliot of the Mamas & the Papas. The song is notable for naming the Jefferson Airplane before they became known internationally and before Grace Slick joined. Other tracks include "Bert's Blues" (a tribute to Bert Jansch), "Guinevere", and "Legend of a Girl Child Linda", a track featuring voice, acoustic guitar and a small orchestra for over six minutes. [29]

The album also features the sitar, which was played by American folk-rock singer Shawn Phillips. Donovan met Phillips in London in 1965, and he became a friend and early collaborator, playing acoustic guitar and sitar on recordings including Sunshine Superman as well as accompanying Donovan at concerts and on Pete Seeger's TV show. Creatively, Phillips served as a silent partner in the gestation of many of Donovan's songs from the era, with the singer later acknowledging that Phillips primarily composed "Season of the Witch". [30] Several songs including the title track had a harder edge. The driving, jazzy "The Trip", named after a Los Angeles club name, chronicled an LSD trip during his time in L.A. and is loaded with references to his sojourn on the West Coast, and names Dylan and Baez. The third "heavy" song was "Season of the Witch". [ citation needed ] Recorded with American and British session players, it features Donovan's first recorded performance on electric guitar. The song was covered by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity on their first LP in 1967, and Al Kooper and Stephen Stills recorded an 11-minute version on the 1968 album, Super Session. Donovan's version is also in the closing sequence of the Gus Van Sant film, To Die For. [ citation needed ]

Because of earlier contractual problems, the UK version of Sunshine Superman LP was not released for another nine months. This was a compilation of tracks from the US albums Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow. Donovan did not choose the tracks. [ citation needed ]

Mellow Yellow Edit

On 24 October 1966, Epic released the single "Mellow Yellow", arranged by John Paul Jones and purportedly featuring Paul McCartney on backing vocals, but not in the chorus. [21] In his autobiography Donovan explained "electrical banana" was a reference to a "yellow-coloured vibrator". [31] The song became Donovan's signature tune in the US and reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, No. 3 on the Cash Box chart, and earned a gold record award for sales of more than one million in the US. [28]

Through the first half of 1967, Donovan worked on a double-album studio project, which he produced. In January he gave a concert at the Royal Albert Hall accompanied by a ballerina who danced during a 12-minute performance of "Golden Apples". On 14 January, New Musical Express reported he was to write incidental music for a National Theatre production of As You Like It, but this did not come to fruition. His version of "Under the Greenwood Tree" did appear on "A Gift from a Flower to a Garden".

In March Epic released the Mellow Yellow LP (not released in the UK), which reached No. 14 in the US album charts, plus a non-album single, "Epistle to Dippy", a Top 20 hit in the US. Written as an open letter to a school friend, the song had a pacifist message as well as psychedelic imagery. The real "Dippy" was in the British Army in Malaysia. According to Brian Hogg, who wrote the liner notes for the Donovan boxed set Troubadour, Dippy heard the song, contacted Donovan and left the army. On 9 February 1967, Donovan was among guests invited by the Beatles to Abbey Road Studios for the orchestral overdub for "A Day in the Life", the finale to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. [32]

Arrest Edit

In mid-1966, Donovan became the first high-profile British pop star to be arrested for possession of cannabis. [10] Donovan's drug use was mostly restricted to cannabis, with occasional use of LSD and mescaline. [ citation needed ] His LSD use is thought to be referenced indirectly in some of his lyrics. [10] Public attention was drawn to his marijuana use by the TV documentary A Boy Called Donovan in early 1966, which showed the singer and friends smoking cannabis at a party thrown by the film crew. Donovan's arrest proved to be the first in a long series involving the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. In early 1967, Donovan was subject of an exposé in the News of the World. [33]

According to Donovan, the article was based on an interview by an ex-girlfriend of his friend Gypsy Dave. The article was the first in a three-part series, Drugs & Pop Stars – Facts That Will Shock You. It was quickly shown some claims were false. A News of the World reporter claimed to have spent an evening with Mick Jagger, who allegedly discussed his drug use and offered drugs to companions. He had mistaken Brian Jones for Jagger, and Jagger sued the newspaper for libel. Among other supposed revelations were claims that Donovan and stars including members of the Who, Cream, Rolling Stones and the Moody Blues regularly smoked marijuana, used other drugs, and held parties where the recently banned hallucinogen LSD was used, specifically naming the Who's Pete Townshend and Cream's Ginger Baker.

