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The Autobiography of Donovan

The Hurdy Gurdy Man

by Donovan Leitch and Donovan

Hardcover, 287 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $24.95 |


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The Hurdy Gurdy Man
Donovan Leitch and Donovan

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Book Summary

In an open and honest memoir chronicling his poetic life and times, one of the 1960s most popular folk artists describes how his unconventional and romantic lyrics and sound ushered in a new vibe to the folk genre of the sixties. 40,000 first printing.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Autobiography Of Donovan

Chapter One
Glasgow, 1954

I liked the danger wi’ Harry. Ah was limpin’, runnin’ wi’ Harry Cadbury across the back of St. Vincent Street. We were in a battle, lobbin’ tin-can grenades over the line at the Anderson Gang. The cans were filled with cold ashes from the tenement refuse. We made the sound of explosions and felt brave.

Lots of the buildin’s in Glasgow were skeletons from the bombing. Harry and me collected shell cases from the rubble of a World War: Spitfires and Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Heinkels.

Oor wee battle over, we climbed the wall intae a ruined tenement—-against the rules. The weak Scottish sun shone on the wallpapered bedrooms, open tae the sky, the mouths of the dead fireplaces gaping.

I was in a bedroom wi’ half a floor and the ceiling caving in. Balancing on a joist, I found a cupboard and opened it. Inside was an old flower vase which had escaped damage. Inside the vase was a collection of Victorian “scraps,” printed scenes of cherubs and young ladies in long dresses and muffs. I was amazed at this find. Harry was a rough-and-tumble Catholic kid. I was a sensitive Proddie boy. Harry saw how much the scraps might get whilst I saw Art and pretty girls to dream on.

Noo Harry was hanging oot a top-floor windae, tearin’ the lead pipe from the eaves. His daddy had taught him this. Soon we had a fire in the back, splintered wood doors and windaes, paint bubblin’ in the flames. Harry cut the lead into small pieces and smelted them in an old tin can. He poured the molten metal into ingots on a house brick. The company name came oot reversed. I was amazed.

The city night fell early in the northern wintery sky. Lights in the windaes shone in the dark tenements. Hungry yins (ones) called up to their mammies for a “piece ‘n, jam.” Bread spread with jam or butter and sugar flew doon from the kitchen sill, wrapped in newspaper. We crunched the sugar in our mooths, red-faced and hands tingling from the cold.

Efter a time, the windaes opened up again and the mammies called across the dark world.

“Are ye there, Harry?”

“Donovan, come up tae yer bed right now!”

I used to sleep wi’ ma mammy. Daddy used to wake me up to kiss me good night, the smell of machine oil on his dungarees. He worked during and after the war as a tool setter in the Rolls-Royce factory that produced the Merlin engine for the Spitfire. He was a self-taught man. He might have made a scholar, had he not been born a poor boy, barefoot and underpaid. Mammy worked as a factory girl.

Donnie and Wynn had waited to begin a family, marrying in 1942, mammy at twenty-six and Daddy thirty. The ceremony was conducted in the side chapel of the Catholic church, as was the custom when a Protestant married a Catholic woman. Wynn was a young beauty who loved to dance, as did all the “Big Band Generation” and you could

See them doon the Barra-Land

Wi’ frizzed and shinny hair

A blondie Ginger Rogers

And a skinny Fred Astaire.

—-Donovan Leitch, “Glasgow Town”

The Second World War ended in the spring of 1945, but it wasn’t until Hiroshima and Nagasaki were vaporized that all the Earth stopped fighting. I was conceived the August of that nuclear holocaust.

In the disruption following the Second World War, three epidemics swept the city: scarlet fever, diphtheria, and polio. The children were hardest hit. The vaccines were too strong, and I was actually given the polio disease this way. So my right leg began to show signs of “wasting.” An operation was performed, cutting the Achilles tendon in the foot, and I wore an ugly leg brace for some time after. It was a long boot made of a hard substance that I wore only at night to give the little leg support. Removing the device would tear the hairs and hurt so much that I cried each morning, painful for my mammy and daddy to watch.

