Are you sitting comfortably? Well, hold tight for I am now going to make an outrageous, sweeping statement. Ready?
NORMA WATERSON IS THE GREATEST SINGER IN BRITAIN.
Hang on, there’s more…
I’m not just talking folk music or traditional music or whatever else you want to call it, either, I’m talking right across the genres: rock, jazz, pop, electronica, trip-hop, worldbeat, new age, garage, nu psychedelia, Cumbrian sheep music, Canvey Island swing et al.
I’ll go further. Not only is she the greatest singer in Britain, Norma Waterson should be viewed with the same love, adoration and reverential regard widely accorded acknowledged international greats like Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Miriam Makeba, Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald, and Shirley Bassey. I love ‘em all… well, maybe not Shirley… albeit each represents a hugely divergent style and, of course, comparisons are entirely absurd. Yet… this is the sort of company in which Norma should be mentioned.
Not that Norma herself would agree and, having resisted any notion of the star system and all its vacuous connotations throughout their careers, any attempt to foist iconic status on Norma will be anathema to the whole Waterson clan. That’s not my intention here, but the fact that the vast majority of people in Britain will look completely blank at the mention of her name, let alone recognise a note of her music, is symptomatic of the country’s frustrating and baffling disregard for its own traditional heritage.
Far more learned people than I may be able to provide some sort of insight into why this might be, but when you consider the emotional depth of a voice that’s fully absorbed and embodied such a rich folk tradition for so many years, the case for Norma Waterson as a national treasure is pretty overwhelming. She has that rare ability to live, breathe and feel any song she’s singing, just the way Billie and Aretha and Ella and Patsy and the others do, so why should it make a blind bit of difference that the songs she happens to love most tend to emanate from that great writer Anon, representing the historically unfashionable, perennially uncommercial English folk tradition?
I’ve been listening a lot to Norma recently. Well, not just Norma, but all the Watersons, and I remain just as entranced by Mike Waterson’s yelps, Lal’s bold instinctive harmonies and Norma’s earthy passion as the day I first heard them a million years ago. “It’s a bit like good sex,” Norma told me once, with a mischievous smile, talking about the feeling of joy she felt singing with The Watersons and yep, you get that too. Those rip-roaring, undisciplined, unaccompanied harmonies are as visceral and animalistic as anything the Rolling Stones conjured up around the same time.
In Derrick Knight’s excellent 1966 film Travelling For A Living, they are maverick champions of a determined counter culture – young, bold, fearless, brilliant… and utterly thrilling. Small wonder that one of the early tags applied to them was ‘the folk Beatles’. Some of the glimpses of Mike Waterson in those days – all tossed hair, snarly swagger, ciggy, throwaway one-liners and intense, dipping vocals – suggest he was the template, three decades later, for Liam Gallagher; except Liam, like most of the rest of the country, has probably never heard of The Watersons.
It’s easy to take The Watersons for granted. They’ve been at the heart of the folk revival almost from the beginning – indeed, in many respects they are the heart of it – but certain recent events have done much to concentrate the mind. With both Mike and Norma Waterson suffering serious illnesses, appreciation of their immense talents becomes ever more acute… an admiration enhanced to further dramatic effect by the accolades and awards heaped on the sublime Gift, last year’s first duo album by Norma and daughter Eliza Carthy. Gift has a beautifully symbolic sleeve image of mother and daughter clasping hands, indicating an unshakeable link that you fondly imagine leads to an invisible chain running from that sleeve photograph back through endless previous generations of singers who did it for the sheer joy of the songs.
There was never such an ovation for an absent friend as when Norma’s name was read out with Eliza’s as winner of Best Traditional Track (for Poor Wayfaring Stranger) and Album of the Year for Gift at this year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in February. The extended applause continued as Eliza, flanked by her Canadian partner Aidan Curran with babe in arms, gave a dignified acceptance speech with an encouraging update on her mother’s progress in hospital 200 miles away in Yorkshire.