It emerged later that the News of the World reporters were passing information to the police. In the late 1990s, The Guardian said News of the World reporters had alerted police to the party at Keith Richards's home, which was raided on 12 February 1967. Although Donovan's was not as sensational as the later arrests of Jagger and Richards, he was refused entry to the US until late 1967. He could not appear at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June that year. [34]

1967–69: International success Edit

In July 1967, Epic released "There Is a Mountain", which just missed the US top ten and was later used as the basis for the Allman Brothers Band's "Mountain Jam". In September, Donovan toured the US, backed by a jazz group and accompanied by his father, who introduced the show. Later that month, Epic released Donovan's fifth album, a set entitled, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden, the first rock music box set and only the third pop-rock double album released. It was split into halves. The first, "Wear Your Love Like Heaven", was for people of his generation who would one day be parents the second, "For Little Ones", was songs Donovan had written for coming generations. Worried it might be a poor seller, Epic boss Clive Davis also insisted the albums be split and sold separately in the US (the "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" album cover was photographed at Bodiam Castle), but his fears were unfounded – although it took time, the original boxed set sold steadily, eventually peaking at 19 in the US album chart and achieving gold record status in the US in early 1970.

The psychedelic and mystical overtones were unmistakable – the front cover featured an infra-red photograph by Karl Ferris showing Donovan in a robe holding flowers and peacock feathers, while the back photo showed him holding hands with Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The liner notes included an appeal for young people to give up drugs. His disavowal of drugs came after his time with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, a topic discussed in a two-part interview for the first two issues of Rolling Stone. [35]

In late 1967 Donovan contributed two songs to the Ken Loach film Poor Cow. "Be Not Too Hard" was a musical setting of Christopher Logue's poem September Song, and was later recorded by such artists as Joan Baez and Shusha Guppy. The title track, originally entitled "Poor Love", was the B-side of his next single, "Jennifer Juniper", which was inspired by Jenny Boyd, sister of George Harrison's wife, Pattie Boyd and was another top 40 hit in the US. Donovan developed interest in eastern mysticism and claims to have interested the Beatles in transcendental meditation. [ citation needed ]

In early 1968 he was part of the group that traveled to the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh. The visit gained worldwide attention thanks to the presence of all four Beatles as well as Beach Boys lead singer Mike Love, as well as actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence (who inspired Lennon to write "Dear Prudence"). According to a 1968 Paul McCartney interview with Radio Luxembourg, [36] it was during this time that Donovan taught Lennon and McCartney finger-picking guitar styles including the clawhammer, which he had learned from Mac MacLeod. Lennon used this technique on songs including "Dear Prudence", "Julia", "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and "Look at Me", and McCartney with "Blackbird" and "Mother Nature's Son". [37] Donovan's next single, in May 1968, was the psychedelic "Hurdy Gurdy Man". The liner notes from EMI's reissues say the song was intended for Mac MacLeod, who had a heavy rock band called Hurdy Gurdy. After hearing MacLeod's version, Donovan considered giving it to Jimi Hendrix, but when Most heard it, he convinced Donovan to record it himself. Donovan tried to get Hendrix to play, but he was on tour. Jimmy Page played electric guitar in some studio sessions and is credited with playing on the song. [38] [39] Alternatively, it is credited to Alan Parker. [ citation needed ]

Donovan credits Page and "Allen Hollsworth" (a misspelling of Allan Holdsworth) as the "guitar wizards" for the song, saying they created "a new kind of metal folk". [40]

Since John Bonham and John Paul Jones also played, Donovan said perhaps the session inspired the formation of Led Zeppelin. [40] The heavier sound of "Hurdy Gurdy Man" was an attempt by Most and Donovan to reach a wider audience in the US, where hard-rock groups like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were having an impact. The song became one of Donovan's biggest hits, making the Top 5 in the UK and the US, and the Top 10 in Australia. [ citation needed ]

In July 1968, Epic released Donovan in Concert, the recording of his Anaheim concert in September 1967. The cover featured only a painting by Fleur Cowles (with neither the artist's name nor the title). The album contained two of his big hits and songs which would have been new to the audience. The expanded double CD from 2006 contained "Epistle To Derroll", a tribute to one of his formative influences, Derroll Adams. The album also includes extended group arrangements of "Young Girl Blues" and "The Pebble and the Man", a song later reworked and retitled as "Happiness Runs". In the summer of 1968, Donovan worked on a second LP of children's songs, released in 1971 as the double album, HMS Donovan. In September, Epic released a single, "Laléna", a subdued acoustic ballad which reached the low 30s in the US. The album The Hurdy Gurdy Man followed (not released in the UK), continuing the style of the Mellow Yellow LP and reached 20 in the US, despite containing two earlier hits, the title track and "Jennifer Juniper". [ citation needed ]

