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Legend Of A Girl Child Linda - Revisited

by Ade Macrow (June 2011)


Legend Of A Girl Child Linda is the sort of song only a youngster —yet to leave his teens— could attempt, with its melding of elements of Arthurian legend, Tolkienesque imagery and other motifs cheerfully lifted from disparate sources and engagingly fitted in to the overall song context. The brio of the writer's youth means that the entire thing, which could easily have ended up as a horrific mish-mash of unrelated references, succeeds beautifully. Although that does not mean the linear progression of the song's narrative makes strict sense, as we shall see later.

More so than any other song, Legend Of A Girl Child Linda deserves to be co-credited to John Cameron. This really is an orchestral tour de force and his wonderful and rich, full orchestral underpinning gives the song its lustre of magic; of faerie; of otherness. Without John Cameron's assured touch, the song would be an engaging but slight tale. With his score (it is far, far more than mere 'string arrangements'), Legend Of A Girl Child Linda really soars into the magical kingdom that the words give oral embodiment to.

The dramatic, downbeat beginning, with several violins moving downwards in scale leads to a gentler, harpsichord-and-guitar introduction, where Donovan pledges to bring his as-yet undefined object of attention gold apples and grapes made of rubies. Ignoring the fact that grapes made of rubies wouldn't, in fact, be grapes but rubies-shaped-like-grapes, the couplet immediately establishes the song as set in a distant, mystical time and land. The song itself was premiered at The Saville Theatre, London in 1967, during the Donovan's Sonnets six-day residency, where Valli Myers danced interpretively, as Donovan sang and The John Cameron Orchestra accompanied.

In fact, it doesn't do to pay too much attention to the lyrics per se as they don't always flow as sequentially and logically as the listener might presume. As with all the best songs —and make no mistake, Legend Of A Girl Child Linda is one such— it doesn't matter un-duly, as the overall mood and atmosphere is all and the gist of things is conveyed despite any lyrical imprecision. Donovan seems to be suggesting he himself has cast himself as a prince, with the prince of the breeze (Mr Wind?) line.

The entire mood of the song is rather hesitant and the implied melancholia that is the bedrock means the listener is never certain where the journey will end. Or how the journey will conclude. The lyrics play against their musical setting perfectly and Bright cascading crystals/They dance in the sand dunes/On the beach of no footprints/To harpsichord tunes is a classic Donovan verse, with the no footprints reference underlining the fact that this is a place of natural beauty but, at the same time, remote and unvisited by humans.

Like Guinevere and so many other songs of the Sunshine Superman period, there are references to such staples as white ivory, seagulls, lace, doves, velvet, wizards and castles. Mediaeval tokens a-plenty can be found seamlessly incorporated throughout the entire lyric.

Donovan's acoustic guitar is mixed up and prominent from the moment it enters, following the violins. The instruments are all used sparingly and effectively with triangle and xylophone coming in on the third verse and the next three verses seeing harpsichord, contra-bassoon, cor anglais, strings and violin being added, before the first orchestral break occurs after six verses. This serves to re-emphasise the magical-but-nevertheless-dan-gerous task ahead. Incidentally, there is another amusing mistranslation in the official songbook, Songs For Sunshine People: 2nd Album, where the grown ups is rendered as the ground lumps!

The quest involves a hundred children travelling to the White Queen's palace to make the sadness in the kingdom go far away although how they are meant to achieve this is never specified until verse 16. One presumes at this stage that it will be through their laughter, innocence and general gaeity. At the tenth verse, beginning The youngest, she sighed/And the clouds drew away clarinet and violins combine to add a note of danger ahead.

Although Legend Of A Girl Child Linda is a long song —six minutes, fifty-one seconds and 18 four-line stanzas— such is the compelling nature of the whole structure that it appears to last no longer than any standard three minute number. Cello enters at the eleventh verse and after the twelfth, another brief orchestral break is heard. This is a repetition of that heard after the first six verses but shorter. The song is very tightly-structured and is again a tribute to the immense skills of John Cameron.

The first hint of anything conventionally 'pop' in terms of instrumentation —barring Donovan's guitar— comes in the fifteenth stanza, where the clash of bright metal sees drum cymbals being rattled. Another orchestral break occurs after this verse but it differs from the previous two and is again a short one. A princess lay sleeping/So gentle and kind/While her prince took to battle/With his confused mind is surely an allegorical representation of Donovan and Miss Lawrence at the time. (See below).

After the children have held hands and become a chain, spelling out the unnamed White Queen's name, the narrative confusingly refers to something completely different stating that It lies on the white throne. But what is it? It's never specified and the children fade from view, although whether their task has been successful or not is never definitely answered.

The final verse become out-and-out Arthurian, with its My sword it lies broken/And cast in a lake/In a dream I was told/That my princess would wake. These words invoke the legend of Excalibur (or Caliburn), King Arthur's legendary sword being thrown into the lake and the hand of The Lady Of The Lake rising up to grasp it and then pull it below the surface.

And the latter two lines could either be an inversion of the legend that King Arthur will one day rise again —perchance he is not dead but sleepeth— or they are perhaps a left-field take on the legend of Rip Van Winkle and his long sleep, although my money would firmly be on the former, given the mediaeval imagery throughout. It certainly seems an admission of failure, with the Prince coming to terms with the fact that despite his battling over her, the battle is far from won.

It is extremely likely the song references Donovan's initial meetings with Linda and his distraught state when he realised she wasn't (then) prepared to give up her own life to follow him around. There again, four years later she'd change her mind and meantime there were innumerable groupies and Enid to console Donovan.

It is still an oddly messy way to end, with an abrupt change of focus from the quest of the children to the mysterious 'it' and then the narrator's damaged sword and wait for his Princess  to wake. Also, White Queens are, in mythology, traditionally 'good': it is the Black Queens (there's one mentioned in The Ballad Of A Crystal Man, for  example) that are the bad 'uns.

A cor anglais only solo, very short, is found after the sixteenth verse and a contra-bassoon solo, equally brief, after the penultimate stanza. This really is one song that would stand alone as an orchestral piece only and it is a huge pity that EMI have never explored this route, as they have done with The Beatles and others.

Throughout the entire epic, confusing journey there's a clinquant quality to all of A Legend Of A Girl Child Linda; a thread that is mesmeric, binding any listener to the story, as it unfolds (and occasionally goes completely off-kilter). It is undoubtedly one of the highspots of Donovan's career and even greater praise must again be heaped upon John Cameron. Is the 'Linda' of the title one of the children, rather than the Princess? It isn't clear. Presumably she's the Princess that the Prince is fighting for but you can never be sure. But don't let that deter you.

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