Gift was an emotional winner but not an emotive choice as Best Album. Quite apart from a healthy dose of the unexpected – the 1920s standard Ukulele Lady seguing neatly into Amen Corner’s (If Paradise Is) Half As Nice anyone? – and some top-notch arrangements and accompaniments involving Martin Simpson, Chris Parkinson and various members of the family, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Norma sing so well. The aforementioned Poor Wayfaring Stranger, the old Delia Murphy warhorse Boston Burglar, Longfellow’s rousing poem Psalm Of Life set to Eliza’s tune and, especially, the gorgeous old Bunch Of Thyme, Eliza harmonising subtly under Norma’s more robust delivery. I had Gift earmarked as the best album of 2010 long before Norma got ill. No contest really.
It’s astonishing when you consider that it’s closing in on 50 years since The Watersons first tumbled out of Hull to startle the nascent British folk scene. Finding themselves in London around 1963, they took the opportunity to visit one of London’s foremost folk clubs, The Troubadour in Earls Court and blew the place apart. One of the club residents at the time was Martin Carthy, who still talks in awe of that night.
“What you have to remember is that every group at that time modelled themselves on the American group, The Weavers and they always had a banjo, a guitar and a girl singer – always. Then suddenly three blokes and two girls got up with no instruments and sang Three Score And Ten and it was… astonishing. Sometimes they were singing harmonies and sometimes they sang in unison and it was extraordinary. Nobody had sung like that before.
“I still listen to their early recordings and it sounds like they were made yesterday whereas other groups from that time sound very much from the sixties. Including me! That’s one of the extraordinary things about The Watersons and I think it’s a lot to do with blood relatives singing together and coming from a family who all made music. It didn’t matter what the music was… they had this fantastic education in music. Their dad loved jazz, their mother liked light opera and their uncle Ronnie was a big opera fan who was also lead cornet player in a pit band so he knew all the modern music too. It left them with a good understanding of opera and jazz but they made a conscious choice about what they wanted to do and that was to sing Yorkshire songs, because no-one else was doing it. And what a job they made of it!”
A couple of summers ago I spent an illuminating and richly entertaining if somewhat chaotic afternoon on the north Yorkshire coast at Robin Hood’s Bay with Mike and Norma hilariously bickering about their conflicting memories of childhood as they attempted to discuss the genesis of their singing. Gazing at Eliza changing baby Florence’s nappy in front of him (“Oooh jalfrezi, lovely!”) Mike and Norma disagreed about the detail, bantering and chiding one another like a comedy double act, while a graphic picture of a tough, unyielding yet rarefied childhood emerged. They lost both parents within 18 months of one another while they were still kids. Their mother Florence was a chronic asthmatic who died of pneumonia at the age of 38 in the deadly winter of 1947 and two weeks later their dad had a stroke. He never recovered and was dead the following year.
When the family was told about the stroke, their grandmother Eliza Ward didn’t believe them. “He can’t have done,” she said. “He had two eggs for his breakfast this morning…”
Eliza Ward, a formidable woman who ran a wardrobe business furnishing local theatres, was left to bring up the three Waterson kids with what sounds like a rod of iron. “She were a menace,” said Mike. “She was a hard woman but an amazing one, she had a hard life,” said Norma, more temperately. Another interesting character loomed prominently in their childhoods – Thirza, a hunched, deaf girl with a broken back who Grandma Ward had rescued from the workhouse, later commemorated in one of Lal Waterson’s most memorable compositions, Song For Thirza.
The family was from an Irish Gypsy background and it wasn’t an easy upbringing but amongst all the trials there was music, always plenty of music. Musing on what drove them to uncover the heart of the English tradition rather than plunge into rock’n'roll, pop, jazz, classical, brass bands or any of the other styles to which they’d been exposed, Mike said that Lal in particular was drawn to Hull’s lively jazz clubs and might easily have become a jazz singer. Her much-covered Some Old Salty is a compelling memoir of the riverboat jazz shuffle cruises out of Hull to which she was regularly drawn.
But the skiffle boom of 1957/8 caught their imagination first. Lonnie Donegan, The Vipers, the Chas McDevitt Group… their chart reign may have been brief but the legacy of American folk songs they introduced to the British public – and the notion that anyone with a washboard, vocal chords, a sense of rhythm and something stringed approximating a guitar could play – came to have a profound impact on a country being reintroduced to folk song.
So The Watersons did what every other bugger was doing at the same time – they formed a skiffle group. By consensus it wasn’t much cop – were any skiffle groups any cop? – and initially they slavishly followed everybody else singing American standards with the obligatory Weavers banjo/guitar rhythm with names like the Mariners and the Folksons. But they did form their own folk club, which eventually settled at the Blue Bell in Hull and they gradually started investigating the long-buried tradition closer to home. Little by little the American material was fazed out. “I couldn’t understand why we were doing it in the first place,” said Mike.
