Bonnie Dobson - Writing a classic at the first try
As first songs go, Bonnie Dobson’s was quite a start. The Canadian singer had never given any thought to writing her own material when, in 1961, after a post-gig conversation in Santa Monica about where the world was heading in these then dangerous Cold War times, Morning Dew came to her.
“I didn’t even know if it was any good,” says Dobson who recently released her first album in forty years, Take Me for a Walk in the Morning Dew. “I called up a friend and sang it to her, and she was very encouraging. But to begin with I was frightened to perform it and even now I feel as if I’m more of an interpreter than a writer, but that song travelled like a real folk song and still, every couple of years, someone else comes along and records it.”
The roll call of those who took up Morning Dew includes the Grateful Dead, Deep Purple, Nazareth and perhaps most notoriously, the late American singer Tim Rose, who picked up on the reclusive former Greenwich Village folkie, Fred Neil’s version and credited himself as its co-writer. This caused Dobson a lot of angst and lawyers’ fees, and when she arrived in the UK, where she’s lived since 1969, she found that everyone thought it was Rose’s song. But she’s forgiven and forgotten now and acknowledges Rose’s part in putting her song into the public domain.
As a folk music lover from her early teens – her rock ‘n’ roll-loving school friends in 1950s Toronto thought she was a bit of an oddball – Dobson knows the value of writing a song that passes into the tradition. She was, she says, eleven when she first heard Pete Seeger and thirteen when she realised how brilliant he was. Her summers were spent at folksong camps in Quebec and when, at sixteen, her father bought her a guitar, she became “the original bedroom girl,” learning songs and singing to herself. She sang at school concerts and when she started the degree in Toronto that she would finally finish years later in London, she sang at college events and got noticed by the manager of blues legends Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee.
Exciting times followed. The nineteen year Dobson was whisked off to sing at legendary clubs including the Ash Grove in Los Angeles (she’d been playing there the night she wrote Morning Dew). She toured with Judy Collins, Mississippi John Hurt and Richie Havens and she can share memories of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, recalling when Bob Dylan signed with Columbia Records and she heard a duo who called themselves Tom & Jerry and impressed the Monday crowd at Gerde’s Folk City, one of the Village’s proving grounds for new talent. Tom & Jerry, she remembers, were pretty good and they went on to do okay as Simon & Garfunkel.
Dobson was no small deal herself. She recorded for Prestige Records and then RCA and was a popular draw as a concert artist across the U.S. Then after a spell back in Canada, where she added radio presentation to her busy concert schedule, she upped sticks and moved to the UK to get married. The arrival of a young family limited her touring commitments but she released the now collectable Bonnie Dobson for the Argo label in 1972 and she fondly remembers appearing with the Corries and the McCalmans on Edinburgh Festival concerts and BBC TV shows.
In 1985, her marriage imploded and she decided to go back to university. She studied Politics, Philosophy and History at Birkbeck College in London and after giving what she thought was her final concert in Chicago in 1989, she took a job in admin at Birkbeck, where nobody knew about her previous life.
“I worked under my married name and although I sang to myself and sang lullabies to my children, I actually began to wonder if I might have imagined that life as a singer, touring and making albums,” she says.
She hadn’t been forgotten, however. In 2007, Jarvis Cocker got in touch through a friend while Dobson was back in Canada briefly and invited her to sing at Meltdown on London’s South Bank. The gig went well, despite Dobson having misgivings about singing in front of family and friends who had never heard her perform before, and then nothing happened until music journalist Robin Denselow engineered a meeting with Ski Williams of Hornbeam Records, a Dobson fan of long standing.
“It’s all happened so naturally,” says Dobson of acquiring a rather fine band (“they found me”), recording both old and high quality new songs for the new album, and heading back out on the road as a septuagenarian. “We have quite a few dates on the tour and then we’ll see. I’m just going with it at the moment.”
From The Herald, January 23, 2015.