My limpy leg did not hurt, but I could not run fast with the gang so daddy bought a wee two-wheeled pram with a long handle and the boys whizzed me around the back screaming, “The injuns are comin’, the injuns’ll get ye.”

I got battered by some boys. I didn’t fight back. Harry had to fight for me. I jist hiftae find anither way tae beat the boys, I thought.

Daddy would cradle me in his arms and read poetry to me: Robert Service, W. H. Davies, and the Romantics, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and the Visionaries, Blake, Yeats, and, not forgetting the Shakespeare of Scotland, our own Robert Burns. His uncanny memory retained long monologues and difficult poems, a traditional talent of the Celtic race. Oh, how my bardic father would intone magic poems of wandering. He opened a mysterious door to the other world of vision.

One day I turned from my game on the linoleum to see my silver-tongued daddy standing in the doorway, his lips pursed in a smile. He winked at me. I tried to wink back but closed both eyes instead. When I opened them again, he was dressed in a fur parka with sealskin boots and mittens, a mischievous twinkle still in his eye. The parlor had disappeared, snow-capped mountains gleamed in the distance. As my Klondike daddy spoke, poetry came out of his beard in puffs of frozen air, snatches of Robert Service. When he got to the bit about Sam McGee being cremated, I closed my eyes again. I was feart. But Daddy was not feart. He was brave enough to dream. He was telling me it is okay to dream.

At the age of five I stopped sleeping in Mammy’s bed, and instead slept alone in the front room on a convertible sofa covered with brown “American” cloth. The high Edwardian room had a dark plywood dressing table and a wardrobe in the 1940s style, soft and curvy. I remember the tall sash windows and a mood of somber stillness as I lay alone in bed, watching the silhouettes of the passing trams in St. Vincent Street moving across the ceiling.

Across the tramlines was a comic store that sold Superboy, Green Lantern, and the mysterious Mandrake The Magician, and cousin Billy would come round to swop issues with me. I remember my cousin Billy was an artist and he made a drawing for me of a graveyard with old-fashioned soldiers burying an infantryman. I was fascinated to see the drawing of the soul leaving the body. This image is as clear to me now as when I first saw it.

There was a big cupboard in my room where Daddy went to make pictures in his darkroom. He liked to take pictures of weddings and something called a “bar mitzvah.” I didn’t go into the darkroom without knocking. Sometimes Daddy let me stand and watch the white paper in the china tray slip about in the thick water. The magic pictures came from nowhere, and I thought ma daddy so fine to do this. He never said a word. It was so peaceful in there, his secret place.

One night, when he was not making pictures, I slipped into the darkroom and took down a large manual from the shelves. The pages opened at a lovely young woman in the nude. She was smiling, her eyes laughing and her toes painted. I couldn’t stop staring at her soft curves. She stepped out of the book and slid next to me in my bed, her long wavy hair falling over my face as she held me close to her wonderful breasts.

At the back of the posh row of flats at the other end of our street was a large walled garden called The Henney. One morning, Harry and I were peering into the garden through a hole in the old stonework. A little girl was playing on the lawn—-We’d never seen grass anywhere else than the park. She was pretty and skipped up to see the scruffy boys. She lifted her skirt and we gave her a mud pack on her wee girls willy. After school, Mammy was very serious and held my hand as we knocked on the posh door. I was told off for doing a bad thing. I didn’t understand.

Two weeks later, unrepentant, I stood in the dark “close” while an older girl lifted her skirt and pulled her knickers down to show me her smooth quim, fine red hairs, sleek and silky. I was amazed when she then peed in a bottle. Afterwards, Harry said that one of the boys had got television. We all went up to see the wee shiny square of glass in the big wooden sideboard. It was just like the pictures but black and white and not so much fun. We got bored and played in the dark. I thought of the big girl and hoped no one told.

My mammy was the second eldest of seven sisters and two brothers. Her father, Michael Philips, had died soon after the First World War. Mustard gas had damaged his lungs and eventually killed him. They should have received the War Pension but the doctors insisted it was tuberculosis, so the family had only the Widow’s Pension, and all the children had to work.

