Obituary: Norma Waterson, one of the true greats of British folk music

Norma Waterson with Eliza Carthy and Martin Carthy
Norma Waterson with Eliza Carthy and Martin Carthy

A personal appreciation

WHEN it comes to the world of folk music, there were few sights more iconic, more recognisable, more enjoyable, than watching Norma Waterson, who has died at the age of 82, occupy the stage.

There was something strangely messianic about Norma when she was in full flow. Eyes shut, he would stand swaying with the sound, her long flowing hair matched by her long flowing dress. Fingers spread, arms outstretched, she, like her audience was lost in the music. The difference was that Norma was the music; she and the sound became one. Anyone who has ever had the unbridled pleasure of watching the godmother of folk sing knows that it is an experience they will carry with them forever.

Last Sunday her light was extinguished in this realm and the world of music has lost one of its most passionate, most formidable, most beloved performers. As Billy Bragg tweeted: "She started out as a skiffler and went on to become one of the defining voices of English traditional music".

I had known Norma since 2010. In truth, I first knew her by her absence. Her husband, Martyn Carthy, the godfather and first gentleman of folk, had been a guest on my live show. He and their daughter, the peerless Eliza Carthy, would become regular guests each year, bringing news of Norma.

At that time Norma’s health had taken a decided downturn after a bad fall and subsequent coma. Each time Martin, Eliza and I met, the first topic of conversation was Norma. It felt as if I was destined never to meet this behemoth of British and world folk music; but I obviously didn’t know that this Waterson woman was made of significantly sterner stuff. I’m sure she was the original immovable force and unstoppable object combined.

Born in Hull in 1939, Waterson and her siblings were soon orphaned. The children were raised by their maternal grandmother, Eliza Ward, a woman of Irish Gypsy heritage. She grew up around songs and music and so it was no surprise that in the early Sixties Norma and her brother and sister, Mike and Lal, formed the band The Watersons.

Their debut album, Frost and Fire, was awarded the Melody Maker accolade of Album of the Year in 1965. Shortly after the band broke up, Norma, rather than returning to the bosom of Yorkshire, became a DJ on the island of Montserrat for Radio Antilles. If ever there was a statement that spoke of the sense of adventure, the fearlessness and the profound love of music Norma possessed, this Caribbean adventure speaks so clearly of all that she represented.

I’m not sure how many women in their mid-twenties would have undertaken such a journey. This sunshine sojourn forever changed her musical perspectives and influences, opening her up to a spectrum of sounds that were new and unexpected.

She returned to Blighty and The Watersons reformed in 1972, enjoying almost a couple of decades of live and studio work. Norma’s much-awaited solo debut, Norma Waterson, was released in 1996, garnering both critical and musical praise, and was nominated for the Mercury Prize, finishing as runner-up to Pulp – an achievement that generated many column-inches in Norma's favour. Further work followed in collaboration with Eliza and Martin, with whom she made a series of well-received albums in the Waterson: Carthy trio.

The last decade or so of Norma’s life were sadly blighted by poor health and illness but it was not so defined. Her beloved husband Martin remained devoted to her; and Eliza, herself a musician of international renown, returned home to attend to her mother. And while touring and recording may have proved challenging, there’s a saying about Mohammed and mountains…

In 2015 Eliza set up the inaugural Normafest, a festival to celebrate the life and work of her mother. It was held annually in Whitby, near the family home in the beautiful Robin Hood’s Bay, in Yorkshire. Every January the world of folk descended upon the pavilion to show their love and respect for the Matriarch of their music.

Eliza roped me in as the crew caterer; vegan, vegetarian and chicken curries by the dozen. Of course, I had to cook for the first lady of the festival. Given her health issues, cooking for Norma wasn’t straightforward. She loved the idea of curry but the reality presented issues. So it was that Chicken Norma was invented, a dish that the great lady enjoyed at least twice a year thereafter. Creating Norma’s favourite curry was one of my most significant life achievements.

She was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2016. It was quite a sight to behold three generations of musicians and industry professionals celebrate her.

Norma was also responsible for my first (and hopefully, for all music lovers) and only appearance on a recorded song. The 2018 “Anchor”, recorded at home in Robin Hood’s Bay, was the great lady’s final foray into folk. The final track, We Have an Anchor has me trying my hardest to sing backing vocals. 'Tis the stuff of dreams. The funny thing is that I had no delusions about my ability to sing. But when Norma beckons you to the microphone, you know that you should go…

Norma’s beloved daughter, Eliza, expressed her mother’s passing with “monumental sadness”. And while, at this moment, sadness is the abiding emotion, we must also celebrate the fact that Norma help define and develop folk music for over half a century, leaving us the legacy of great music and unparalleled passion.

Of the many songs I heard Norma sing, be they on stage in front of an adoring public or around the dining table late at night in Robin Hood’s Bay, I have one favourite: Poor Wayfaring Stranger epitomises so much about the great lady, her doleful yet powerful delivery haunting us and holding us entranced. “I’m going home to see my Saviour, I’m going home, no more to roam…”