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Bonnie Dobson Interview

Interview conducted with Bonnie Dobson, White House Hotel, London England, 4/13/93.

Bonnie Dobson is best know as the author of the song "Morning Dew". Bonnie was born and raised in Toronto Canada where she embarked on a career in music while studying at the University there. She moved to England in 1969 where she now makes her home. Bonnie only performs in public on an occasional basis but still enjoys singing and playing guitar. Bonnie is currently the head administrator for the Philosophy Department at the Berwick College of the University Of London.

[Randy Jackson] Let's start with your background, where you were born, how you got involved in music, those sorts of things.

[Bonnie Dobson] Well, I was born in Toronto, was raised in Toronto and I got interested in folk music. My father was a trade unionist and my sister, my older sister, ran with a gang of kids who were very keen on folk music and they, in fact, eventually turned into a group in Canada called "The Travellers". So when I was about 11, that's when I first got interested. Then as a teenager I went off to summer camp in Quebec, and also in Ontario, this was in the '50s. We used to have people like Pete Seeger and Leon Bibb come up and give concerts on the weekends and that's when I really got into it and started playing the guitar and got really keen, really interested. I was considered really off beat by all my friends at school because no one was interested in folk music. I was considered a real kind of little rebel although I was probably the most sanitized rebel actually when I look back on it. But that's where I got interested.

[RJ] Why don't we talk about your early music career and how you came to be playing in New York City at a place called Folk City in 1962 and record an album there.

[BD] Well, what happened was I had been at University in Toronto and singing had really been my hobby. I used to be the stock entertainment in high school. In between the dancing I would get up and sing a song. And then I went to University and I hit University and you know I just wasn't happy. I was doing an English degree and I thought "What am I doing here?". So I thought I'd take a few months out and I sort of had it all organized so that I could go back in the Autumn because I had scholarships and things like that. And one night a friend of mine who was a concert promoter named Marty Bockner(sp) rang me up and said "What are you doing tonight?". And I said "Well I've got a date" and he said "Well break it and come out with us, there is someone I want you to meet". And I did and it was a man named Paul Endicot(sp) from Detroit. In the course of the evening I sang a few songs and it wasn't like it was an interview or anything that always sort of happened. He wrote me a letter three days later and said "If your interested in singing professionally my wife and I think your good and we'll book you". And I thought "OK, this would be a nice way to spend the summer" you know and I went off.

I did my first tour in, I think it was May 1960, I went down to Denver Colorado, I sang at the Exidous(sp). I did my first tour with Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry who had been my idols and then I was playing with them. And then I went off to Los Angeles. There was a festival up in Idlewild, the University of California had this arts festival every summer and I taught Canadian folk songs. I never got back to University. I just kept going and eventually I hit New York. I recorded my first album with Prestige and Kenny Goldstein produced it, in fact Kenny produced all my albums with Prestige. Then a lot of people were doing live albums and we sort of decided it was a good idea. And Gerdies(sp) [Folk City] was sort of a great place, Gerdies was wonderful actually. I regret for all the young singers and musicians now that there aren't places like Gerdies because it was extraordinary.

[RJ] Is there anything specific that you remember about about that particular night? Was it recorded at one night?

[BD] No, we did it over three nights, I think we did it over three nights. I felt nervous, I remember that, I was always nervous on stage actually.

[RJ] That's the first appearance of the song "Morning Dew".

[BD] Yes, the next person to record it was Freddy Neil.

[RJ] Why don't we go back a little and talk about the inspiration for that song, set the context. I think there were a lot of social and political things going on at that time.

[BD] Yea, well actually what happened with that song is that, I think it must have been maybe 1960 or 1959, I can't remember, when I saw a film called "On The Beach" and it made a tremendous impression on me, that film. Particularly at that time because everybody was very worried about the bomb and whether we were going to get through the next 10 years. It was a very immediate problem and I remember I was singing in Los Angeles at the Ashe Grove and I sat up all night talking with some friends. I was staying with a girl named Joyce Nastelin(sp) whom I lost contact with, nice woman she was. And I don't know, she went to bed or something and I just sat and suddenly I just started writing this song. I had never written anything in my life. I'd written some poetry as a kid. I'd never written songs and this song just came out and really it was a kind of re-enactment of that film in a way where at the end there is nobody left and it was a conversation between these two people trying to explain what's happening. It was really apocalypse, that was what it was about.

I remember the next day, there was a wonderful woman in Los Angeles named Jane Borak(sp) and she used to have these terrific parties that lasted all night and were amazing because everybody played all night long. We'd finish at the Ashe Grove, say Brownie and Sonny, and we'd pick up Mark Speolstra and God knows whatever musicians were around and we'd end up at Janes and we'd sing and play the whole night long, it was quite wonderful. I remember ringing her up and saying "I've written this song" and was sort of singing it down the phone and "Do you think it's any good?". I think I performed it at the Ashe Grove, but I'm not sure about that, but the first time that I know that I performed it where it actually made an impact was at the first Mariposa(sp) festival in Toronto. In fact I remember vividly the review in the Globe & Mail, they said some things about me and a mornful dirge called "Morning Dew", and she sang a mornful dirge. That's what it was really about, it was really about that film and the feelings, the fearful feelings we had at that time. And then things got better and then they got worse and we are where we are now. Actually I think that the song, if anything, is more of this time, of the present than it ever was then.

[RJ] The first cover version, the first recording besides yours was by Fred Neil.