After another US tour in the autumn he collaborated with Paul McCartney, who was producing Postcard, the debut LP by Welsh singer Mary Hopkin. Hopkin covered three Donovan songs: "Lord Of The Reedy River", "Happiness Runs" and "Voyage of the Moon". McCartney returned the favour by playing tambourine and singing backing vocals on Donovan's next single, "Atlantis", which was released in the UK (with "I Love My Shirt" as the B-side) in late November and reached 23. [2]

Early in 1969, the comedy film If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium featured music by Donovan the title tune was written by him and sung by J. P. Rags, and he also performed "Lord of the Reedy River" in the film as a singer at a youth hostel. On 20 January, Epic released the single, "To Susan on the West Coast Waiting", with "Atlantis" as the B-side. The A-side, a gentle calypso-styled song, contained another anti-war message, and became a moderate Top 40 US hit. However, when DJs in America and Australia flipped it and began playing "Atlantis", that became a hit. The gentle "Atlantis" formed the backdrop to a violent scene in Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas. "Atlantis" was revived in 2000 for an episode of Futurama titled "The Deep South" (2ACV12) which aired on 16 April that year. For this episode Donovan recorded a satirical version of the song describing the Lost City of Atlanta which featured in the episode. [ citation needed ]

In March 1969 (too soon to include "Atlantis"), Epic and Pye released Donovan's Greatest Hits, which included four previous singles – "Epistle To Dippy", "There is a Mountain", "Jennifer Juniper" and "Laléna", as well as rerecorded versions of "Colours" and "Catch The Wind" (which had been unavailable to Epic because of Donovan's contractual problems) and stereo versions of "Sunshine Superman" (previously unissued full length version) and "Season of the Witch". It became the most successful album of his career it reached 4 in the US, became a million-selling gold record, and stayed on the Billboard album chart for more than a year. On 26 June 1969 the track "Barabajagal (Love Is Hot)" (recorded May 1969), which gained him a following on the rave scene decades later, was released, reaching 12 in the UK but charting less strongly in the US. This time he was backed by the original Jeff Beck Group, featuring Beck on lead guitar, Ronnie Wood on bass, Nicky Hopkins on piano, and Micky Waller on drums. The Beck group was under contract to Most and it was Most's idea to team them with Donovan to bring a heavier sound to Donovan's work, while introducing a lyrical edge to Beck's. [ citation needed ]

On 7 July 1969, Donovan performed at the first show in the second season of free rock concerts in Hyde Park, London, which also featured Blind Faith, Richie Havens, the Edgar Broughton Band and the Third Ear Band. In September 1969, the "Barabajagal" album reached 23 in the US. Only the recent "Barabajagal"/"Trudi" single and "Superlungs My Supergirl" were 1969 recordings, the remaining tracks [ clarification needed ] were from sessions in London in May 1968 and in Los Angeles in November 1968. [ citation needed ]

In the late 60s to the early 70s he lived at Stein, on the Isle of Skye, where he and a group of followers formed a commune and where he was visited by George Harrison. He named his daughter, born 1970, Ione Skye. [41] [42]

1970s: Changes Edit

In late 1969, the relationship with Most ended after an argument over an unidentified recording session in Los Angeles. In the 1995 BBC Radio 2 The Donovan Story, Most recounted:

The only time we ever fell out was in Los Angeles when there was all these, I suppose, big stars of their day, the Stephen Stills-es and the Mama Cass-es, all at the session and nothing was actually being played. Somebody brought some dope into the session and I stopped the session and slung them out. You know you need someone to say it's my session, I'm paying for it. We fell out over that. [43]

Open Road band Edit

Donovan said he wanted to record with someone else, and he and Most did not work together again until Cosmic Wheels (1973). After the rift, Donovan spent two months writing and recording the album Open Road as a member of the rock trio Open Road. Stripping the sound of Most's heavy studio productions down to stuff that could be played by a live band, Donovan dubbed the sound, "Celtic Rock". The album peaked at No. 16 in the US, the third highest of any of his full-length releases to date, but as his concert appearances became less frequent and new artists and styles of popular music began to emerge, his commercial success began to decline. Donovan said:

