Norma Waterson, key figure in UK folk revival, dies aged 82

Norma Waterson, a key figure in British folk music for decades whose family singing group, the Watersons, helped spur the revival of the genre in the 1960s, died on January 30. She was 82 years old.

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

Ms 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 central figure in acoustic music. British, 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 played the role of Lal), as well as their second cousin John Harrison. They were driven by a mission to revive neglected folk music, particularly from the North Yorkshire region surrounding their home in Hull, England.

“While people in other countries are proud of their traditions, here in England we have been left behind,” Ms Waterson told British folk magazine Fatea. “I think England has as good a tradition as anywhere, and I think we should keep it alive.”

The Watersons did it without vocal uproar or musical adornment. They played largely a cappella and were always careful to keep their harmonies humble.

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

Despite her passion for traditional sounds and styles, she goes way beyond that. Her first 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 latest album, “Anchor,” a joint recording with Ms. Carthy released in 2018, she followed a cover of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “Lost in the Stars” with “Galaxy Song,” a whimsical anthem to non- human relevance. written by Eric Idle of Monty Python.

To all of her performances, Ms. Waterson brought an unquestioned gravitas, signaled by her deep register and enhanced by a brandy-rich tone and vibrato that rolled like a rough sea. In an email, Rob Young, author of ‘Electric Eden’ (2010), a history of British folk, compared his vocals to “a hand-thrown clay pot full of character and texture”.

“It never seemed to train,” he added.

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

Their grandmother’s superstitious and imaginative nature encouraged the children to believe in the kind of supernatural phenomena that can haunt English folk songs. Seven generations of the family had turned to music, and she sang for the children, often and enthusiastically. “It was in the genes,” Ms. Waterson told NPR in 2001.

The first band Ms Waterson formed with her siblings and Mr Harrison played skiffle music, a mix of American folk music, blues and jazz that became hugely popular in Britain in the 1950s But they quickly switched to English types folk songs they had cherished in their youth.

The album featured Ms. Waterson on the song “Seven Virgins or the Leaves of Life”, which she uttered with an authority that sounded almost otherworldly. UK music magazine Melody Maker named the “Frost and Fire” folk album of the year.

At the same time, the group ran Folk Union One, a club in Hull which contributed to the folk revival by presenting important artists of the genre such as Anne Briggs and Mr. Carthy. After releasing their third album, ‘A Yorkshire Garland’, in 1968, the Watersons split up and Ms 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 (minus Mr. Harrison.). Soon after, she fell in love with Mr. Carthy, who had been releasing his own respected folk albums since 1965. He then joined the Watersons and began releasing albums with them when he was not playing with major bands. electric folk of the time, notably Steeleye Span. and the Albion Country Band. All of these efforts have made Ms Waterson and Mr Carthy the ultimate power couple of the British people.

Her profile rose further in the 1990s, when her debut album, recorded when she was in her 50s, was nominated for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize, alongside albums by young rock bands from the UK. era like Pulp (who won) and Oasis. She continued to release albums either alone or with her husband and daughter, together billed as Waterson: Carthy. But she has become much less active over the past decade, following an illness that left her at one point in a coma, after which she had to relearn how to walk and talk.

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

Later in life, Ms. Waterson was encouraged by her belief that folk music would last far beyond her, as long as it evolved with the times.

“We thought we’d all get old and gray and there wouldn’t be anyone left,” she told the Guardian in 2010. “Then this new generation of young musicians came along and we all said, ‘ Thank God “. If people say that traditional music should be “like that” or “like that”, you will freeze it. You can’t do that with tradition. You have to hope that each generation brings their own thing to it, so it goes on forever.

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