They fought for country, fought for King,

They won the war, it’s true,

Tae see Germany and Japan,

Ye widnae think it noo.

—-Donovan Leitch, “Glasgow Town”

My daddy was the eldest of two brothers and two sisters. His mother had married twice and outlived both husbands and was known to me as Granny Kelly. She lived on the other side of town, and I remember her dark wee kitchen where we took tea and scones. Uncle Bill still lived with Granny. It was through handsome Uncle Bill that I first heard American folk music. Bill would dress in full tartan sometimes, a silver dirk in his hairy sock. I was surprised to hear later from Scottish comedian Billy Connolly that he knew Bill as “Postie,” a figure of some renown in Glasgow.

I often stayed with my Granny Philips in Argyle Street. Sometimes on Saturday nights when Mammy and Daddy were out dancing, Granny held me over the windowsill two floors up over the street, which frightened my parents, but she did it with all the grandchildren.

Granny was a big woman with tattooed arms. I remember a name of a dead husband in a freckled heart. She had long black hair, streaked with silver. Below us the Saturday night drunks were raving. One night a man was crawling along the pavement, clawing the paving stones, absolutely “legless” as they say.

Another night, at a pub over the road, it was kicking-out time and a crowd had gathered in a circle to watch two women fight. Great roars were heard as one woman tore the peroxide hair from the other, bringing her opponent’s head down on a knee to smash the teeth.

And after the street died down, Granny took me into her bed in the wall, which had doors and was next to the fire. Once inside I stared at the icon on the wall. It was Mary, Granny told me, and she prayed for all her children. During this prayer I let out an uncontrollable fart.

Granny said, “Do you know wit a fart means, Donovan?”

“No, Granny,” I replied. I was a little scared of the big lady.

“It’s a message from God tae say . . . you must go tae the toilet.”

Granny’s daughters were gorgeous. Aunt Frances and her two sisters, Kathy and Lena, left for America to get jobs as nannies in New York. Frances worked as a nannie for an American actress, Beatrice Strate, and looked after a wee boy named Willard.

One day a big parcel arrived from America. Inside were children’s clothes. A wee leather jacket with a name on the back, all red and silver. A check jacket in a soft fabric. Then ma mammy pulled out a complete cowboy suit—-waistcoat, check shirt, and chaps; a cowboy hat; and, best of all, a pair of Hopalong Cassidy six-guns in real leather holsters on a belt. I got all dressed up and stood for my daddy to take a “photay” with his Rolleiflex. We were something called poor, so all this was new to me, like Christmas in the “pictures.”

Harry and I loved going to the Gaiety to see the Lone Ranger and Flash Gordon, Flash in his spaceship rolling across some planet of rocks and sand, trying to save the world. Sometimes it was Hopalong Cassidy. Then one day Hoppy came to Glasgow and rode down Sauchiehall Street on his horse, throwing silver dollars—-but I didn’t get one. It was like the weddings when the couple throw pennies out the windae of the car.

When I was seven, I woke up with a sore mouth and Mammy took me around me to a big house in the posh row. In a funny-smelling room, a man put me in a big chair with shiny bits. He put a rubber thing over my mouth and asked me to count to ten. A horrible smell filled me up, and I forgot after seven what number I was at. I could hear the dentist counting too and a radio playing on the windowsill. After I woke up, I spat blood into a shiny bowl of water and he gave me an orange, a luxury at the time. I said, “Where’s the radio?” “What radio?” he replied. There was no radio. I was shocked to see the black hole in my mouth when Mammy showed me. I was sick now and stayed in my room. Mammy told me stories of how I had slept so long in the big pram in the street when I was a baby that Mammy and Daddy had to hold a mirror in front of my mouth to see if I was still breathing. Not keen on waking life—-reluctant to get involved, perhaps.

One October afternoon I sat quietly in the room. The door opened slowly and a thin man walked toward me. I froze with fear. He wore a suit of tails, a top hat, and a Chinese rubber mask. He silently lifted up his arms, white gloves on his hands. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breath. The gloved hand rose up to the awful face and slowly pulled off the mask. The smiling face of my mammy shone down at me. I burst out crying. Mammy laughed and gathered me up in her arms. It was Hallowe’en and she was dressed for a party.

