In the New York Times of 28 February 1962, music critic Robert Shelton wrote of a new talent, a titian-haired young woman down in New York City from her native Toronto. He was mesmerised by ‘her distinct, true-pitched singing in a firm sweet soprano’ and by her ‘honesty and warmth’ on stage.
The singer was Bonnie Dobson, and she had already toured with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Lightnin’ Hopkins, having been talent-spotted while a student at the University of Toronto. Her first ‘proper gig’ was on 6 May 1960 at the Exodus Club in Denver, Colorado where she was earning $125 a week – a fortune in those days. For a few years, she never looked back, basing herself first in Chicago and then in New York’s Greenwich Village, crucible of the folk revival. It was while playing at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles that a late-night conversation about the horrors of a nuclear winter (it was the height of the cold war) led Bonnie to start scribbling her first song. Unsure as to its qualities, she sang it down the phone to a friend, who pronounced it ‘all right’ so she sang it the next night at the Ash Grove. ‘Morning Dew’ featured in her set at the 1961 Mariposa Folk Festival and she recorded the song for Broadside Magazine in 1962 (it was released in 2000 on The Best of Broadside 1962-1988). It was showcased again when she played Gerde’s Folk City, the Greenwich Village club that was the launch pad for so many talents, not least Bob Dylan, and it featured on the live album Bonnie recorded at the club.
An anti-war classic, ‘Morning Dew’ has since acquired cult status, recorded first by Fred Neil, then by Tim Rose, who changed some of the lyrics and claimed a co-writing credit to which he was not entitled. Eventually Bonnie would fight a legal battle to wrest rights and royalties back. Meanwhile, ‘Morning Dew’ became something of a signature song for the Grateful Dead, who introduced it into their repertoire at the Human Be-In in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967, and it was covered by the Allman Brothers, Jeff Beck, Nazareth, Devo, Lulu and Robert Plant, with whom Bonnie sang it at a Bert Jansch tribute concert in London in 2013.
That night represented a new beginning for Bonnie, who moved to London in 1969, married an Englishman, became a mother and eventually embarked on a degree in politics, philosophy and history, going on to work as an academic administrator at Birkbeck College. Consciously or otherwise, her music career was put on hold, though in 2007 Jarvis Cocker persuaded her to step out for a Meltdown concert, The Lost Ladies of Canadian Folk, at London’s Southbank. Bonnie stole the show but again things went quiet until Guardian music critic Robin Denselow introduced her to Hornbeam Recordings, who signed her as their third act after her old friends Tom Paley and Spider John Koerner. Then Robert Plant called…
The third of three children, Bonnie’s father was a union organiser. She remembers going to see the great Paul Robeson in concert when she was 13 years old and, even earlier, when she was 10, a class teacher introduced her to the Weavers, further piquing her interest in folk music. ‘I guess I was about 12 and Pete Seeger came up to Toronto to give a concert,’ she told Rock and Reel. ‘That was the first time I’d heard him. I’ve never known anyone connect with an audience like he did. At the end he asked for requests and I said could you sing “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens”? He looked at me and said “You’re too young to know about that!”’ Adding a couple of years to her age, she managed to get a job at Camp Beaver, a summer camp for kids which was next door to an adult camp where, every Saturday, folk singers, including Seeger, would come up from the States to give a concert. By the time Bonnie was into her teens, she was steeped in folk music and it was folk music promoter Marty Bochner, whose kids she babysat, who made the introductions which led to that first US tour.
The Anglo-American folk revival was in full swing. In banning Pete Seeger and his confrères from the airwaves, Senator McCarthy had driven them into the summer camp, where a whole generation of kids had – like Bonnie – discovered folk music, many learning to play guitar and five-string banjo (the latter Seeger’s special mission). The Village – always ‘the Village’, never Greenwich Village to those who lived there – was a perennial bohemia but in the early sixties when Bonnie arrived it was very special. As Janis Ian has said: ‘The musicians and artists who gravitated toward Greenwich Village through the sixties and even into the seventies formed a group as diverse, eclectic and talented as the artists who gravitated to Paris in the early 20th century. Their influence on our culture, and that of the world, cannot be over-estimated’.
Bonnie settled in to an apartment (shared with folk and blues singer Judy Roderick) on St Marks’s Place, a few blocks from Washington Square Park and the surrounding clubs which together formed the crucible of the folk revival. Everyone passed through Gerde’s, but other clubs included the Gaslight, the Kettle of Fish, the Café Wha? and the Bitter End. A few more blocks west, near the Hudson, the White Horse Tavern (immortalised in the song ‘Those Were the Days’) was a late-night gathering place, an old longshoreman’s bar where the Clancy Brothers hung out and to where Robert Shelton would lead late-night drinking parties that (as Suze Rotolo recalls in her memoir A Freewheelin’ Time) often ended up back at his apartment on Waverly Place. Further along that street the Hotel Earle (now the Washington Square Hotel) was at various times home not just to Dylan and Joan Baez (who immortalised it in ‘Diamonds and Rust’ ) but to Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn and John Phillips who, on a frigid New York day, wrote ‘California Dreamin’’ in his room there. It was, Bonnie recalls, ‘an extraordinary time’.
Bonnie’s extraordinary voice was captured on a small handful of albums which have long been sought after by collectors. The first two, She’s Like a Swallow and Dear Companion, have now been reissued on CD by ACE Records and it’s hoped the others will follow, including the seminal At Folk City. Her new album, Take Me For a Walk in the Morning Due, released by Hornbeam in 2014, reveals a voice as magnificent and exciting as ever, undimmed by the passing years. Small wonder it was hailed as the comeback of the year. This time she’s here to stay.