Norma Waterson obituary | Music
Norma Waterson, who died aged 82, was one of Britain’s most talented and versatile folk revival singers. She spent most of her life singing traditional songs, many from her native East Yorkshire, in two very successful bands, the Watersons and Waterson:Carthy, in which she was joined by other members of her family. . But her no-frills, soulful and unapologetically emotional approach was well-suited to a wide variety of other musical styles, as she showed in solo recordings and collaborations with her daughter Eliza Carthy, which earned her accolades. sequel far beyond the folk scene. .
She was a prolific and hardworking artist who refused to stop recording or touring, and sang equally well in her 60s and 20s. Her latest album, Anchor (2018), was the second she had recorded with Eliza, and was a typically varied and experimental affair. It included Norma singing lead to a dramatic, jazzy treatment of the Tom Waits song strange weather and a gently powerful version of Nick Lowe’s The Beast in Me.
The duo’s award-winning debut album Gift (2010) was followed by a tour, during which Norma fell seriously ill with heart problems. She recovered and returned to her home in Robin Hood’s Bay on the Yorkshire coast, cared for by her husband, singer and guitarist Martin Carthy, and Eliza. Although she found it difficult to travel, she wanted to continue singing and performed at the local annual festival, Normafest, set up in her honor. His last such appearance was in January 2018.
Norma was brought up in the port of Hull, Yorkshire, by her maternal grandmother, Eliza Ward, of part Irish gypsy descent, who ran a second-hand shop during the Second World War. Norma’s parents, Florence and Charles, died when she was very young, and she spent much of her childhood caring for her younger brother Mike and her sister Elaine, better known as Lal. It was a time, says Norma, when “most people had a piano in the living room. We didn’t have a TV but my grandmother knew all the music hall songs and we listened to pop on Radio Luxembourg”.
The children sang together around the house and formed a band, the Mariners, during the traditional jazz and skiffle era of the 1950s. From American folk, they became increasingly interested in the English tradition. They founded a folk club in a Hull pub, the Blue Bell, and changed their name to the Watersons.
The group consisted of Norma, Mike and Lal, and their first cousin John Harrison, and they transformed the folk revival of the 60s in Britain partly because they dressed like all the other young musicians concerned about fashion of the time (they were nicknamed the “folk Beatles”), but mostly because of their offensive, unaccompanied harmonious treatment of old English songs. As Mike commented at the time “we’re down to earth, like the Rolling Stones”.
He and Norma handled most of the lead vocals, with Lal providing often very adventurous harmonies – this was a band that followed no traditional rules. As Norma explained, “If you couldn’t find a note, you sang a harmony.” The Watersons’ debut album Frost and Fire (1965) was followed by The Watersons and A Yorkshire Garland. The group was widely acclaimed but broke up in 1968, exhausted from touring.
Norma’s first marriage (in 1958), to Eddie Anderson, had also ended, and now
she spent time away from her brother and sister, moving to Montserrat in the West Indies, where she worked as a DJ. On her return in 1972, she married Carthy, who joined the reformed Watersons, taking Harrison’s place. The new formation recorded three albums, For Pence and Spicy Ale (1975), Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy (1977) and Green Fields (1981). In 1977, Norma also recorded the album A True Hearted Girl with Lal.
In 1976 the three siblings and their families moved to Kirk Moor, a cluster of secluded farm cottages on the edge of the North York Moors. It is an exquisite and secluded location, reached by a narrow lane which can be snowy in winter, and was known to local villagers as ‘the hippie commune’. The arrangement ended in the late 80s when Norma and Lal and their families moved to Robin Hood’s Bay.
Lal left the Watersons in 1990, but Norma continued to work in a new band, Waterson:Carthy, in which she was joined by her husband and daughter. This group differed from the Watersons in that they used instrumental accompaniment, with Martin Carthy demonstrating his famous guitar work and Eliza playing the violin.
Waterson:Carthy recorded six albums, first as a trio (on Waterson:Carthy, 1994 and Common Tongue, 1997), then with Saul Rose joining them on the melodeon (Broken Ground, 1999), and later with Tim van Eyken taking its place (A Dark Light, 2002, Fishes and Fine Yellow Sand, 2004 and Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man, 2006). They focused on traditional English songs, but also included material from the Bahamas, the United States or a song by Mike.
Norma was also part of the occasional folk harmony “super-group” Blue Murder. On their 2002 album, No One Stands Alone, she was joined by Martin and Eliza, Mike and the vocal trio Barry Cooper, Jim Boyes and Lester Simpsonfor a set that included a rousing treatment from Mike Elastic.
Norma was one of the best exponents of traditional English songs, but showed her love of other styles in her eclectic and moving solo albums. Norma Waterson (1996) included songs by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson and Lal, as well as the self-composed Hard Times Heart. The album was nominated for a Mercury Prize, an award usually associated with pop and rock rather than folk, and nearly won – the award went to Pulp’s Different Class instead.
Three years later, she expanded her lineup with The Very Thought of You, which included an emotional (but never sentimental) reworking of Over the Rainbow, and Love of my life, by Freddie Mercury – featuring the first recording of Lal’s angry response to Joe Haines, written after Harold Wilson’s former press secretary wrote what Lal thought was a deeply offensive article about Mercury’s death from AIDS . In 2000, Norma recorded her first solo album of traditional songs, Bright Shiny Morning.
With the Gift album and subsequent tour, she brought together all of these different musical influences. She had suffered from a series of health issues and struggled to walk, but was still a wonderful voice and handled the majority of the solos during the tour. At the BBC Folk Awards in 2011, Gift was named album of the year, and the song Poor Wayfaring Stranger, from the album, best traditional track. In 2016, she received a lifetime achievement award from the BBC Folk Awards. She was appointed MBE in 2002.
Her last concert in London, where she appeared alongside Eliza at Union Chapel, in 2010, was recorded and released as the album The Gift Band – Live on Tour. It provided a triumphant and suitably emotional summary of his career. She told her audience that “it’s hard to stick to one type of music,” before joining her daughter for a set that included folk songs, contemporary Thompson songs, the slow and soulful Dreaming , written for her by Loudon Wainwright, as well as the gloriously melodious Bunch of Thyme, a song about mortality and songs she had learned as a child. Between songs, she chatted with the audience in the same laid-back, humorous way she chatted with those who visited her.
Lal died in 1998; and Mike in 2011. Norma is survived by Martin and Eliza; and by Tim, his son from his first marriage.