I was exhausted and looking for roots and new directions. I checked into Morgan Studios in London and stayed a long while creating Open Road and the HMS Donovan sessions. Downstairs was McCartney, doing his solo album. I had left Mickie after great years together. The new decade dawned and I had accomplished everything any young singer songwriter could achieve. What else was there to do but to experiment beyond the fame and into the new life, regardless of the result? [43]

Donovan's plan for Open Road was to tour the world for a year, beginning with a boat voyage around the Aegean Sea, documented in the 1970 film, There is an Ocean. This was partially on the advice from his management to go into tax exile, during which he was not to set foot in the UK until April 1971, but after touring to France, Italy, Russia, and Japan, he cut the tour short:

I travelled to Japan and was set to stay out of the UK for a year and earn the largest fees yet for a solo performer, and all tax-free. At the time the UK tax for us was 98%. During that Japanese tour I had a gentle breakdown, which made me decide to break the tax exile. Millions were at stake. My father, my agent they pleaded for me not to step onto the BOAC jet bound for London. I did and went back to my little cottage in the woods. Two days later a young woman came seeking a cottage to rent. It was Linda. [43]

Reunions with Linda Lawrence and Mickie Most Edit

After this reunion, Donovan and Linda married on 2 October 1970 at Windsor register office and honeymooned in the Caribbean. Donovan dropped out of the round of tour promotion and concentrated on writing, recording and his family. The largely self-produced children's album HMS Donovan in 1971, went unreleased in the US and did not gain a wide audience. During an 18-month tax exile in Ireland (1971–72), he wrote for the 1972 film The Pied Piper in the title role, and for Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972). The title song from the Zeffirelli film provided Donovan with a publishing windfall in 1974 when it was covered as the B-side of the million-selling US top 5 hit "The Lord's Prayer", by Australia's singing nun, Sister Janet Mead.

After a new deal with Epic, Donovan reunited with Mickie Most in early 1973, resulting in the LP Cosmic Wheels, which featured arrangements by Chris Spedding. [43] It was his last chart success, reaching the top 40 in America and Britain. Late in the year he released Essence To Essence, produced by Andrew Loog Oldham, and a live album recorded in Japan and only released in Japan, which featured an extended version of "Hurdy Gurdy Man" which included an additional verse written by George Harrison in Rishikesh. [44] While recording the album, Alice Cooper invited Donovan to share lead vocals on his song "Billion Dollar Babies". [ citation needed ]

Cosmic Wheels was followed up by two albums that same year: his second concert album, Live in Japan: Spring Tour 1973, and the more introspective Essence to Essence. His last two albums for Epic Records were 7-Tease (1974) and Slow Down World (1976). In 1977, he opened for Yes on their six-month tour of North America and Europe following the release of Going for the One (1977). The 1978 LP, Donovan was on Most's RAK Records in the UK and on Clive Davis' new Arista Records in the US it reunited him for the last time with Most and Cameron, but was not well received at the height of the new wave and did not chart. [ citation needed ]

1980s: occasional appearances Edit

The punk era (1976–1980) provoked a backlash in Britain against the optimism and whimsy of the hippie era, of which Donovan was a prime example. The word "hippie" became pejorative, and Donovan's fortunes suffered. [ citation needed ] In this period he released the albums Neutronica (1980), Love Is Only Feeling (1981), and Lady of the Stars (1984), and guest-starred on Stars on Ice, a half-hour variety show on ice produced by CTV in Toronto. There was a respite when he appeared alongside Sting, Phil Collins, Bob Geldof, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck in the Amnesty International benefit show The Secret Policeman's Other Ball. Accompanied by Danny Thompson, Donovan performed several hits including "Sunshine Superman", "Mellow Yellow", "Colours", "Universal Soldier" and "Catch the Wind". He was also in the performance of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" for the show's finale. Donovan also appeared at the Glastonbury Festival on 18 June 1989 with the band Ozric Tentacles accompanying him onstage.

