Frost and Fire: A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs first found its way into record collections in 1965, and it has been an essential purchase for the folk-curious ever since. On October 28th, a new generation gets the chance to fall under its spell as a fresh release appears on Topic Records. The vinyl edition has been re-cut 45rpm for optimal sound quality, and the sleeve is a replica of the original (with minor adaptions for 2022), including the original sleevenotes by legendary folklorist, A.L. Lloyd.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of The Watersons, and this album, to the world of folk music. In 2018, Anne Briggs explained, “First hearing the Watersons live was a shock, a revelation. Their voices and their musicality were unique. Raw, passionate and brilliant, and so were they. Their musical instincts were perfect and they redefined the possibilities of the British folk scene, they had somehow opened a door wide and it’s still open. Homegrown, international, and pure magic.”
A family folk ensemble from Hull, Yorkshire, Norma, Mike and Lal Waterson formed the crux of the group, joined by their cousin, John Harrison, who occasionally offered guitar accompaniment. For the most part, they were known for their head-turning four-part vocal performances, often unaccompanied, of traditional songs from around the United Kingdom. They signed with Topic Records after a brief appearance at the Troubadour in Earl’s Court, London. As Norma Waterson recalled in Singing from the Floor (J.P. Bean, 2014), “Martin Carthy was running the night and he asked us if we wanted to do two or three, so we did. We got a good reception and in the interval, this man came up to us and said, ‘Do you want to make a record?’”
The man in question was producer Bill Leader, and the record they put together was Frost and Fire, a debut collection that quickly became Melody Maker’s Album of the Year. A clutch of traditional songs selected from the 12 months of the calendar, it took traditional music out of the folk clubs and made them must–listens for the hip young things of the 60s. Songs like ‘Hal-an-Tow’, ‘Pace-Egging Song’ and ‘Wassail Song’ enchanted, and continue to enchant, music lovers with an interest in what came before. If you were the kind of person who looked at record sleevenotes and followed mentions of artists’ influences back through time, then this album pointed further back than you might have thought possible.
“I was a 17/18 year old hardcore country blues fan in the West country when Frost and Fire came out,” remembers the musician and former fRoots editor, Ian A. Anderson. “It was one of the first English folk records I heard that really impressed me, partly because to my blues-attuned ears it sounded really weird, it was gutsy, had an unfathomable wildness and clearly some sort of “authenticity” – whatever I thought that was. I don’t think the provenance of the songs entered my consciousness at the time – it was just a good noise. I only heard this stuff because folk clubs were where country blues players got booked, and so your ears got opened to other possibilities. The weirder the better. I thought Shirley Collins was weird, and it was only after a while I realised it was because these people sang in English – local English – rather than fake American, Scottish or Irish, as was the norm.”
We sat there in this back room, singing it again and again, and Norma said, ‘What’s the matter with it?’ He said, ‘Nothing, my dear, just self-indulgence.’Mike Waterson
For an album that has since taken on legendary status, its beginnings were humble indeed. “I did many of the recordings in my flat,” Leader told the author, J.P. Bean, “a two-room, kitchen and bathroom on the first floor of an Edwardian house [in Camden]. The back room was lined with books and tapes – that’s a great acoustic treatment. We’d be monitoring and recording in the front room, and the room that they were recording in was the bedroom. We did ‘Frost and Fire’ there.”
Mike Waterson recalled that many of the recordings were suggested by A.L. Lloyd, who sent the group a collection of calendar songs to flesh out their repertoire. “He was a guru to us. We sang one and he said, ‘Mm, we shan’t use that one. It’s too subservient.’ It was a harvest home song, where they’re praising the farmer all the time. Then we sang another one and he said, ‘Sing it again… sing it again… sing it again.’ We sat there in this back room, singing it again and again, and Norma said, ‘What’s the matter with it?’ He said, ‘Nothing, my dear, just self-indulgence.’”
Over the years, these recordings have formed a gateway for many a journey into the world of traditional English folk song. The album has had a marked effect on generation after generation, from Martin Simpson right through to Lisa Knapp, Burd Ellen, Lankum and Angeline Morrison. Albums such as the recent Landworkers Alliance compilation, Stand Up Now, owe a debt to the calendrical wisdom of Frost and Fire, and artists finding mindful, eco-conscious audiences post-pandemic, whether they’re musicians or the likes of Ben Edge, Matthew Stoppard, Lucy Wright and Nick Hayes, follow the tracks marked out across the wheel of the year by this seminal piece of work. As an introduction to the time-worn beauty of the traditional English canon, there is no greater album.
Frost and Fire: A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs is out as a re-release on Topic Records on October 28th. Pre-order it by clicking here.
As brilliant as Frost and Fire is, it’s not the Watersons’ historic debut. That was New Voices, “an album of first recordings by Harry Boardman, Maureen Craik, The Waterson Family”.