[BD] Yea, Jac Holtzman(sp) rang me in New York and he said "You wrote Morning Dew didn't you" and I said "Yes". He said "Have you published it?" cause I was quite a little dumb dumb actually in those days. He said "Well, Fred Neil wants to record it so we would like to publish it." So I signed a publishing deal with him and that was OK. And then afterwards I would meet people and they would say "I learned that song traveling on a train from St Louis to Chicago" and it had sort of traveled actually like a proper folk song. Fred Neil was the first person to...well rock it really, because the way I sang it was actually quite lyrical and he rocked it. He actually changed the lyrics as well.

[RJ] He added some additional verses at the end?

[BD] Well, actually, instead of saying "Take me for a walk" he sang "Walk me out in the morning dew". He was the one that changed it.

[RJ] The Grateful Dead recorded the song in '67 for their first album and they've been playing it live since that time, up till this day actually.

[BD] Interestingly enough, when they came into Toronto in '67 I knew they were doing the song and I remember going down to their concert, I think they were playing at the O'Keef. And I think that they had done a couple of nights and the night I was there they didn't do it! And I was so disappointed because you know I'd never actually seen the Dead live until that night and they were so wonderful. I remember Jerry Garcia, he actually got the audience to dancing! You did not dance in Toronto in 1967, everyone was a little too staid for that. I always remember how glorious he was on stage, he was wonderful. I haven't seen him since then. I remember this terrific disappointment that he didn't do the song because I knew that he'd done it the previous night.

[RJ] You've heard the versions that they've done, there is one on the first [Dead] album.

[BD] I've got the first album, that version.

[RJ] One of the interesting things about the song is that I suspect that a lot of the people who follow the Dead and listen to that song probably don't really understand what the meaning is behind the song.

[BD] I think that people can interpret a song like that in different ways, you know, just like some people read poetry and they might take a completely different meaning from it and I think that's true of that song. I've heard other versions of people doing it and it's obvious that whatever their singing about, it's not what I was thinking about or still think about when I sing the song.

[RJ] Are there other versions of the song that come to mind?

[BD] Blackfoot did a sort of interesting version of it, God a lot of people, I mean there have been some dreadful versions of it too. Well Lulu did it, she had quite a hit with it. One of the versions I long to hear is the Fury Brothers. I understand they never recorded it, you know the Irish group the Furys. I understand they used to do an amazing version of it, I've never heard them do it.

[RJ] I believe there is also a version by Devo.

[BD] Oh Yea, I've heard that version. That is really bad! It is terrible actually, sorry about that boys, but it's really bad. It was pretty grim, that version.

[RJ] One of the other people who recorded the song was Time Rose.

[BD] Last night I was watching a program about Bert Janche and Martin Carthy was on and he was talking about how he felt all those years after what happened with Paul Simon and Scarboro Fair, you probably know that story. Carthy taught Simon the arrangement, Simon recorded it and copyrighted it, the whole thing. Timmy Rose, I've never met him, he was written into the contract subsequently, I think it was 1967 maybe early '68. I had a call from Manny Greenhill saying Tim Rose is going to record your song but he wants to make a few changes, can you write a new lyric. I remember I was sitting on a plane flying from Toronto to Vancouver, I was doing a television show, sitting writing this thinking "What am I doing this for?" you know sort of thing. I was searching desperately through my desk trying to find the correspondence with Manny because I think what happened was there was no way we could not actually cut him in on the lyric because I had performed it and [then] published it. I hadn't done it the way your supposed to do things so it was somewhat in the public domain. I must admit when I heard his version I suddenly said "Uh Oh, hey what's going on here?" because to me there was no substantial change and actually if we're really honest about this, if anyone is going to be credited as co-writer or co-lyricist it should have been Fred Neil because all Time Rose did was take Freddy Neils changes.

So that was difficult, but the worst part was that when I came to England in 1969 and I gave my debut concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall everybody had thought that Time Rose had written that song because he had never ever given me any credit at any time for anything to do with that song. I've written songs with other people and I have never claimed them for my own. I just think it was really a dreadfully dishonest thing to do. I still get my royalty check, but I still consider it quite a grievous injury. I remember when Lulu brought it out, that was what '67, and they took out a full page ad in Billboard and it said Tim Rose's great hit and I nearly went crazy but there was nothing we could do.

[RJ] In 1969 you recorded another version of the song, in Canada, Toronto I believe, and that one was completely different from the original one in '62. The '62 version was with acoustic guitar, the '69 version was with a full orchestra.

[BD] The full schmeer, yea. Well what happened was I did this album for the CBC in Canada and I was working with a man named Jack Richardson who worked with a group called The Guess Who. He was actually a very big producer, super man actually Jack Richardson. We got stuck into the major arrangement scene because that is what they wanted and they sold it to RCA and I suppose that's what I wanted too. Although I'm not quite sure I wanted it that way, but you know you learn.

[RJ] Do you do any live performing now? When was the last time you played?

[BD] Well I went to Chicago, in 1989, and I gave a concert for the Canadian Club of Chicago in the ballroom of the Drake Hotel and it was really a very nice evening, just me and my guitar. At that point I just thought "No, I think this is it". There were a lot of things that happened, my marriage broke up, I just didn't feel much like singing for a couple of years after that and then I sort of got back into it. I didn't feel I was growing, I didn't feel I was doing anything. I just seemed to be doing the same things over and over again and I thought some people are happy to do that, I wasn't. So I thought I'll go back and get my degree, so I went back to college and then I got involved in philosophy and then I discovered I was a good administrator for some strange reason, I think it came from being a mother, I don't know.