Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us

A sepia image of the traditional folk singer, Norma Waterson, who has died aged 82.

Norma Waterson (1939-2022): A Tribute

A tribute to the seminal folk singer, Norma Waterson, who has died aged 82. We invite you to leave your own memories in the comments below.

I didn’t know Norma Waterson, who has died at the age of 82. However, like so many people involved in folk music, our one brief meeting left me with a lasting, kindly impression, and a sweet story that my daughter and I will share between us for decades to come.

It’s nothing really to write home about, but that’s often what fond memories are made of. I was working at Sidmouth Folk Festival in 2019, and I had two gigs of my own and a stage to MC, all on the same afternoon. My daughter, then 10 years old, was roughly the same age as Norma’s grandchildren, and they had been hanging out. None of them were interested in sitting still at a tradfolk gig, wanting instead to run amok on the summertime seafront and sample whatever delights Blackmore Gardens had to offer. Not really knowing what to do with them, I was grateful (and somewhat gobsmacked) when Norma and her husband, Martin, offered to babysit for a few hours.

Somewhat gobsmacked because, while I was relieved to find someone to look after my daughter, my musical mind couldn’t help but flit back to the first time I heard her new babysitter’s voice.

Norma Waterson

Norma Waterson was, of course, one of the voices of the second folk revival. Born in 1939 and raised by her grandmother in Hull, she was the eldest of three siblings. Alongside her brother, Mike, her sister, Elaine (Lal), and their second cousin, John Harrison, Norma achieved recognition as a founding member of The Watersons, focusing on traditional songs performed largely without accompaniment. Their debut album, Frost and Fire: A Calendar of Ceremonial Folk Songs, was Melody Maker’s Album of the Year, 1965, and the folk club they ran together in Hull – Folk Union One, at the Blue Bell pub – is the stuff of legend, recorded for posterity in the remarkable BBC documentary, Travelling for a Living (1966).

Following the release of A Yorkshire Garland (1966), the group split up, with Norma heading to the West Indies to take up a position as a DJ on Radio Antilles. As her daughter, Eliza Carthy, explained to us in 2018:

“When she was working there, it used to broadcast in four languages. During the day it’d broadcast in French, Spanish and English, and then at night it would turn all of the dishes towards South America and broadcast in German. Mum always does a raising-her-eyebrows thing at that point in the story. A lot of exiled Nazis fled to South America. It didn’t occur to mum until years later that that’s what was going on. “Why did they turn their things towards South America and broadcast in German? I wonder why they were doing… oh, hang on!

She returned to England in the early 70s to take part in the recording of her siblings’ project, Bright Phoebus (1972), at which point romance kindled with fellow folk musician, Martin Carthy. Once again, Eliza takes up the story:

“She retired after four years of being pro and went to the West Indies to become a radio DJ… of all things! When she came back on a holiday, she found my dad single. They’d been eyeing each other up for years, but every time there was a possible opportunity for them to get together, one or the other of them was married… They found themselves in a studio, late at night, recording ‘Red Wine and Promises’. That was what did it, apparently – a midnight song about drinking red wine… that was it. She moved back.”

The Watersons reformed in the mid-70s, with Martin Carthy, now married to Norma, taking the place of the departed John Harrison. 1975 was a busy year, with the release of the new lineup’s first album, For Pence and Spicy Ale, and the birth of Eliza. A return to the road followed (Eliza: “I grew up under, on, or by the side of a stage”), as did the albums, Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy (1977) and Green Fields (1981).

In the years that followed, Norma performed as the Waterdaughters with Eliza, Lal, and Lal’s daughter, Marry, as well as part of the extended Waterson Family. She also found huge acclaim with Eliza, Martin, and Saul Rose, as Waterson:Carthy, a group that released six albums. As a solo singer, she released three further albums, the first of which (Norma Waterson, 1996) was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. Her last album, the second she made with Eliza and The Gift Band, was the beautiful, fragile Anchor (2018), recorded in Robin Hood’s Bay, her longtime home.

Over the final decade of her life, Norma was regularly troubled with ill-health, reducing her capacity to make public appearances. However, the family lived in hope, frequently staging Normafest in and around Whitby, to provide her with a stage on which to make fleeting appearances. The last of these took place in 2018, just around the corner from her home.

