How high the gulls fly
How sad the farm lad
deep in play
Felt like a grain on your sand
Lighthouse at Carraig Fhada, Port Ellen, Islay
My favourite version of the Donovan song “Isle of Islay” was performed at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's 91st birthday celebration in Holland in 2008. This song originally appeared on Donovan’s fifth studio album, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden
(1967), but when he performed at the infamous yogi’s birthday, dressed in resplendent white homespun and surrounded by bushels of snowy flowers, the song became couched in transcendental terms, as Donovan describes the isle as a “holy island." According to Donovan, when the wizened Maharishi first heard it, he said, “Ahh, a transcendental song…”
After a rather flowery rendition, Donovan put down his guitar and placed his palms together in prayer, giving a little bow of the head. “Shey Guru Dev,” he says, tipping his metaphorical hat to Maharishi’s spiritual master Brahmananda Saraswati, otherwise known as Guru Dev. This was clearly the right thing to do (assuming you know what to do in that context, as Donovan apparently did). Along with the film director David Lynch, Donovan has been one of the Maharishi’s more high-profile devotees of Transcendental Meditation (TM) since around the time of the release of “Isle of Islay” in 1967. In fact, the booklet of A Gift from a Flower Garden
shows a picture of the two holding hands, as highly spiritual people do. Donovan is also touching Maharishi’s leg. I assume that hand-holding and leg-touching are essential to the process of mind-liberation through transcendental meditation, although I’m no expert.
Sunset over the Rinns of Islay
(thanks, Sujit Kumar)
If “Isle of Islay” is anything to go by, Donovan’s music has an intrinsically recognizable spiritual quality even without the back-story. “How high the gulls fly, o’er Ilay,” is a simple yet serene statement. “Felt like a grain on your sand” has an obvious Zen-ness about it. Islay is one of the larger islands just off the Scottish mainland, a few minutes' blustery ferry-ride across the grey channel. It’s a lonely and beautiful place, well known for its walking and whiskey. It would have greatly appealed to a late '60s folk artist troubadour type traipsing around the country with his guitar trying to tune in to the language of nature (presumably after “turning on” and “dropping out”), and Donovan clearly found a sense of artistic replenishment from the simple rustic scenes that he saw on his visit to Islay. “How well the sheep’s bell music makes, roving the cliff when fancy takes. Felt like a seed on your land.”A Gift from a Flower Garden
was released in the year after Donovan’s highly-publicized drug bust in mid 1966. The album features psychedelic art as well as songs that allude to hallucinatory images, although in the booklet, Donovan appeals to his listeners to stop using substances. Meanwhile, he sings “Color in sky prussian blue, scarlet fleece changes hue, crimson ball sinks from view. Wear your love like heaven.” It seems that Donovan’s dedication to the moral fundaments of TM (which are much the same as any mass religion) continued until 2008 at the very least. Maharishi can’t have been half bad as a spiritual master if he had managed to keep a famous musician from the 1960s alive until well into the 21st century, even if we are forced to put up with a little bit of hand-holding, veganism and homespun as a result.
~ Douglas MacCutcheon
Douglas MacCutcheon is a music psychology researcher at a British university (yes, he experiments on people – if you can call musicians people, that is) and freelance music writer. He is interested in popular music, cultural economics and curry. He also plays classical piano for his mother and amateurishly produces ambient electro which nobody listens to Soundcloud.com/douglas-mccutcheon .
(Thanks to Dappled for the Songplace suggestion.)