Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



UK unaccompanied folk vocal group: Michael (b 16 January 1941; d 22 June 2011 of pancreatic cancer), Lal (Elaine; b 15 February 1943, d 4 September 1998) and Norma Christine Waterson (b 15 August 1939, d 30 January 2022), all from Hull, Yorkshire, and their cousin John Harrison. They formed a group called the Mariners, then the Folksons before settling on the family name and abandoning skiffle for traditional music; they influenced acts as diverse as Christy Moore, Anne Briggs and Traffic, as well as scores of subsequent folk groups. They debuted on New Voices anthology '64 on Topic, along with Harry Boardman (d 20 December 1987) and Mareen Craik, with songs like 'The Greenland Whale Fisheries' and 'Three Score And Ten'; tracks were recycled on several other anthologies. They sang 'The Ploughboy' on Folksongs Of Britain '65 on HMV, then stayed with Topic: Frost And Fire '65 was 'a calendar of ceremonial folksongs', ritual songs including suggestions of A. L. Lloyd and drawing upon pre-Christian traditions of the British Isles: the rock group Traffic openly acknowledged a debt, the Watersons' 'John Barleycorn' directly inspiring their title track on John Barleycorn Must Die '70.

They made The Watersons and A Yorkshire Garland '66, split '68 when Harrison moved to London (where he studied with the Sligo musician Michael Gorman). They re-formed '72 with Bernie Vickers, then Martin Carthy replacing him: For Pence And Spicy Ale '75 was the Melody Maker folk LP of the year; Sound, Sound Your Instruments Of Joy '77 explored the British hymnal tradition neglected since the Victorian era; Green Fields '81 dealt with rural customs and crafts. They guested on Peter Bellamy's Both Sides Then '79 and Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out The Lights '82. Lal and Mike also made Bright Phoebus '72 on Trailer, a seminal record of original songs in contemporary folk style, followed by Mike Waterson and A True Hearted Girl (Lal and Norma with Maria, Lal's daughter), both on Topic (some tracks added to the CD reissue '93 of For Pence And Spicy Ale). Carthy also pursued his solo career; the group expanded '85 to include Mike's daughter Rachel (b 3 April 1966, Hull). Members of Swan Arcade and the Watersons combined '87 to form offshoot Blue Murder for live work.

CD reissues have sometimes been messy, for example combining pagan and Christian song on a new edition of Frost And Fire; the best was Early Days on Topic, bringing together New Voices, The Watersons, A Yorkshire Garland and an unreleased track. Eliza Carthy, daughter of Norma and Martin, sang with her parents, worked solo, and teamed with Nancy Kerr on Eliza Carthy And Nancy Kerr '94 and Shape Of Scrape '95 on Mrs Casey Records; Norma, Martin and Eliza combined on Waterson: Carthy '94 on Topic, one of the year's best. Norma Waterson on Hannibal, her first solo album, won the coveted Mercury Prize '96 as album of the year, with songs by Jerry Garcia, Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg, Oscar Brown Jr, Ben Harper and Elvis Costello. Lal was joined by her son Oliver Knight (b 1 April 1969, Hull) on the jointly credited Once In A Blue Moon, and Knight also worked on Eliza's Heat, Light And Sound, both '96 on Topic. The Watersons' tradition is in no danger of not being handed on. Waterson/Carthy released Common Tongue '97 on Topic including the whole family, another tour-de-force. Rob Young in his book Electric Eden (2010) compared Norma's voice to 'a hand-thrown clay pot, full of character and texture.'