Ómós: Norma Waterson

Norma Christine Waterson (15 August 1939 – 30 January 2022)

Norma Waterson died at the age of 82 last Sunday. Although Norma had recently been hospitalised with pneumonia, her passing was nevertheless a shock. Her daughter, Eliza Carthy, confirmed the grim news on Facebook: “Not much to say about such monumental sadness, but mam passed away yesterday afternoon, January 30th 2022.”

One of the towering figures of the British folk revival, Norma was held in the highest esteem by traditional singers , musicians and fans across the generations ever since her emergence alongside her siblings, Mike and Elaine (‘Lal ‘) and cousin John Harrison as The Watersons, in the 1960s.

Born in Hull, in East Yorkshire in 1939, Norma was the oldest of the three siblings, followed by Mike in 1941 and Lal in 1943. Orphaned at an early age, the siblings were raised by their grandmother. According to the sleeve notes of the Topic compilation album, Mighty River of Song:

“On their father’s side, they were Huguenot stock. The family had fled religious persecution and settled in Northern Ireland before moving to South Shields. On their mother’s side, they were of Southern Irish, Roman Catholic stock. A measure of Gypsy blood had been poured in, too. The three siblings were orphaned young and raised by their maternal grandmother, Eliza Ward, and a close-knit circle of family and friends.”

In an interview with FolkRadio UK in 2018, Norma explained the influence of her grandmother on the siblings’ musical formation: “My grandmother, who brought us up, was half Irish and a travelling lady, and she was very eclectic in her musical tastes. She was a lovely singer and knew a lot of parlour ballads and musical songs she had learned from her childhood, and we all used to sing them. We also had an uncle who played lead cornet as a young man in the pit bands in the early days of sound cinema. I had another uncle who played the banjo and organ and my dad played guitar and banjo. Most of them liked different things, so we had a very eclectic musical upbringing and there was no music we weren’t allowed to listen to. It wasn’t like ‘oh no you don’t want to listen to the Beatles or Elvis Presley!’ My grandmother didn’t care, she said ‘if it’s a good tune and a good song, then it’s a good tune and a good song. It’s better to let children choose what they listen to, because in the end, they will choose the good stuff.’”

Originally a skiffle band called the Mariners, the group turned to traditional music adopting the name, The Folksons, before reverting to the family name around 1963 – apparently at the suggestion of Lou Killen, who performed at the trio’s folk club, Folk Union One in Hull, which also hosted performers like Matt McGinn and Norma’s future husband, Martin Carthy.

In an interview quoted in The Guardian newspaper in 2011, Mike Waterson relived a pivotal first meeting with the renowned folk song collector, A.L. Lloyd, in the band’s early days:

“He asked us to sing a song once, which we did, and then he asked us to sing it again,” he said. “When he asked us to do it yet again, we said, ‘Are we doing it wrong?’ He said: ‘No, it’s pure indulgence because it’s giving me so much enjoyment.’ ”

The Watersons’ first recording was for the Topic sampler New Voices in 1965. This was followed in the same year by their debut album, Frost and Fire: A Calendar of Ceremonial Folk Songs, selected as Album of the Year by Melody Maker. Two more classic albums followed in 1966: The Watersons and A Yorkshire Garland.  The band broke up temporarily in 1968 – when Norma moved to the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean to work as a DJ on Radio Antilles.

The Watersons 2.1: (from left) Martin Carthy, Norma, Lal and Mike Waterson (Photo: Keith Morris/Redferns)

When the band reformed in 1972, John Harrison was initially replaced by Bernie Vickers before the arrival of another emerging talent on the British folk scene, Martin Carthy, who married Norma in the same year. With this line-up, the band  recorded For Pence and Spicy Ale (1975), Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy (1977), and Green Fields (1981). Lal and Mike also produced original compositions which were showcased in 1972 on the groundbreaking album, Bright Phoebus, on which Norma also appeared. Lal and Norma also recorded as a duo on A True Hearted Girl (1977) while Mike released a solo album, Mike Waterson.

While the Watersons continued to perform throughout the 1980s, ill-health limited Lal’s appearances – leading to fluctuating line-ups involving Mike Waterson’s daughter, Rachel; Mike’s wife, Anne; Norma’s daughter, Eliza; Lal’s daughter, Maria Gilhooley; and close friend, Jill Pidd from Hull. In 1987, the Watersons collaborated with members of Swan Arcade under the name, Blue Murder, to play occasional gigs and record from time to time (including No One Stands Alone in 2002). In 1988, the thirteen-year-old, Eliza, put together an informal line-up known as the Waterdaughters, in which she was joined by Norma, Lal and Maria (Marry).

Perhaps in part a reflection of her own Irish traveller roots, Norma acknowledged the great Irish singer, Margaret Barry, as a major source of inspiration for her singing. Another Irish tradition bearer beloved of Norma and her siblings was Mary Ann Carolan from the Hill of Rath just outside Drogheda. Mary Ann was a living repository for many traditional songs sung around Britain as well as Ireland – some of which had almost disappeared. Her son, Pat, and grandson, Stuart, continue to draw from Mary Ann’s repertoire.

Coal not Dole

Among the many songs that became part of the Watersons’ repertoire was the topical ballad, Coal not Dole. Originally a poem by Kay Sutcliffe from Aylesham in the Kent coalfields, written following the Miners’ Strike of 1984, it had been set to music by Paul Abrahams. The song became a feature of the Watersons’ stage performances in the late 1980s. A solo performance by Norma in 1991– which had been recorded for posterity – was released as a single in April 2013 after the death of Margaret Thatcher.

