The glowing and enthusiastic reviews you'll find from the 1960s on this website are for a young, talented performer whose passion was to bring out the soul of the old, often obscure, melodies and to entertain audiences with her every breath. As Bonnie Dobson said in an early interview, “One's own personal interpretation and feeling for the music determines one's authenticity”. What contrasts her early press reviews with everything that came later is that they're too early even to mention the song for which she subsequently became defined. Bonnie wrote Morning Dew in 1961 and although it immediately created a stir amongst her audiences it only appeared initially on her live album At Folk City. She didn't record the song in a studio until eight years later in 1969, after it had already been recorded in the US by Fred Neil (1964), Tim Rose (1966), Grateful Dead (1967) and in the UK by Lulu (1967), and the Jeff Beck Group (sung by Rod Stewart, 1968), among many, many others.
Bonnie started out performing traditional French-Canadian, American, English and some Slavic folk songs as a teen at school. She continued while studying English at the University of Toronto but still hadn’t put pen to paper to write her first song. The time she later spent with producer and folklorist Kenny Goldstein researching and discovering old folk music that she could perform in her live act meant that the onus was on her to breathe new life into songs that had in many cases already faded into obscurity.
In 1960 Bonnie had by chance fallen in with some of the best possible friends and influences. While still an amateur performer she babysat for the family of folk concert agent Marty Bochner, who introduced her to Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee's agent Paul Endicott. Endicott heard her sing informally and immediately wanted to schedule bookings and manage her. Within the space of a year Bonnie's 'summer job' of opening for Sonny & Brownie had consumed her life. Before she knew it there was a recording contact with Prestige, four solo albums in the can (two of which were recently re-released by Ace Records) and an infinite diary of gigs across the North American continent. Student life had unofficially been put on hold and Bonnie's career path had unwittingly taken a sharp turn towards the passion that had only previously revealed itself on stage at school assemblies and as a young teen counsellor at summer camps in Quebec and Ontario.
The 1950s had been a repressed and sombre decade that still felt a hangover from the horrors of WW2. The Cold War was in full swing, and although the Cuban Missile Crisis did not occur until October '62, by 1959 the USA had ostensibly been at war against China and the Soviet Union in Korea. Fears of nuclear holocaust and global destruction were frighteningly rekindled in that year's fictional, though potentially prophetic, Stanley Kramer film production of Neville Shute's On The Beach. Fast forward to Bonnie's 1961 West Coast tour, memories of a chance cinema trip to see that film and a sleepless night after a party where, after a gloomy discussion about the end of the world, Bonnie wrote that song, which also happened to be her first self-penned work. This was the apocalyptic song which has inadvertently defined her musical career. To this day she will admit, “Morning Dew, if anything, is more of this time, more of the present than it ever was back then. The danger still looms, it's not just nations that have the ability to destroy our planet but now we have rogue factions hell bent on destroying the world in the name of a higher power”. On The Beach starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire (whose niece, Anne Baker Graham, by a stroke of serendipity was a backing vocalist on many of Bonnie's 1970s/80s BBC radio sessions and also appeared on the version of Morning Dew on her 2010 album Looking Back).
Pretty much everyone they hung out with in the early 60s was sincerely concerned about politics, human rights and impending nuclear war. Joan Baez had her anti-war hit with We Shall Overcome, Dylan's was Blowin' In The Wind, Bonnie had Morning Dew and of course Pete Seeger had been the king of protest songs for two generations, so was a huge influence on all of them. But it wasn't just musicians. As poets, activists or simply concerned college students that generation had something to say, more than just something to sell.
From 1960-66 Bonnie Dobson toured throughout the US & Canada. Her counterparts, who often toured and shared the stage as a band, learning and backing each other's songs, were the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, Phil Ochs and and many, many more.
“Monday night was the Hoot Night at Greenwich Village venue Gerdes Folk City. On that night established artists and unknowns would all get their time onstage. I remember Judy Collins duetting with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul & Mary) and Richie Havens soloing. I too shared a song, with Tommy Makem from the Clancy Brothers, and we were accompanied by Ray Boguslav, an amazing guitarist. Whether you lived in New York, were performing there or just passing through, Gerdes was the place to congregate. There's one Monday in particular I’ll never forget. I was standing by the bar with a group of friends when these two young men took to the stage. After they finished their song and the applause died down we all agreed that they were 'really rather good'. They called themselves Tom & Jerry but later changed their name to Simon & Garfunkel. Rather good indeed!”