I remember being alone in the tall, somber room, watching the goldfish circle his ocean in a glass bowl. Mammy was cooking the rations or buying coal briquettes from the horse and cart in the street or, when there was no money, packing the coal-dross into newspaper bundles. She would soak them, dry them and burn them for heat.

Three craws sat upon the wa’

Sat upon the wa’, sat upon the wa’-a’-a’-a’,

Three craws sat upon the wa’

On a cold and a frosty morning

—-Glasgow children’s song

I heard a man singin in “the back” and Mammy opened the windae. She threw him a coin as he made a sad sound with his voice. The coin went spinning down, and Mammy said he’s a poor old bugger who needs a drink. She said it’s nice tae hear a tune. She had been to the Steamy to wash all the clothes. Sometimes I went too, and all the mammies laughed and sang in the big place with all the clouds and carbolic soap bubbles.

Ma daddy said I sang my first song in the Steamy when I was four. It was Robbie Burns night and sometimes a band played there. I got up and sang with a blind man who played the piano. I sang “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” all the way to the end and everybody smacked their hands. I liked the singing better than haggis.

I went to the Kent Road School, a Proddie one. I remember the first day Mammy took me. I was scared and cried and cried. I didn’t understand why she was leaving me with those people. It looked like an army barracks, redbrick walls and barbed wire. The head teacher stood like a preacher at a big desk with a Bible on it, us kids all in rows like prisoners in a film.

One day I did a bad thing and the head teacher shouted at me. He had a thin leather strap with tails at the end, and he told me to put out my hand. I had been told about this, and so was shaking all over. The strap cut the air and lashed my hand and wrist. A terrible sting of pain hit me, and I closed my eyes. The red skin was throbbing as I sat humiliated at my desk. I would tell ma granny. She’d get him for this!

But that day I didn’t go straight home. I wandered through the backyards of bombed tenements, clambering through the ruins, breaking glass, and getting lost. The police had to bring me home.

Granny Philips would have hurt that teacher if I’d told her. I heard a story of when her own son Michael had been beaten with the strap. She went down to the school and was shown into a class full of children.

“Ur you the teecher that strapped ma boy?”

“Well, Mrs. Philips, he was a bad boy.”

The big Irish woman rolled up her sleeves and bowled him out with a punch. All the children cheered.

“If ah ivir catch ye hittin’ ma boy agin, I’ll kill ye, dae yer heer?”

I was at the seaside with my cousins and aunts. Every year Granny Kelly rented a wee hoose in Ayr, a yellow strand on the southwest coast of Scotland. We would shelter from the wind by the granite seawall, eating sandwiches and making sandcastles. I was fascinated by the rock pools, gazing at translucent fishes and scurrying crabs.

Swimming was the thing for the polio leg, apparently, and my daddy was a strong swimmer. He soon had me doing the crawl. “Watch out for the scary seaweed and the jellyfish,” he would call. Daddy showed me a picture of himself standing by a pool with Johnny Weissmuller (whose real name was Tarzan). I wanted to swim like Tarzan. I wanted to swim the Amazon and ride elephants into the sunset!

Donkey rides on the wide dark sands, Punch and Judy, Victorian bandstands with salvation Army Brass Band and when the sun slipped into the sea I would lie in bed and marvel as Daddy read me Lewis Carroll. I dreamed of a sleepy yesterday of crinoline and parasol, walrus and griffin, seagull and seashell.

After the magic days by the sea, it was back to the city and the backyard battles in the bombed-out tenements, the itchy woollen swimsuits put away for another year.

I remember thinking it must be a party today ‘cause Daddy was hanging flags out of my window over the street and everybody else was too. The whole town was laughing and singing, the radio playing marching music, and the schools all closed. I didn’t know what was happening and neither did Harry. The next day every window in the street was open and all the mammies and daddies and kids were hanging out, waving at a great crowd of people waving back. Down the street came a band playing really loud and a big shiny car with an old woman in jewels waving at everybody. Mammy said it was the Queen Mother and her pretty daughter just got a crown and now she’s the real Queen. I had thought that pretty daughters went to America.