Championed and to some extent mentored by one of the architects of the British folk revival, Bert Lloyd, they dumped instrumentation altogether and, with cousin John Harrison joining them in a settled line-up, they intuitively developed the full-blooded vocal fireworks which have inspired generations since. There was no planning, no set structures, no theory, nothing was fixed, pre-ordained or even discussed much beforehand… they just relied on their own instincts to guide them through as their voices excitingly criss-crossed.
Mike: “Bert Lloyd listened to us and said ‘Wonderful mixolydian harmonies’. We didn’t have a clue what mixolydian harmonies were, we just sang very naturally. It all happened by accident really. It wasn’t necessarily right, but it was right for our type of music.”
Their first recording was on the multi-artist Topic collection New Voices with Maureen Craik and Harry Boardman and things then happened fast. Within six months they were back in London for a day to record their extraordinary debut album Frost & Fire on a Revox in a back room at producer Bill Leader’s house in Camden Town. They recorded it in the morning – everything first take – Leader cooked a stew for lunch and they were on the train back home to Hull by the evening. There was just one overdub – a drum beat on Hal-An-Tow, although one track, Here We Come A-Wassailing, was mysteriously lost and they did have to return to London shortly afterwards to re-record it.
“We started at 9am and we finished by lunchtime,” said Norma. “Not because we were brilliant and didn’t make any mistakes but it was all done on a shoestring and time was money. We’d met Bill Leader at the Troubadour and he said ‘Do you want to make a record?’ That was the way it was done then. None of this ‘My people will talk to your people…’”
Frost & Fire was and is an electrifying album that lifts the soul with the raw power of Mike, Norma, Lal and John Harrison and the richness, mystery and drama of the ritual songs they assembled to create the ‘Calendar Of Ceremonial Folk Songs’ as it was promoted: Hal-An-Tow, Pace-Egging Song, John Barleycorn, Derby Ram, Bitter Withy… stirring songs all, that electrified the scene and instantly propelled the unique Watersons sound into the forefront of the burgeoning folk world. Suddenly they were professional folk singers.
“We didn’t really want to make a career out of it,” said Norma, who still talks of Frost & Fire as her proudest Watersons album. “That was never our intention at all, we just wanted to sing. This was our music, our heritage, and we wanted other people to hear it.”
A few years ago I asked Norma if she thought the folk revival had succeeded and she thought long and hard before saying that no, the mission had been to return these songs and this music to local communities where they hoped they’d be readopted and sung informally. They wanted to give the ‘people’s music’ back to the people and establishing a circuit of clubs for themselves and other musicians to establish professional careers was a fine thing, but it was never part of the agenda. So no, she said, the folk revival had technically failed in the context of their original intentions… though she was quick to add the caveat that she’d loved every minute of it.
They maintained momentum with two albums in 1966. The Watersons found them booming out a repertoire that became familiar in every folk club in the land, with Dido Bendigo, I Am A Rover and Ewan MacColl’s Thirty Foot Trailer; while A Yorkshire Garland, underlined their conviction and commitment to traditional song as community music. Listening to A Yorkshire Garland now still makes you want to crank up the volume, throw open the doors and burst into the streets singing along with The Pretty Drummer Boy, The Yorkshire Tup, Sorry The Day I Was Married and, especially, The White Cockade. Bert Lloyd’s sleeve notes are especially illuminating…
“The Watersons are from Yorkshire and proud of it so they thought they would make this a record of Yorkshire songs, but it’s more than simply an anthology of local pieces… in some countries the folk music is in clearly marked regional styles, so that passing from one district to another is almost like crossing the frontier into a foreign land, so different are the musics. That’s usually a sign of isolation, of poor communication between one area and another. Not so with England. For centuries, our roads have been too good, our population too mobile for the best folk songs to stay at home. Outside of the north-east (where a certain peculiar kind of melody has been stabilised by the use of the Northumbrian small-pipes) we have no clearly differentiated regional music… most of these are songs of nationwide currency. But they are Yorkshire versions; and the Watersons are Yorkshire men and women so they sing them with a special affection…”
But the intensity of their popularity was catching up on them. Married with two small children, Mike was certainly uneasy about the unexpected turn of fate which found them racing round the country performing concerts for £20, while music had diverted Lal from her original chosen path as an artist studying heraldry. “We didn’t turn pro to be rich and famous, we did it because we loved the music,” said Mike. They all hated touring anyway and, in 1968, completely knackered, they announced their retirement. And that might well have been that. Norma was going out with a pirate radio DJ who accepted a job at Radio Antilles in Montserrat. She went with him and ended up DJ-ing herself, while discovering unexpected parallels between her own folk traditions and those in the West Indies.
