Folk revival star Bonnie Dobson on taking tea with Bob Dylan and returning to the stage
PUBLISHED: 08:00 08 April 2016
Canadian singer Bonnie Dobson was a star of the 1960s American folk scene. Since 1969 she’s lived quietly in Primrose Hill – but she’s stepping into the limelight again, she tells Liz Thomson
Bob Dylan is no stranger to north London and if he’d known his old friend Bonnie Dobson was living in Primrose Hill, he’d surely have dropped by for coffee, home-made cake and a chat about the good old days they shared in New York.
Dobson hit Greenwich Village in February 1962, a year after Dylan. Unlike him, she arrived a star, criss-crossing the US and Canada for $125 a week. She’d already written that “rock standard”, the celebrated Morning Dew, and she’d recorded her debut album, which included The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, which she’d heard Peggy Seeger (wife of its author Ewan MacColl) sing at the Exodus folk club in Denver.
Judy Collins was sitting at the table with Dobson, whose recording was the first of thousands of covers.
“I was booked for two weeks at Gerde’s,” she says, of the foremost Greenwich Village club of the era, “playing with Big Joe Williams. It was great fun and that’s where I met Dylan and Robert Shelton.” He was the New York Times critic who chronicled the folk revival.
His review noted Dobson’s “distinct, true-pitched singing in a firm sweet soprano” and her “honesty and warmth on stage”.
The movie Inside Llewyn Davis purported to capture something of the time, based loosely on the memoirs of singer Dave van Ronk, whom Dobson also knew. “As films go it was interesting but it wasn’t like that. It was very joyous – there was no fun in that film.” She concedes that the scene did change when Dylan signed to Columbia (a major label when folkies were going with less commercial specialists), and his success caused some jealousy. But what she remembers is the spirit, the generosity, the musical “exchange,” and the thrill of spotting new talent at the hootenannys – what British clubs called “singers’ night,” when wannabees “sing from the floor”.
“Hoot nights at Gerde’s were fabulous – just look at who got up to sing: Richie Havens when no one knew who he was. Simon and Garfunkel when they were still Tom and Jerry – I remember vividly standing at the bar and thinking: those guys are good. I saw Dylan there.” Like many who knew him in those early days, Dobson remembers how funny he was, how much presence he had. She also recalls dinner one night with singer-songwriter Gil Turner and his wife.
“Dylan was always at the typewriter and I think that night he was writing Boots of Spanish Leather because Suze [Rotolo, famously pictured on Freewheelin’] had gone off to Italy and I’d just broken up with the guy I was seeing, so I was also pretty miserable. Not a lot was said that night!”
Dobson’s guitar, the trusty old Martin she bought in LA where she wrote Morning Dew, is propped up on a chair in her large sunny kitchen. Scuffed from a half-century of playing and travel, it sounds as mellow and pure as her remarkable voice.
Of Scottish–Irish descent, Dobson was born in Toronto in 1940. Her father was a union organiser and a great fan of Paul Robeson, whom Bonnie remembers seeing live. “My parents also loved opera so I was raised on Robeson, Bjőrling and Renata Tebaldi.”
Heartbreak Hotel made a big impression, and ‘50s pop featured in high school dances. But it was hearing the Weavers, topping the charts with Goodnight, Irene and, in particular, Pete Seeger, that changed her life. Dobson was a junior counsellor at Camp Beaver in Ontario when Seeger – blacklisted by McCarthy and driven from the airwaves – came to sing. “On stage, no one could touch Pete. Had had such warmth and he could draw an audience.”
Though she’d always sung, it wasn’t until 16 that she got her first guitar. After a friend had shown her a few chords, Dobson taught herself using The People’s Song Book, published in 1948 as “a folio of freedom folklore, a weapon against war and reaction, and a singing testament to the future” (Alan Lomax). She was clearly a quick study for within three years, a local concert agent whose kids she babysat introduced her to Paul Endicott, who managed many of the era’s folk acts, including Seeger and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
“I remember the letter vividly: ‘My wife and I think you have talent. If you’ve ever thought of singing professionally I’ll start working on bookings for you.’ I thought it would be a nice way to spend the summer.
“I’d never sung professionally, just high school and camp, and on May 6, I got on a plane to Denver Colorado to play three weeks at the Exodus with Sonny and Brownie – two shows a night, three at the weekend. You only do something like that when you don’t know any better.”
After five years in the US, Dobson headed home to Canada, in demand on TV and radio and on stage. In 1969, she followed her heart to London, singing while she brought up her kids before retiring in 1989 to study at Birkbeck, where she went on to be an administrator and where no one knew of her illustrious past... until long-time fan Jarvis Cocker tracked her down for a Meltdown concert celebrating “The Lost Ladies of Folk”.
Dobson laughs. “I didn’t know I was lost – I was having a life!” She stole the show, her story finally “made real” to her children. For a while nothing happened. Then Guardian critic Robin Denselow (who’d reviewed her London debut) introduced her to Hornbeam Recordings. Take Me For a Walk in the Morning Dew was released in 2014 – hot on the heels of Dobson’s appearance at the Bert Jansch tribute concert at which she sang Morning Dew with Robert Plant, another long-time fan. That was “a magical night, extraordinary,” she reflects. “I’m forever truly indebted to Robert.”
Finally relaunched, Dobson was poised to hit the road when her husband took ill. He passed away last year and she is gradually returning to the fray, buoyed up by his parting words: Bonnie, please don’t stop singing.
For his sake, and ours, this time she must not.
Bonnie Dobson plays the Green Note on April 13 as part of the Square Roots project and is taking part in Record Store Day, April 16, when a numbered vinyl edition of her album is released.