Norma also guested on several recordings by other artists before eventually undertaking a new family project in the mid 1990s, Waterson:Carthy, with husband, Martin, and daughter, Eliza. The trio released seven albums: Waterson:Carthy (1994), Common Tongue (1996), Broken Ground (1999), A Dark Light (2002), Fishes and Fine Yellow Sand (2004), The Definitive Collection (2005) and Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man (2006).

Norma also released three solo albums in the late 1990s and early 2000s – including her eponymous debut album, Norma Waterson, in 1996  – which included collaborations with Eliza, Martin and other members of the Watersons, along with Richard Thompson, Danny Thompson and Roger Swallow. The critically acclaimed album was nominated for the Mercury prize. In 1999, the follow-up The Very Thought of You once again featured Richard Thompson, Danny Thompson, Eliza and Martin. The album was dedicated to Lal who had died in 1998 and included Lal’s Reply to Joe Haines, triggered by the columnist’s appalling commentary on Freddie Mercury’s disclosure of his HIV status.

In 2001, Norma released her first solo traditional album, Bright Shiny Morning, while in 2010 she collaborated with daughter, Eliza, on the acclaimed album, Gift, which won two BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2011 – Best Album and Best Traditional Track. These two prizes were added to Norma’s earlier awards for Best Group for Waterson-Carthy in 2000, Best Traditional Track for Waterson-Carthy in 2000 and Folk Singer of the Year in 2001.  A sixth award followed for Norma in 2016 for Lifetime Achievement. (Incidentally, husband Martin was named Folk Singer of the Year in 2002 and 2005 while daughter Eliza took the honour in 2003.)

In 2010, Norma suffered a major health setback when a serious illness left her in a coma. As part of the recovery process, she had to learn to walk and talk again. In 2011 her brother, Mike, died leaving Norma as the only surviving Waterson sibling. However, she returned to the recording studio for another collaborative project with Eliza: the album, Anchor, released in 2018 to critical and popular acclaim.

Although continuing health issues curtailed Norma’s capacity for further recordings and performance, she took great delight last year when Eliza was named as the successor to Shirley Collins as President of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. However, the two-year moratorium on touring opportunities for Martin and Eliza caused by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 caused real financial difficulties for the family prompting Eliza to launch a crowdfunding appeal to cover Norma’s care and to provide support for Martin. The appeal is still open at www.ko-Fi.com/elizacarthy


Eliza and Norma pictured on the cover of their duo album, Anchor.

Among the torrent of tributes that followed the announcement of Norma’s passing came these words from England’s other great family of traditional singing, The Coppers, who said: “Over the years we enjoyed her company along with that of her husband Martin Carthy and daughter Eliza at festivals and gigs. Norma was a consummate performer and true bearer of English traditional song and always presented her work with passion and dignity. We shall miss you Norma, and our condolences go to Martin, Eliza and the rest of the family.”

We have lost a matriarch, a statuesque, dignified magnificent singer. She had a incomparable trove of songs and stories in her life’s treasure chest and she opened it for decades for all to share. She was my friend. Our friend. A rock to lean upon and fearless onstage. She was one of those that you thought incapable of dying, one of the ones we will now pack into our tour-bags and take through our remaining days on and offstage. As the old adage goes, She’s not gone. Only gone before. Bon voyage, Norma. Have a safe onward journey and I'll catch you up down the road." – Peggy Seeger

For some, like British folk luminary, Martin Simpson, feelings were difficult to articulate: “There is nothing I can say that expresses the importance of Norma Waterson and her family in my musical and personal life over the last 50 plus years. We have lost so much.”

Award-winning singer Kate Rusby said: “I’m so sad and sorry to hear of Norma Waterson’s passing – the end of an era. She was a proper legend.”

Her voice was a thing of dazzling brilliance like no other I've ever heard like some wondrous mystical mythical bird of fabulous legend and her heart and mind were equally brilliant, kind and very very wise...she'd always blow my mind with her thoughts and knowledge! I've enjoyed Norma's friendship for many years and enjoyed making her laugh. She had a wonderful sense of humour and laughter was never far away in her company." – Sheffield singer-songwriter, Richard Hawley, who performed on the Bright Phoebus Revisited tour in 2013.

Another singer-songwriter, Billy Bragg, said: “Very sorry to hear that Norma Waterson, the last of the singing Watersons from Hull, has passed away. She started out as a skiffler and went on to become one of the defining voices of English traditional music. My thoughts are with Martin and Eliza and the rest of the family.”

On this side of the Irish Sea, singer Niamh Parsons who has shared stages with Norma, Martin and Eliza on many occasions, led the tributes to her friend: “So very, very sad at the news that the great Norma Waterson has left us…I loved Norma and remember great times singing and hanging out with the family in Canada, England, Ireland, Denmark and USA. RIP.”

An Góilín Traditional Singers in Dublin said: “Deepest sympathies from all at An Góilín to the Waterson/Carthy family on the sad death of Norma. A lovely person and a wonderful singer. RIP.”

Dervish added: “We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing yesterday of legendary folk singer Norma Waterson. Our sympathies go to Martin, Eliza and all her family and friends at this sad time.”

Portrrait of Norma by Ken Wilson
Norma singing with the family at a concert in Barry's Hotel, Dublin, organised by An Góilín Traditional Singers in 1986 (Photo: Colm Keating)
The Waterson Family at the Góilín concert in Barry's Hotel, Dublin: (from left) Norma, Martin, Rachel, Mike and Lal (Photo: Colm Keating).
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