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Music

Watch the electrifying moment Donovan met Bob Dylan

Donovan was generally regarded as the British answer to Bob Dylan during the mid-1960s. The Scottish folky rose to prominence in 1965, aged just 19. With frequent performances on the pop TV show Ready Steady Go! and a string of successful singles, including ‘Catch the Wind’, ‘Colours’ and ‘Universal Soldier’, it wasn’t long before he broke into the consciousness of America. 

Donovan’s early folk style was noted for its striking similarity to America’s new folk-rock idol Bob Dylan. In the spring of 1965, Dylan visited the UK for a run of shows and to mingle with the burgeoning elite of the British invasion. At the time, the British press were noting the comparisons between the two singer-songwriters and falsely presented it as a rivalry. 

During this period, Donovan was already one of the biggest names in London, and he had become acquainted with Brian Jones, the founding member of The Rolling Stones. In 1965, Jones said of the alleged rivalry between Dylan and Donovan: “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’.”

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In a 2001 interview with the BBC, Donovan addressed the early comparisons between himself and Dylan. He explained that Dylan had inspired his early work but asserted that the American wasn’t his sole influence at the time and distanced himself from the “Dylan clone” accusations. 

“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.,” Donovan opined. “Bob was influenced, as all American folk artists are, by the Celtic music of Ireland, Scotland and England.”

Adding: “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.”

To conclude his point, Donovan insisted that while he was using threads of American music to help create his own, he was not a “copyist”. “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,” he said.

“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.”

The below footage was taken from In D. A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back, which documents Dylan’s 1965 UK tour. The undercurrent of the film was this overstated rivalry with Donovan, and in a bid to play up to the press, Dylan agrees to meet the young British folk star. 

Donovan visits Dylan in his room at the Savoy Hotel in Westminster, London, along with fellow musician Derrol Adams. After a meet and greet, Donovan sits with his guitar and performs his song ‘To Sing For You’ to a respectfully quiet audience. As he finishes, he receives a round of applause while he hands the guitar to Dylan and asks him to play ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’.

Dylan cordially accedes and proceeds to play Donovan’s Bringing It All Back Home favourite. Reflecting on the occasion shortly after, Dylan told Melody Maker: “He played some songs to me. … I like him. … He’s a nice guy.” During the subsequent tour dates, Dylan allegedly mentioned Donovan’s name in a defamatory lyric alteration while performing ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’ to which the audience jeered. Backstage, Dylan insisted that no harm was intended: “I didn’t mean to put the guy down in my songs. I just did it for a joke, that’s all.”

Watch the footage from Bob Dylan’s first encounter with Donovan below. The first video shows Dylan’s first reaction to hearing about the new British folk star. Dylan is then jokingly goaded by Alan Price of The Animals, who tells him that Donovan is the better guitar player of the two.