Bonnie Dobson is a musical footnote from the hippie era who(m?) Robert Plant has given a second 15 minutes of fame by covering her Morning Dew. The story of the song, it’s theft and it’s myriad of covers is an interesting one (feel free to wiki) and led to me being recently asked to review her body of work. Here are my thoughts:
To appreciate Bonnie Dobson’s albums, you need to be able to block out the stuff that shouldn’t be there; like some Townes Van Zandt records, the over-done arrangements are entirely incongruous with the material. If you can cancel out that extraneous noise, what you’ll hear is someone with an ear for a good song that we should have heard more of.
If nothing else, Dobson would have excelled as a talent spotter. The folkie field was a crowded one in her day, and she chose to cover then-unfamous, now-national-treasures Ian Tyson, Ralph McTell and Jackson C Frank. It’s unfortunate she didn’t deliver her own compositions with the confidence she saved for theirs; they are much better that she appeared to think and she should be better remembered for them.
Dobson’s self-titled 1969 album is considered the one to buy despite its 1970s afternoon radio sound. The signature tune is Morning Dew, which became a psych-folk standard after Fred Neil covered it and Tim Rose used a now-closed legal loophole to help himself to half the credit. There are better songs, though, especially inspired interpretations of Everybody’s Talking (Fred Neil), You Never Wanted Me (Jackson S Frank) and the peace anthem Let’s Get Together (Kingston Trio). Two of her own compositions, Rainy Windows and I’m Your Woman, are not out of place here.
Alas, Muzak production obfuscates the high quality of the songwriting and the deft, slightly funky, rhythm section. Her record label had found her singing folk songs on the coffeehouse circuit and thought they had a star, but clearly had no idea what they wanted to turn her into. The album must have sounded dated even then.
Her follow up, Good Morning Rain, benefits from less interfence from the booth and is overall more statisfying. Where her debut had throw away tracks, Good Morning Rain has none. She rescues Billy Dee Williams’ A Taste of Honey from the scmaltz pile, pens three strong originals (the title track, Sweet Man, and You Don’t Know, a goldmine waiting to be covered/discovered), and shines a spotlight (Clown, Streets of London & Factory Girl) on British troubadour Ralph McTell. There’s also another Jackson C Frank (Milk and Honey) and a somewhat pedestrian Jimmy Webb (Do What You Gotta Do).
The other album of note by Dobson is Vive La Canadienne, a collection of Canadian folk covers in French and English. Its nothing special overall, but contains two now-classic songs from a young Ian Tyson: Someday Soon, a way stronger song than Judy Collins made it sound, and Four Strong Winds, which is such a standard people probably think it was written either by Dylan or Neil Young, who’s version is definitive. (Why did Ian sing it as a duet with his wife Sylvia? The lyrics have one half of a couple addressing the other half, so both halfs singing to each other makes no sense. Perhaps Ian needed the vocal help. Perhaps Sylvia had more to do with the song than history records.)
So, in all, for a footnote she recorded some damn fine songs. For a playlist you’ve hopefully been listening to as you read, I chose Everybody’s Talkin’ (Fred Neil cover), Rainy Windows, You Never Wanted Me (Jackson S Frank cover), I’m Your Woman, Clown (Ralph McTell cover), You Don’t Know, Someday Soon (Ian Tyson cover), A Taste Of Honey (Billy Dee Williams cover).