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Norma Waterson, a key figure in Britain's folk revival, dies at 82
With her familial singing group, the Watersons, and later as a solo performer, she helped revitalize traditional music from the north of England.

by Jim Farber

NEW YORK, NY.- Norma Waterson, a vaunted fixture in British folk music for decades whose familial singing group, the Watersons, helped spur the genre’s revival in the 1960s, died Jan. 30. She was 82.

Her daughter, Eliza Carthy, also a highly regarded singer and musician, announced the death on Facebook but did not say where Waterson died. She said Waterson had been in ill health for some time and was recently hospitalized for pneumonia.

Waterson had a dynastic influence in British folk, not only for her work with the Watersons but also through her collaborations with the singer she married in 1972, Martin Carthy, himself a pivotal figure in British acoustic music, as well as through her joint albums and concerts with Eliza, their daughter.

She formed the Watersons in 1965 with her younger siblings Mike and Elaine (who performed as Lal), along with their second cousin John Harrison. They were driven by a mission to reenliven overlooked folk music, particularly from the northern Yorkshire region surrounding their home in Hull, England.

“Whereas people in other countries are proud of their traditions, somehow here in England we got left behind,” Waterson once told the British folk magazine Fatea. “I think that England has as good a tradition as anywhere else, and I think that we should keep it alive.”

The Watersons did so without vocal fuss or musical adornment. They largely performed a cappella and always took care to keep their harmonies humble.

“To bring the audience in to you, instead of projecting your particular personality out to the audience, that’s the point,” Waterson said in “Traveling for a Living,” a 1965 BBC documentary about her group.

Despite her ardor for traditional sounds and styles, she reached well beyond them. Her debut solo album, released in 1996 and titled simply “Norma Waterson,” featured elaborate arrangements of songs by contemporary writers like Elvis Costello and Ben Harper. On her final album, “Anchor,” a joint recording with Eliza Carthy issued in 2018, she followed a cover of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “Lost in the Stars” with “Galaxy Song,” a whimsical hymn to human irrelevance co-written by Eric Idle of Monty Python.

To all her performances Waterson brought unquestioned gravitas, signaled by her deep register and enhanced by a brandy-rich tone and a vibrato that roiled like a surging sea. In an email, Rob Young, the author of “Electric Eden” (2010), a history of British folk, likened her voice to “a hand-thrown clay pot, full of character and texture.”

“It never sounded trained,” he added.

Norma Waterson was born into a working-class family in Hull, East Yorkshire, on Aug. 15, 1939. Her mother died when Norma was 8. Ten days later, her father died of a stroke. Norma and her siblings were immediately taken in by their maternal grandmother, Eliza, who had belonged to the Irish Travelers, an ethnic group sometimes referred to as Irish Gypsies.

Their grandmother’s imaginatively superstitious nature encouraged the children to believe in the sort of supernatural phenomena that can haunt English folk songs. Seven generations of the family had gravitated toward music, and she sang to the children, often and eagerly. “It was in the genes,” Waterson told NPR in 2001.

The first group that Waterson formed with her siblings and Harrison played skiffle music, a blend of American folk music, blues and jazz that became hugely popular in Britain in the 1950s. But they soon switched to the kinds of English folk songs they had cherished in their youth.

In 1965, the Watersons signed with Topic Records, which included them in a compilation titled “New Voices: An Album of First Recordings” before issuing the group’s debut album, “Frost and Fire: A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs.”

The album showcased Waterson on the song “Seven Virgins or the Leaves of Life,” which she delivered with an authority that seemed almost otherworldly. British music magazine Melody Maker named “Frost and Fire” folk album of the year.

In that same period, the group ran Folk Union One, a club in Hull that contributed to the folk revival by presenting important artists in the genre like Anne Briggs and Martin Carthy. After releasing their third album, “A Yorkshire Garland,” in 1968, the Watersons split, and Waterson moved to the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where she worked as a radio disc jockey.

By 1972, she had returned to England, and the Watersons reunited (without Harrison.). Soon after, she fell in love with Martin Carthy, who had been issuing his own respected folk albums since 1965. He then joined the Watersons and began releasing albums with them when not playing with important electric folk bands of the time, including Steeleye Span and the Albion Country Band. All those efforts made Waterson and Martin Carthy British folk’s ultimate power couple.

Her profile rose further in the 1990s, when her first album, recorded when she was in her mid-50s. was nominated for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize, alongside albums by young rock acts at the time like Pulp (which won) and Oasis. She continued to release albums either on her own or with her husband and daughter, together billed as Waterson: Carthy. But she became significantly less active in the past decade, following an illness that at one point left her in a coma, after which she had to learn to walk and talk again.

Her sister Elaine died in 1998 and her brother Mike in 2011, both of cancer. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by Martin Carthy and their granddaughters.

Later in life, Waterson was buoyed by her belief that folk music would last way beyond her, so long as it evolved with the times.

“We thought that we’d all get old and gray and there’d be nobody left,” she told The Guardian in 2010. “Then this new generation of young musicians came up and we all said, ‘Thank God.’ If people say traditional music has got to be ‘like that’ or ‘like that,’ you’re going to freeze it. You can’t do that with tradition. You have to hope each generation brings their own thing to it, so it keeps going forever.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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