To many people, Bonnie Dobson is probably best-known as the composer of Morning Dew, a song she wrote in 1961 and which has since become something of an evergreen standard, not only in folk music but also in many other musical styles, from rock to pop and all points in between. Leaving aside the more well-known stories around the song (if you’re unfamiliar with them, the Wikipedia page [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morning_Dew] is quite comprehensive) and resisting the temptation to ponder on how one artist’s song can become so ubiquitous while her other compositions remain largely unknown, just one listen to Bonnie’s new record provides all the (re)affirmation that you might need that this is an artist whose creativity has continued unabated, despite having withdrawn from the public spotlight twenty-five years ago.
In the summer of 2013, Bonnie was “coaxed out of retirement” by Ski Williams and the Hornbeam Records team; she assembled an eight-strong line-up of musicians (including fiddle player Ben Paley, bassist Jonny Bridgwood and pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole) and began work recording Take Me For A Walk In The Morning Dew , a 15-song compilation of sorts, comprising an impressively diverse selection of tunes drawn from her own extensive repertoire, with a sprinkling of newer material and covers of traditional songs thrown in for good measure.
Opening with a confident and upbeat folk-rock reworking of I Got Stung which very much sets the stage for the rest of the album, Bonnie’s voice sounds in great form as she floats the melody over Felix Holt’s wailing harmonica and Ben Phillipson’s overdriven rhythm guitar. It’s a long way from the version I know from her 1969 self-titled record and all the better for being such a radical retake.
Researching for this review I’ve listened to many different covers of Morning Dew, from Tim Rose and The Grateful Dead via Nazareth, Clannad and Robert Plant but nobody has ever done it better – nor ever will, in my opinion – than Bonnie Dobson. As with I Got Stung, this reworked version is light years removed from (for example) the solo rendition on her live album from 1962, nevertheless it’s performed with just as much passion and its chilling message is no less pertinent today as it was back then. The arrangement here is measured and rhythmic, Bonnie’s crystal voice shining through beautifully as the song builds to a natural conclusion via a blistering guitar solo.
Southern Bound sees the first appearance on this record of the full band line-up and the presence of Ben Paley (fiddle) and BJ Cole on pedal steel guitar add a distinctly country feel to Bonnie’s tale of heartache and a failed relationship. Bolstered by some beautiful harmony vocals from Ruth Tidmarsh and Felix Holt, Bonnie’s sleeve notes really say it all: “Rain on the window and wind in the trees; time to be going”.
There’s a very Tex-Mex feel to Come On Dancing and its upbeat party mood is enhanced by a combination of producer Sean Read’s trumpet, Ben Paley’s almost bluegrass fiddle and the infectious “la la la” vocal hook. Living On Plastic follows, its country vibe well-suited to Bonnie’s desultory half-sung, half-spoken tale of a divorcee doing her best to completely flatline a couple’s credit cards in the wake of a relationship break-up. Ben Paley’s seesaw fiddle and Ben Phillipson’s guitar hold down the rhythm while BJ Cole’s bottleneck dobro adds a welcome touch of country blues to the almost jaunty, hoedown atmosphere.
Peter Amberley is a reworking of a 19th century New Brunswick lumber mill worker’s story and it’s interesting to compare this version to Bonnie’s 1962 solo live performance. Bonnie keeps the melody of the traditional Scottish song Come A’ Ye Tramps An’ Hawkers and the slow tempo of this melancholic tale is beautifully enhanced by the interplay between Ben Paley’s fiddle and Felix Holt’s bluesy harmonica. Bonnie’s wordless humming of the melody in the middle eight is both heartbreaking and perfectly placed.
Another traditional American folk song follows, although its subject and arrangement are very different. Dink’s Song has been covered by many well-known musicians, perhaps most notably Pete Seeger (from whom Bonnie learned the song) and Fred Neil, who first covered Morning Dew. The song takes its name from an African American woman called Dink, who was recorded singing it by John Lomax in 1904 while she washed clothes in a tent camp of migratory levee-builders on the bank of the Brazos River in Texas. The lyric tells the story of a woman deserted by her lover and Bonnie’s stunning a capella performance is one of the highlights of the album.
An almost subterranean growl from Jonny Bridgwood’s bass opens Winter’s Going, a reworking of another song from Bonnie’s 1969 eponymous album. The mood is as edgy as it ever was and the echo that tails her ice-cold voice is matched note for note by BJ Cole’s pedal steel guitar while Felix Holt’s harmonica wails like a lost soul in the distant night. Mean And Evil is a country-flavoured twelve-bar stomp which finds the band sounding like the musical equivalent of a Texas beef stew coming to a rolling boil before things simmer down with the acoustic Rainy Windows, an introspective look back at Bonnie’s time in Chicago in the early 1960s with a sympathetic trumpet break from Sean Read leading the fade-out.
Three traditional songs form a surprisingly coherent triptych, despite the diversity of their subject matter. V’la L’Bon Vent (Go Good Wind) is a very old Québécois folk tune apparently favoured by the early European explorers of Canada; the fiddle and percussion drive the song relentlessly onwards and the harmony duet singing of Bonnie and Ruth is a particular joy to hear. The instrumental Sandy Boys takes its title from the men who worked the logging camps around the headwaters of the Big Sandy River in western West Virginia and north-eastern Kentucky. It uses a 19th century fiddle tune from Virginia and, perhaps unsurprisingly, allows Ben Paley’s playing to take centre stage although Jonny Bridgwood’s bouncy double bass solo is a treat. The third traditional song is a blues song which Bonnie learned from Judy Roderick, who had adapted it from an earlier version by Richard ‘Rabbit’ Brown. Born In The Country shows its roots despite its contemporary, almost rock’n’roll arrangement; Dave Morgan’s drums propel the song behind Bonnie’s easy vocals while Ben Paley’s fiddle and Ben Phillipson’s guitar trade licks with a casual intensity that had me cranking up the volume and bopping around the room.
Bonnie has never shied away from social commentary in her music, perhaps unsurprisingly given her upbringing as the daughter of a “highly political” union organiser and a schoolgirl fan of the equally highly political folk group, The Weavers (co-founded by Pete Seeger) and Who Are These Men? continues her own tradition of making her point eloquently without resorting to tub-thumping didacticism. Inspired by a news interview with the parents of a young man who had been killed by a sniper, in her sleeve notes Bonnie says, “I have never forgotten their strength and dignity in the midst of that horror. No call for vengeance, only forgiveness”. There’s a life lesson there for all of us, I think, and the simple minor key arrangement makes Bonnie’s lyric all the more poignant and thought-provoking.
The record closes with JB’s Song; set against a vivid description of London in winter, Bonnie seems to be saying a sad farewell to someone dear to her, but despite its deeply personal nature, the song’s sparse beauty nevertheless makes a fitting end to the album.
In Take Me For A Walk In The Morning Dew Bonnie Dobson has created a spellbinding album which redefines and transcends whole swathes of that amorphous term ‘folk music’, in the process managing to render most superlatives entirely redundant. These are songs of time and distance, stories of lives past and present, of loves lost and found, which will keep you absorbed from start to finish and returning to them over and over again.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Album Stream via Deezer