Behind The Song: “Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan

“Songwriters tend to look for a world that will improve.” —Donovan

It’s one of those magical, beloved songs which both defines an artist and an era. Written, recorded and released in 1968, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” resounds with a timeless, slow-simmering power even now. It’s there both in the song itself, as well as Donovan’s shimmering performance, and the production by Mickie Most.

Even Randy Newman, who might not give the impression of a Donovan enthusiast, said, “Man, his songs still sound so good. Have you ever noticed that if you hear one on the radio, like ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man,’ they still sound really good?

Official accounts of this song’s origins state categorically that Donovan wrote it while he was in India with The Beatles. A close friend of George Harrison and meditation devotee, Donovan was invited to join The Beatles, their wives and some friends, at Rishikesh, India, to study with the Maharishi in February of 1968.

When I interviewed Donovan in his Marina Del Rey apartment in 1988, he admitted some uncertainty about whether he wrote the song in India or Jamaica. These days he’s leaning more towards Jamaica, he said, though also mentioned it’s there where there was powerful rum and ganja both, which doesn’t bolster his case.

He did confirm, however, that George wrote a verse for “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (included here), and which suggests, though doesn’t prove, that the song was written while in India.

But more helpful to understanding its magic and its meaning is Donovan’s beautiful explanation of who the Hurdy Gurdy Man really is. Spoken in the gentle, lilting Scottish accent that so charmed the multitudes, he said that the Hurdy Gurdy Man is any songwriter in modern times who speaks the timeless truth.

Produced by his longtime producer Mickie Most and engineered by Eddie Kramer, the record features many great musicians, and doesn’t feature others who are often said to have played on it. To this moment, that truth is a little blurry.

Hendrix was Donovan’s first choice to do the guitar solo, but Jimi was not in town. Donovan also hoped Hendrix would record the song himself, but Mickie Most vehemently opposed this, knowing it was a potential hit for Donovan, who needed to keep it for himself.

Both Allan Holdsworth and Jimmy Page play the electric guitars (Page wrote in his auto-bio this is true), and John Paul Jones both arranged the music and played bass. On drums was Clem Cattini, though many contend still that John Bonham also contributed some of the drum track.

With a simple folk song chord progression in G major,the arrangement revolves around Donovan’s acoustic guitar part, though quickly grows incendiary, a genuine example of what became known as “folk-rock.”

Here’s Donovan on the birth of “Hurdy Gurdy Man”:

DONOVAN: The Hurdy Gurdy Man is from another tradition. 

I’m not sure if I wrote that song in India or on the beach in Jamaica. I’m pretty sure it was in Jamaica, where we had very good ganja that year and somebody gave me 110-proof rum.

I fell asleep on the beach and went into a dream in which I saw a cross-legged figure coming over the ocean:

“Thrown like a star in my vast sleep
I opened my eyes to take a peep
To find that I was by the sea
Gazing with Tranquility.” 

“I know I am the Hurdy Gurdy Man.”

Now you have to mix that up with the Indian trip, because a cross-legged figure is really a yogi, and I was already interested in yoga and we did go to India and maybe Maharishi comes into it a little bit.

But I know I am the Hurdy Gurdy Man. But also the Hurdy Gurdy Man is all singers who sing songs of love. The hurdy-gurdy is an instrument from the sixteenth century. The Hurdy Gurdy Man is a chronicler. The Hurdy Gurdy Man is like a bard. The  Hurdy Gurdy Man is any singer-songwriter in any age, whether they were Ireland of whether they were in the streets of New York during the 60s.

Songwriters tend to look for a world that will improve. The singing of songs for a better world can be seen in any age. Especially in the 20th century. So any singer for peace is a Hurdy Gurdy Man. 

There is a missing verse that George Harrison wrote:

“When truth gets buried deep
Beneath a thousand years of sleep
Time demands a turn-around
And once again the truth is found.”


I didn’t record [this verse]. George was a bit upset there for a while. But a single in those days were only three minutes long.

Jimi Hendrix was going to do the solo but he was not around. As soon as I wrote the song I wanted to give it to Jimi, but he wasn’t available. So Allan Holdsworth did the solo in the end and he did a great job. 

George wrote his verse and the verse describes well what this song is about. That the Hurdy Gurdy Man is anyone who speaks this timeless truth. There may be a dark age, but out of that dark age will come light and the answer to all man’s problems 

Hurdy Gurdy Man
By Donovan


Thrown like a star in my vast sleep
I opened my eyes to take a peek
To find that I was by the sea
Gazing with tranquility

‘Twas then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Came singing songs of love
Then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Came singing songs of love

Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy,
Hurdy gurdy gurdy,” he sang
Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy,
Hurdy gurdy gurdy,” he sang

Histories of ages past
Unenlightened shadows cast
Down through all eternity
The crying of humanity

‘Twas then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Came singing songs of love
Then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Came singing songs of love

Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy,
Hurdy gurdy gurdy,” he sang
Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy,
Hurdy gurdy gurdy,” he sang

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