Meanwhile back in Yorkshire, Mike and Lal, both married and getting on with their lives were, independently of one another, writing songs and poetry. Working as a house painter, Mike took to spending his lunchtimes at Lal’s house with an old guitar, helping her put words to music. One afternoon he was painting a window when the sun suddenly burst through the clouds and lit up the window and in an instant a line flashed into his head… “Today bright phoebus she smiled down on me for the very first time…”
It was a line that came to be immortalised on the title track of their iconic 1972 LP Bright Phoebus, a collection of magical, enigmatic and evocative original Lal/Mike songs far removed from their previous incarnation as the darlings of traditional English song. Many of the leading lights of that early 1970s British folk scene joined them in the studio to add weight and a broad selection of instrumentation to the project, including Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, Dave Mattacks, Maddy Prior, Bob Davenport and, back from her adventures in the Caribbean, Norma Waterson.
Bright Phoebus was and is an astonishingly good record, albeit one that never received its full due as a real trailblazer and is now certainly less attainable and more obscure than it should be. Despite some oblique references and complex imagery – particularly the ones in which Lal’s hand was most dominant – many of the songs were inspired by childhood memories and to a greater or lesser degree are still sung today: Mike’s joyous, pun-ridden Rubber Band, the wry Magical Man and rip-roaring title track Bright Phoebus, Lal’s stark The Scarecrow and the strange, haunting Fine Horseman.
Sadly they never took Bright Phoebus out on the road and it remains a frustratingly isolated experiment that, with its lack of availability, has consigned it to the role of cult classic. It’s fascinating, however, to ponder what may have lay ahead had they pursued the path of electric instruments used on the album and investigated further the colourful potential of Mike and Lal’s songs. It was to be nearly 25 years before we got to hear Lal Waterson’s songs at close quarters again when she collaborated with her son Oliver Knight on another cult classic, Once In A Blue Moon.
The reaction to Bright Phoebus wasn’t entirely positive, however, and there was a faction which resented the idea of the Watersons dabbling in contemporary material. “After Bright Phoebus came out some people told us it was our duty to sing traditional songs,” said Norma. And sing traditional songs once more they did. If Bright Phoebus wasn’t unanimously well received and the notion of forming a proper band to take the songs out on the road foundered before it was even voiced, it did fire Mike, Lal and Norma’s need to perform together again and ultimately triggered a rebirth of The Watersons as a major force singing unaccompanied traditional songs. With Bernie Vickers – and then Norma’s husband Martin Carthy – in John Harrison’s old spot singing bass lines, Mike, Lal and Norma seamlessly slipped back into their trademark inspirational volley of harmonies to reassert themselves as the cream of the British folk revival.
They announced their comeback in style in 1975 with For Pence & Spicey Ale, which included a celebrated Mike Waterson ditty about Hull fishermen, Three Day Millionaire, but otherwise concentrated on the tradition with some full-blooded rabble rousers like Country Life, The Good Old Way and Adieu Adieu. Identified by its distinctive cover taken from an old postcard of Molly dancers, it was crowned Folk Album of the Year in both Melody Maker and NME and laid the groundwork for over two decades of mastery of the art of delivering unaccompanied folk song with a verve, commitment, passion, skill and instinct that sounded fresh and gripping every time you heard it. Just don’t ask them to explain what they did or how they did it, because they didn’t know. “We never planned anything, never wrote anything down on paper – we’d just sit in a room and sing to each other until we liked what we heard,” said Norma. “Nobody was more surprised than us when we got the reception we did. We just loved the music and we loved singing together.”
photo © Keith Morris
It showed, too, every time they gathered on stage together, ribbing one another endlessly and chatting to the audience like they were gossiping to neighbours over the garden wall before exploding into those wonderful, uplifting harmonies. In 1977, with Britain in the grip of the punk revolution, they released another classic, Sound Sound Your Instruments Of Joy, an inspirational celebration of hymns and religious songs. And in 1981 they made another gem, Green Fields, on which they were as buoyant as ever on another brilliant collection of songs about country life with the likes of While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping and The Prickle Holly Bush.