Our family had parties all the time. There was always a big one at Hogmanay, the last day & the year. Everyone sang a party piece. All the kids, cousins, brothers and sisters would sit under the tables with a “shandy”—-a mixture of beer and fizzy lemonade—-to listen and watch a slightly tipsy relative or friend do their bit. After much coaxing my mammy would sit on a chair in the center and sing her song.

I remember the sad sound of the Irish songs, filled with feelings of longing and leaving, and how they contrasted with the humor and vigor of the Scottish tunes. And, of course, the amazing verse readings and monologues that my daddy had memorised.

“Come on, Donnie, gi’ us ‘James’ or ‘Dan McGraw’—-aw, come on, Donnie.”

In truth he did not need much coaxing. He could thrill and tickle an audience effortlessly.

My daddy arranged and performed many amateur shows during and after the war. As a boy his mother had taken him to see all the great music hall artists. His considerable memory and oratorical skill and his great love of books influenced my songwriting immensely.

When, in 1954, Daddy bought me the new record by Bill Haley and the Comets, my life received its first musical shock just as this first white rock-and-roll success—-rockability—-would open up the world of rhythm and blues to everyone.

Times were changing. After the devastation of the war, Britain was beginning to get on its feet again, and my daddy took work in the south of England. New factories and new towns were springing up, and he followed the migrating trend. He lived in digs near the factory, waiting for a house in a brand-new housing scheme twenty miles from London, and soon we joined him.

Before our move I took a holiday with a bunch of poor kids from Glasgow in a country-house school by the sea. This was the first time I was away from my parents. I sat in the bus, the mammies and daddies waving at us. Everybody was singing:

Fur am no awau tae bide awau, am no awau tae lee ye

Fur am no awau tae bide awau, I’ll aye come back tae see ye . . .

—-Glasgow Street Song

We were going to somewhere called Wigtown in the Solway Firth. The school had been a rich man’s mansion. It took ten minutes to drive up to the front door from the gate—-that’s how big. All the kids cheered when we arrived and poured into the dormitories to find our beds.

Half the day was school lessons and the other half we played or went on outings. When the tide receded down the estuary, we walked along to what seemed like the bottom of the ocean. We had to be back by a certain time or the sea would swallow us up, so fast did the tide turn. But on the seafloor we found giant crabs and razor clams, rock pools with huge fishes stranded in forests of seaweed drying in the sun. The girls collected unicorn horns of periwinkle, limpets, and tiny conch shells on the soft blond sand. Then on one field trip we visited the sea cave of the Celtic monk St. Ninian. To the north lay the Great Forest of Caladon, legendary site of a hermitage of Merlin. I was filled with a wonder, and in that glorious summer my boyish heart was full of mermaids, wizards, and warriors.

Back home Harry and I were in the empty tenement flat. Ma mammy was out. The place was strange without furniture. We poked the wallpaper at the corners of the walls and saw layers going back in time. We opened a golf ball and sprayed the liquid rubber stuff everywhere. Then we tied the wee rubber balloon thing to the water tap and turned it on.

Our eyes widened as the balloon got bigger and bigger, full of water. When will it burst? we wondered. This rubber balloon was really strong. Harry and I edged nearer to the front door as the thing got larger and began to look like it would fill the whole room. Just as we opened the hall door to run, it burst! The balloon jumped around jetting water everywhere. We laughed and flew down the stairs.

Three hours later I was gazing out of the train window at a new land. The Flying Scotsman was thundering through the night—-great clouds of steam, the clickety-clack of the rails. Sleepy immigrants, we drank scalding tea, ate funny buns, and watched the freezing weather outside.

Full of hope and anticipation ma mammy, ma brother, Gerald, and me held each other as the future drew nearer and nearer. Ma daddy was waiting for us, all the loneliness now behind him. We were going to the green hills and woods of Hertfordshire and the chance of a better life. I never saw Harry again.

Copyright © 2005 by Donovan Leitch