The first time I knowingly encountered Norma Waterson’s voice was in a bath in Japan, way back in 1999. A peculiar place, I’ll admit, but we all have to start somewhere. I had moved there as a teacher shortly after leaving Bangor University, where I had become rather enamoured with the folk guitarists of the 1960s, Martin Carthy included. After a month in Japan, I received my first ever paycheck, promptly purchasing a Hi-Fi, a clutch of CDs, and a chair. In that order. Pots and pans came later.

I recall that the CDs included George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Beastie Boys’ The Sounds of Science, and Waterson:Carthy (their first album). The music on the first two of these CDs was already well-known to me, and, given that I was far from home and in need of creature comforts, they dominated the new Hi-Fi for the first month or so.

I can remember the morning I put on that Waterson:Carthy album very clearly indeed. It was a Sunday morning, and I was sitting in my deep Japanese bath with the autumn sunlight dappled across the tatami mats outside the bathroom. I was a young man living completely alone for the first time, so – of course – I had the Hi-Fi (and eventually the TV, too) lined up perfectly so that I could zap them with the remote control without having to leave the warmth of the bathwater.

I didn’t know what to do with the opening tracks of this somewhat alien album, filled with old songs that didn’t operate on a metre that I understood. Of course, I already knew ‘Ye Mariner’s All’ from Martin’s first album, but the other songs danced past without registering a blow. It was only when the 7th track began that the penny dropped. 23 years later, pennies continue to drop each time I hear it.

I listened to ‘When First I Came to Caledonia’ so many times that morning, the bathwater was cold by the time I got out. Before I was dry, I’d learned more about the singing of a narrative song than I had done in my previous two decades.

I was as much gripped by the story I was being told as I was by the voice telling it. I’ve heard plenty of versions since, but nobody tells it the way Norma Waterson did. Her voice is just so fallibly human, an every-person’s voice, which is probably why it’s one of the great voices. There’s no pretence there. It shakes, it flutters, it soars, lifted on the melody played on her daughter’s fiddle. It becomes a seabird in flight, observing the cinematic tale as it stumbles from Donald Norman’s door to the deepest ocean, rinsing the soap from the tiniest details and detailing the most universal emotions.

And it’s this voice that I, like so many of us, grew to love and learn from. The perfect voice to tell us of hard lives lived, because you know that it’s not cheating you. You get the sense that it’s been there. As with so many legendary singers – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Cash – there’s an effortless truthfulness that has been there since her earliest recordings: effortless because it’s from the heart; no character costume required. Whether she’s singing ‘North Country Maid’, ‘Black Muddy River’, ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’, or ‘Red Wine & Promises’, her listeners are not required to make any great leaps of faith. We are with her from the first word to the last.

Never was this more the case than on her recording of ‘The Beast of Me’, which arrived on her final album. Exposed by the twin cruelties of age and illness, but supported in music and love by her husband, Norma tells us of having to learn to live with pain, of needing shelter from the rain. Once again, you know it to be true. It’s a lived-in voice. A humble voice of real experience.

A couple of hours later, I left my gig at Sidmouth’s Kennaway House and strolled the short walk through the late afternoon sunshine to the edge of the beach. The elderly couple who had been looking after my daughter smiled and told me how she’d been good as gold, and that, no, they didn’t want reimbursing for the sweets the kids were still devouring, or the flower crown that my daughter now sported proudly. I saw Norma again a few hours later, driving her mobility scooter full pelt on the path behind the church, people diving out of her way, agog with recognition and admiration rather than annoyance.

In those few hours, I saw what Norma Waterson had meant to a variety of people. To my daughter: a kindly babysitter and fashion dispenser. A grandmother to my daughter’s friends; a twinkly-eyed life partner to the man she was out strolling with; a source of fascination, inspiration, and love to her own daughter. A woman who helped to kickstart and fuel a musical passion for several generations of folk fans, leaving them grateful enough not to complain when she came at them in a motorised vehicle. She was the storyteller who sang to me in my bath on the other side of the globe, stirring my love of narrative songs. Memories piled high. So much music. So much to be thankful for.

Please feel free to login to this website and leave your own comments and memories. We ask only that we can share them with others in tribute to Norma Waterson. For those that want to make a donation in Norma’s memory, Eliza Carthy has set up a Ko-Fi page.