By the 1990s, Mike and Lal had tired of the travelling and, with Norma and Martin’s daughter Eliza Carthy fully embracing the folk tradition she was born into, The Watersons evolved into Waterson:Carthy, marking the beginning of another new chapter in the story of this remarkable family. With other gifted musicians joining the party, including melodeon players/singers Saul Rose and Tim Van Eyken, they released three outstanding albums through the decade – Waterson:Carthy (1994), Common Tongue (1996) and Broken Ground (1999) – continuing to add to their glorious catalogue with A Dark Light (2002), Fishes & Fine Yellow Sound (2004) and another album of ceremonial songs, Holy Heathens & The Old Green Man (2006).
Not once have they sounded like they’ve ever been going through the motions and the mark of their enduring freshness and vitality can be found in the new generations discovering their magic all the time. There have been various offshoots along the way that have underlined their individual talents – solo albums for Mike, and Norma, who diversified famously to come within one judge’s vote of causing a sensation by winning the 1996 Mercury Music Prize with her highly eclectic Norma Waterson album. Norma sings Richard Thompson’s God Loves A Drunk and you can almost touch the loneliness and desperation; she adds a depth of emotion and longing to St Swithin’s Day that even the song’s composer Billy Bragg can’t have imagined; when she tackles the Grateful Dead’s Black Muddy River she invests it with a rare grace and beauty. And within this broad landscape There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth The Salt Of My Tears, an old song she remembered her dad playing on the guitar and banjo, sounds entirely at home.
In 1977 Topic released A True-Hearted Girl, a duo album of Norma and Lal Waterson which also marked the recording debuts – on backing vocals – of Lal’s daughter Marry and Norma’s daughter Eliza, perhaps the first indication of the emerging dynasty we now hail. Eliza Carthy, in particular, absorbed her heritage to magnificent effect and her flair and vision came to play a major role in lifting English folk music from its torpor and rebranding it through the late 1990s as a lively, vital and credible art form.
And now there’s a new twist to the tale with the emergence of Marry Waterson and her brother Oliver Knight as a duo opening their account with a beguiling debut album The Days That Shaped Me (released 28th March 2011 on One Little Indian). Having resisted joining the family business for so long while she did other things, like painting and sculpture and renovating houses and raising kids, Marry was somewhat disconcerted by the trail of strangers who bounded up to hug her and tell her how much she looked and sounded like her mum when she was eventually lured into the fold to sing one of Lal’s best-loved songs Fine Horseman at The Watersons’ Mighty River Of Song concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2007.
In the years following Lal’s sudden death in 1998 at the age of 55, Marry couldn’t go near her mother’s songs, let alone attempt to sing any of them. “In the first week after she died I could listen to her music, but after two weeks I couldn’t touch it,” she says. “I couldn’t be around it and it took me nine years to be able to sing the music that had been the soundtrack to my life.”
But when she did start, she couldn’t stop, discovering that not only had she inherited Lal’s looks and voice, she’d also been suppressing the same passion for writing. The songs came flooding out of her… often strange, sometimes dark and mysterious, frequently beautiful, just like her mother’s songs. Pretty soon she was spending more and more time collaborating with her brother Olly, who added instruments, ideas and music until finished songs started to emerge… just as he’d done over a decade earlier with Lal on her cult classic Once In A Blue Moon and its posthumously released successor A Bed Of Roses.
The Days That Shaped Me offers an interesting new thread to the whole Watersons story, with contributions from two of Lal’s biggest fans, James Yorkston and Kathryn Williams, showing their potential, not with hardcore Watersons fans of old, but with the younger nu folk audiences not versed in traditional song but drawn to the inherent richness, drama and love of language it evokes in Marry and Olly, just as it did with their mother.
And so the story goes on. Salute Norma Waterson, and Mike, and all the rest of them. Salute, respect and love their mighty river of song…
Photos courtesy of Topic Records unless otherwise credited.