Norma Waterson, one of the greats of British folk music who burst on to the scene with her family in the 1960s – obituary
Norma Waterson, who has died aged 82, was the matriarch of a musical dynasty that played a leading role in the English folk revival of the last 60 years.
She sang throughout her childhood with her sister Lal, and then in the family group the Watersons, with Lal, their brother Mike and cousin John Harrison. Their rich, a cappella harmonies made them the most influential vocal group of the 1960s folk revival, and they performed at festivals around the world. Their first album Frost and Fire (1965), described as a “calendar of ritual and magic songs”, remains a classic which inspired the nascent folk scene of the day.
Later on in her career Norma Waterson recorded three solo albums, of which the first came within a whisker of beating Jarvis Cocker and his band Pulp to the Mercury Music Prize in 1996. In 1994 she formed Waterson: Carthy, in which she was joined by her husband and daughter, Martin and Eliza Carthy.
Norma Waterson’s voice, with its distinctive Yorkshire tones, remained potent, full-bodied and majestic into her seventies, but her real gift was as a storyteller, who seemed to become almost possessed by the characters whose ballads and shanties she sang. In her hands, English folk music was never twee, but gutsy, passionate and capable of evoking the whole range of intense human emotion from joyful ecstasy to deepest sorrow.
Her husband once described her as an “extraordinary balance of timidity and fearlessness”, an opinion to which she gave her own typically earthy spin: “I’m basically a shy person,” she told an interviewer. “But when I’m singing, I don’t give a s--t.”
The eldest of three children, Norma Waterson was born in Hull on August 15 1939, into a close-knit extended musical family. Her father played the guitar and piano; her mother the piano. Her Uncle Harry was adept at organ, piano, banjo and one-string fiddle; Uncle Sam played the musical saw; Uncle Ronnie was on the cornet at the silent pictures with the local band; and a bevy of musical aunts sang in an all-woman end-of-the-pier band.
Norma’s mother died in the late 1940s, closely followed by her father; the three children, Norma, her sister Lal and brother Mike, all under the age of 10, went to live with their part-Irish Gypsy grandmother who sang at informal pub sessions.
In the late 1950s, together with their cousin, John Harrison, the three children began singing in public. Initially called the Mariners and later the Folksons, they performed at the Jacaranda coffee bar in Hull. “We’d sing there three or four nights a week, get paid five bob and all the coffee we could drink,” Norma recalled.
By the early 1960s they had settled on “the Watersons” and dropped their early skiffle material to concentrate exclusively on traditional, mainly Yorkshire folk song. For years they ran a club at the Blue Bell in Hull called Folk Union One, booking singers from whose repertoires they added to their own.
They made their recording debut with a track on a New Voices anthology compiled by Topic Records in 1964, and went on to record three hugely influential albums. Frost and Fire was named Best Folk Album of 1965 by Melody Maker, inspiring, among others, Steve Winwood, who adapted the song John Barleycorn for the title track of a Traffic album. Two further albums – The Watersons and A Yorkshire Garland – followed in 1966.
In 1968, exhausted by constant touring and by now married with families, the Watersons split up. Norma had married Eddie Anderson in 1958 but, now divorced, she took off to the West Indies and talked her way into a job as a DJ at Radio Antilles in Montserrat for four years, while the rest of the group retired to a farm on the Yorkshire Moors near Robin Hood’s Bay.
Mike and Lal Waterson worked together on the trailblazing contemporary album Bright Phoebus and a homesick Norma rejoined the family group in 1972, with the singer and guitarist Martin Carthy (the man who in the 1960s had inspired Bob Dylan and Paul Simon to explore folk music) replacing John Harrison. Carthy made a permanent family commitment by marrying Norma later the same year.
Reverting predominantly to traditional song, the Watersons’ For Pence and Spicy Ale showed that they had lost none of their energy, passion and instinctive harmonies, and was voted folk album of the year by Melody Maker in 1975. Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy (1977), and Green Fields (1981), all featuring Norma with Mike, Lal and Martin Carthy, followed. In 1977, Norma and Lal recorded the duo album A True Hearted Girl.
By this time the musical family was expanding to include a new generation. Lal’s daughter Maria Knight sang backing vocals on A True Hearted Girl and soon the family grouping took on a new form with the emergence of the Waterdaughters, comprising Lal and Maria, with Norma and her teenage daughter Eliza Carthy.
In the early 1990s Norma joined forces with Martin and Eliza and began touring, first of all as the Carthy Family and then as Waterson:Carthy. Their first album, Waterson:Carthy, came out in 1994, followed by Common Tongue (1996), Broken Ground (1999), A Dark Light (2002), Fishes & Fine Yellow Sand (2004) and Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man (2006).
She was also a member of the occasional folk supergroup Blue Murder, when the Waterson/Carthy clan joined forces initially with the group Swan Arcade, and later Coope, Boyes & Simpson, for an unaccompanied vocal tour de force that reached its peak with the 2002 album No One Stands Alone.
At the same time Norma Waterson embarked on a late-flowering career as a solo performer, releasing three albums, Norma Waterson (1996), The Very Thought of You (1999) and Bright Shiny Morning (2000), in which she ranged from traditional folk to songs associated with Jerry Garcia, Elvis Costello, Freddie Mercury and Judy Garland.
When her first album finished a close second to Jarvis Cocker and Pulp’s Different Class for the 1996 Mercury Music prize, the 57-year-old Norma Waterson was unperturbed by the unflattering portraits of her in the music press: “I felt I was flying the flag for older women,” she explained. “I remember a lady from the old people’s home round the corner yelling: ‘Good on you, Norma! Up the oldies!’ ”
Her later years were overshadowed by the sudden death in 1998 of her beloved younger sister Lal, followed in 2011 by that of her brother Mike. But she continued to perform, forming the Gift Band with her daughter Eliza, as they released their first album as a duo, Gift, in 2010. Their touring was curtailed, however, when she was struck by serious illness, which necessitated several months in hospital, her husband Martin Carthy constantly at her bedside.
Live appearances after that were few and far between, but Norma and Eliza reconvened to make one more album together – Anchor (2018), on which, with a bold selection of material ranging from a Tom Waits song to Kurt Weill and the nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, her voice was as compelling as ever.
Norma Waterson was appointed MBE in 2003 and honoured for lifetime achievement at the 2016 BBC Folk Awards.
She is survived by her husband Martin and daughter Eliza and by a son, Tim, from her first marriage.
Norma Waterson, born August 15 1939, died January 30 2022