Another passing scene she relates is also best described in her own words:
“I was great friends with Gil & Lori Turner. Gil belonged to a group called The New World Singers which also included Happy Traum & Bill Cohen. Gil also acted as host/mc at Gerdes on Hoot Night and was the first person there publicly to perform Blowin' In The Wind just minutes after Dylan had shown him the chords. He and Lori lived in a tiny flat on Spring Street and one night, maybe 1962, they invited me over for dinner. Dylan was there too, hunched over the typewriter, tapping out the lyrics to a new song. I had just broken up with my boyfriend and Dylan was adjusting to life without Suze Rotolo who had gone off to study in Italy. (Rotolo was the designer of the posters and flyers for Gerdes, becoming Dylan's girlfriend and muse.) Not much conversation ensued except that we both muttered that it was hard. I always thought that he was writing Boots of Spanish Leather that night, but a couple of years ago I read that Carolyn Hester recalls his writing that song in her presence. She may be right, but whatever he was writing that night it was sad!”
“Robert Shelton was the music critic for the New York Times. He gave me my first serious review when I sang at Gerdes. I was on the bill with Big Joe Williams. Not long after he launched Dylan’s career when he debuted there. Dylan and Shelton became good friends and one evening I joined them for a few drinks at a local bar. After a glass or two Dylan took out his guitar and started to sing. The bartender, singularly unappreciative (and maybe lacking in musical vision too), announced in a loud voice the we could stay but 'the guitar would have to go'. I think we all left, in solidarity.”
Between 1961-4 Bonnie Dobson released five successful albums, including a highly popular one consisting entirely of traditional children's songs. During this time she was constantly on the road touring. Described in the 1962 Philadelphia Folk Festival Program as “Canada's gift to the United States” Bonnie had, even by that time, built up an impressive following on tours, at festivals and on North American radio. That very first song she had ever written was the opening track on her live record At Folk City and it caused quite a stir long before several dozen bands came along, recorded and had hits with it. Morning Dew became an anthem for its time and still remains just as relevant in today's fraught and destructive world. It has been covered in a variety of styles by artists including The Grateful Dead, Jeff Beck, Ralph McTell, Nazareth, Clannad, Long John Baldry, Devo, Duane & Greg Allman, Dave Edmunds, Mungo Jerry, Episode Six (the future members of Deep Purple), Lee Hazlewood, The National (one of Bonnie's personal favorite versions) and, more recently, by Robert Plant with whom Bonnie played and sang a live version at the 2013 Bert Jansch Tribute Concert.
In 1969 Bonnie followed her heart to London, England, leaving behind a successful radio series in Canada. Before leaving she had been snapped up by RCA and so was sent back intermittently from England to Nashville to record two more albums in as many years. The productions were slick, fully orchestrated and with the use of a sitar on some of the songs felt vaguely psychedelic. More self-penned songs were included but the record company's intended crossover from folk to mainstream did not happen. Since highly orchestrated recordings were never going to sound quite the same on a solo tour they were never going to sell albums in the quantities intended. Two more albums followed in the 70s for Decca and Polydor and Bonnie continued her career through the next decade until the end of the 80s when she did a complete u-turn and went back to pursue that degree she had postponed some 30 years earlier. This time it was Politics, Philosophy & History calling her to London University's Birkbeck College. Here she subsequently found her niche as an efficient organiser, leading to a permanent position as Head Administrator for the Faculty of Arts for several more years.
It was only after being hunted down for a one-off appearance at Jarvis Cocker's 2007 Meltdown Festival in a show entitled Lost Ladies of Folk that Bonnie felt the lure of the stage again. When she was most recently approached by Hornbeam Recordings she found herself surrounded by a fabulous bunch of world class musicians enthusiastic to reinvigorate her talents. Before she knew it she and Her Boys (Jonny Bridgwood, BJ Cole, Felix Holt, Dave Morgan, Ben Paley, Ben Phillipson, Sean Read & Ruth Tidmarsh) were rehearsing, had booked studio time for an album and a full promotional tour was lined up.
Fifty years later Morning Dew is still the single most popular song associated with her. It still featured prominently near the closing of Grateful Dead's 2015 farewell concerts (coinciding with the much-discussed apocalyptic rainbow), but it should not be allowed totally to overshadow the vast repertoire of original songs, covers and collaborations which make up Bonnie's vast body of work. In so many ways Walk Me Out In The Morning Dew, the Hornbeam comeback album named to remind us of where she came from, is the perfect bridge from the old to the new. Traditional songs, past favourites brought up to date with thoughtful arrangement by an equally talented backing band and some more recently written, highly emotional songs have been compiled in such a way that if you didn't know better you'd assume she'd never gone away.
In 2018, her 79th year, Bonnie was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame for Morning Dew. The award was presented by her old friend Gordon Lightfoot, some 57 years after her debut performance of the song at the inaugural Mariposa Folk Festival. She celebrated the award by treating fans to a repeat the performance that day with her enduring vocal purity and signature musical energy. Bonnie's talent still appears fathomless, and fortunately for us she shows no sign of letting up. With 12 albums under her belt don't be surprised if she doesn't produce a dozen more!