1990s: a retrospective decade Edit

In 1990 Donovan released a live album featuring new performances of his classic songs. A tribute album to Donovan, Island of Circles, was released by Nettwerk in 1991. Sony's 2-CD boxed set Troubadour: The Definitive Collection 1964–1976 (1992) continued the restoration of his reputation, and was followed by the 1994 release of Four Donovan Originals, which saw his four classic Epic LPs on CD in their original form for the first time in the UK. He found an ally in rap producer and Def Jam label owner Rick Rubin and recorded an album called Sutras for Rubin's American Recordings label. [21]

2000s Edit

In 2000, Donovan narrated and played himself in the Futurama episode "The Deep South" on 16 April with a parody of the song "Atlantis".

A new album, Beat Cafe, on Appleseed Records in 2004, marked a return to the jazzy sound of his 1960s recordings and featured bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Jim Keltner, with production by John Chelew (Blind Boys of Alabama). At a series of Beat Cafe performances in New York, Richard Barone (The Bongos) joined Donovan to sing and read passages from Allen Ginsberg's Howl.

In May 2004, Donovan played "Sunshine Superman" at the wedding concert for the Crown Prince and Crown Princess of Denmark. He released his early demo tapes, Sixty Four, and a re-recording of the Brother Sun, Sister Moon soundtrack on iTunes. A set of his Mickie Most albums was released on 9 May 2005. This EMI set has extra tracks including another song recorded with the Jeff Beck Group. In 2005, his autobiography The Hurdy Gurdy Man was published. In May/June 2005, Donovan toured the UK (Beat Cafe Tour) and Europe with Tom Mansi on double bass, former Damned drummer Rat Scabies and Flipron keyboard player, Joe Atkinson.

In spring/summer 2006, Donovan played British festivals and two dates at Camden's The Jazz Café, London.

In January 2007, Donovan played at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, DC, at Alice Tully Hall, in New York City, and at the Kodak Theatre, in Los Angeles, in conjunction with a presentation by film maker David Lynch supporting the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and world peace. The concert at the Kodak Theatre was filmed by Raven Productions and broadcast on Public television as a pledge drive. Donovan's partnership with the David Lynch Foundation saw him performing concerts through October 2007, as well as giving presentations about Transcendental meditation. He appeared at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, in May 2007, [45] and toured the UK with David Lynch in October 2007. [46]

In March 2007, Donovan played two shows at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. He had planned a spring 2007 release of an album, along with a UK tour. However, he announced the tour was cancelled and the album delayed. He said was in good health but gave no reason for the cancellation. [ citation needed ]

In April 2007, Donovan presented a three-part series on Ravi Shankar for BBC Radio 2. In October 2007 Donovan announced plans for the "Invincible Donovan University" focusing on Transcendental Meditation. It will be near Glasgow or Edinburgh. [47] In October 2007 the DVD, The Donovan Concert—Live in LA, filmed at the Kodak Theatre Los Angeles earlier in the year, was released in the UK. On 6 October 2009, Donovan was honoured as a BMI Icon at the 2009 annual BMI London Awards. [48] The Icon designation is given to BMI songwriters who have had "a unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers". [49]

2010s Edit

In October 2010, Donovan's double CD set Ritual Groove was made available through his website. Prior to the release, he had described it as a multi-media album waiting for videos to be applied.

2020s Edit

On 10 May 2021, the day of his 75th birthday, Donovan released the new track "I Am the Shaman". The song is produced by David Lynch who also directed the accompanying video. [50]

Donovan had a relationship with American model Enid Karl, and they had two children: actor-musician Donovan Leitch in 1967, and actress Ione Skye in 1970. [51] In October of that year, Donovan married Linda Lawrence. [6] They have two children together, Astrella and Oriole. [52] [53] Linda Lawrence was the inspiration for "Sunshine Superman". [54]

He is also the stepfather of Brian Jones' and Linda Lawrence's son, Julian Brian (Jones) Leitch. [15] Jones' biographer Paul Trynka writes, "Unsurprisingly, Julian has found the burden of being Brian's son heavy to bear, despite being brought up with obvious love and sensitivity by his adopted father, Donovan Leitch." [55]

In November 2003, Donovan was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Hertfordshire. [56] [57] He was nominated by Sara Loveridge (who was a student at the University and had interviewed and reviewed Donovan for the university paper in 2001–2002), Andrew Morris, Sara's partner and Donovan researcher/writer and co-nominated by Mac MacLeod. [58]

On 14 April 2012 Donovan was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. [59] [60]

Watch the video: Reverse Dance. Medieval Dance. Hurdy-Gurdy, Organ u0026 Drum (January 2022).