Norma Waterson, celebrated British folk singer, dies aged 82

Norma Waterson, whose bracingly beautiful singing made her a key figure in British folk music alongside her siblings Mike and Lal and husband Martin Carthy, has died aged 82.

Folk musician daughter Eliza Carthy wrote on Facebook: “Not much to say about such monumental sadness, but mam passed away yesterday afternoon, January 30th 2022.”

Waterson had recently been hospitalised with pneumonia. The family was crowdfunding for her treatment and support for Martin Carthy, amid financial difficulty during the pandemic which had prevented them from earning on tour.

Waterson was born in Hull in 1939, and was orphaned along with Mike and Lal and raised by their grandmother. They started out playing skiffle, then formed the Watersons with cousin John Harrison. With their stirring, unadorned vocal harmonising, sometimes without instrumental backing, the group helped to repopularise British folk music during the 1960s with a string of albums beginning with 1965’s Frost and Fire: A Calendar of Ceremonial Folk Songs.

They split in 1968, with Norma moving to the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat to work as a radio DJ, but after her return to the UK the Watersons reformed in the early 1970s with Martin Carthy, formerly of folk revivalist peers Steeleye Span, replacing Harrison. Lal and Mike also wrote original material, resulting in classic albums such as 1972’s Bright Phoebus, which Norma guests on.

The Watersons continued to record throughout the 1980s, before Norma, Martin and Eliza formed Waterson: Carthy in the mid-1990s. Waterson also released three solo albums in the late 90s and early 00s – her self-titled 1996 debut was nominated for the Mercury prize – and then two further releases in collaboration with Eliza.

Performing at the BBC folk awards 2016 at the Royal Albert Hall.
Performing at the BBC folk awards at the Royal Albert Hall in 2016. Photograph: Christie Goodwin/Redferns

In 2010, a serious illness left her in a coma. She recovered, but had to learn to walk and talk again.

Among those paying tribute was Billy Bragg, who called Waterson “one of the defining voices of English traditional music”.