Norma Waterson - 15 August 1939 - 30 January 2022

Tue, 03/29/2022 - 11:26
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She lived a long and happy life, her unforgettable voice inspiring countless others and creating a passion for song in several generations of singers, all over the world

Much loved singer Norma Waterson died on 30 January 2022 at the age of 82 after a spell in hospital with pneumonia.  She lived a long and happy life, her unforgettable voice inspiring countless others and creating a passion for song in several generations of singers, all over the world.

For many readers of The Living Tradition, The Watersons, and the many musicians and singers associated with them, will have been part of the soundtrack of their lives.  Norma’s voice was, and will remain, one of the truly great voices of the last 50 years.  If she was a superstar, which she was to us, she was our accessible superstar, a fact confirmed by the huge number of personal stories told by so many people; stories of normal interaction and her genuine interest in people.

She was inspirational; she was majestic.  Although she had been unable to perform as often as she would have liked in the last few years due to illness, that inspiration, and the love and respect she generated from all who knew her, continued nonetheless, and it will continue, such is the powerful effect that her personality and her singing had on so many.  She is irreplaceable.

Norma Waterson was born in Hull in 1939. She was the eldest of three children, Mike being born two years later in 1941 and Elaine (or Lal as she was known) in 1943. Her parents, Florence and Charles, died when she was young and so the siblings were raised by their maternal grandmother, Eliza Ward, along with a circle of close family and friends. Norma’s grandmother had an Irish Gypsy background, a fine voice, and very eclectic musical tastes, and so the young Watersons grew up surrounded by song. She taught them to appreciate good songs, regardless of their genre, and the seeds were sown that would result in a life in music for all three.

During the 1950s, Norma, Mike and Lal, along with much of the rest of the country, were influenced by the skiffle era in Britain. During that time, they formed a group called The Mariners, which then morphed into Folkson, where they were joined by cousin John Harrison. But an interest in the English tradition was slowly developing, in particular in the songs and customs of the local area in Yorkshire, and before too long the group had opened its own folk club, Folk Union One, in The Blue Bell in Hull – it became the stuff of legend.  Some time later, the foursome changed its name to The Watersons.

Singing in four-part harmony, largely without accompaniment, it was with The Watersons that Norma really began to make a name for herself as one of the finest singers in the country – her direct, gutsy delivery really appealed to people, and her beautiful voice, full of warmth and character, had the emotional intensity to communicate the songs clearly with real feeling.  The Watersons were unique.  In his recent recollections about them, and about Norma, Andrew Cronshaw talks about “the whole strong, raw, wild graininess of the sound they made.”  The band’s debut album, Frost And Fire, recorded by Bill Leader, was released in 1965 by Topic Records. It became Melody Maker’s Album Of The Year that year.  It was followed by The Watersons and A Yorkshire Garland, both in 1966, also on the Topic label.  A documentary, Travelling For A Living, broadcast in 1966, gave good insight into life in the band at that time.

But in 1968, being away from home so much began to take its toll and The Watersons decided to call a halt to things. It was at this stage that Norma moved to Montserrat in the Caribbean, working as a DJ for Radio Antilles there for a few happy years. She returned to the UK in 1972, to take part in the making of what was to become another classic album – Bright Phoebus, by Lal and Mike Waterson – where she recorded Red Wine And Promises alongside a certain Martin Carthy on guitar. She and Martin had crossed paths before, but not when they were both single, but now the timing was right and they fell in love. That same year they arranged to meet at Cleethorpes Folk Festival, he proposed, and they were married three weeks later!

The Watersons reformed in 1972, with Bernie Vickers taking the place of John Harrison for a brief spell, before Martin joined as the fourth member. They recorded three more albums: For Pence And Spicy Ale (1975), Sound, Sound Your Instruments Of Joy (1977) and Green Fields (1981), and enjoyed several more years of performing together. Norma also made a duet recording with Lal, A True Hearted Girl in 1977.

Daughter Eliza was born to Martin and Norma in 1975, and as she grew up, she also began singing with the family. So it was that when Lal decided to spend more time on her songwriting in the early 90s, Norma, Martin and Eliza began a new venture – Waterson:Carthy – joined at differing stages by Saul Rose and Tim Van Eyken. They released six albums. Though harmony singing remained a strong feature of this group, and it was seen as the natural successor to The Watersons, it differed in that it made more use of instrumental accompaniment – Martin’s guitar, Eliza’s fiddle, and Tim or Saul’s melodeons; and though the focus was still on traditional English songs, they also included some other wider material. In addition, Norma sang in another family group – The Waterdaughters – with Eliza, Lal, and Lal’s daughter, Marry, and also in Blue Murder alongside Martin, Mike, Eliza and the members of Swan Arcade, who were later replaced by the trio, Coope, Boyes & Simpson. 

In 1996, she released her first solo album, simply entitled Norma Waterson, which was nominated for that year’s Mercury Music Prize; coming a close second to Pulp’s Different Class. Other solo albums, The Very Thought Of You and Bright Shiny Morning, followed in 1999 and 2001, the latter of which saw her return to a more traditional choice of songs. She later recorded two albums with Eliza: Gift in 2010 and Anchor in 2018.

Whatever the setting, and whatever the material she chose to sing, she did it with total passion; nobody could tell a story through song like Norma. And in a live setting, the rapport she had with an audience was inimitable; she exuded warmth and genuineness. To experience her on stage, lost in song with her hands outstretched, was a real privilege, and something that those of us lucky enough to have been part of (for that is indeed how Norma made audiences feel) will never forget.

Accolades were plenty. She was awarded an MBE for services to folk music in the 2003 Queen's New Year's Honours List. And in 2016 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. But she wore these things lightly, without a hint of ego.

Sadly, Lal died in 1998, and Mike in 2011, but Norma continued to work hard doing what she loved. Following the release of Gift, Norma and Eliza embarked on a tour during which Norma fell seriously ill.  On recovery, she found it much harder to travel, and her performances became fewer. In the last several years her health had not been good, and she was supported at home by both Martin and Eliza.  Throughout this time, Martin continued the life of a touring folk musician, but undoubtedly his love, concern and care helped to pull Norma through some difficult times.  Despite her failing health, Norma still loved to perform, and so in an effort to enable her to continue to take to the stage, Normafest was created – an annual festival with a cast of family and friends which took place in her honour in Whitby, near the family’s home in Robin Hood’s Bay, and ran for four years until 2018.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic meant that the last couple of years of Norma’s life brought added pressures, health-related and financial. A well-supported fundraiser to help them through this difficult time shows just how much the family is loved and valued by folkies far and near.  Though mainly confined to home, Norma was very much part of the wider folk fraternity until the end.  She wore her heart on her sleeve and was a regular on Facebook.  What came over very strongly was her love of people and, in particular, her love of family.  News of her passing, although not entirely unexpected, came as a shock.  

Norma died in hospital on 30th January, with her family by her side.  It is hard to imagine the world of folk music without her – she was so much an integral part of it; her instantly recognisable voice synonymous with it in many ways.  But Norma always understood that the songs and the tradition would continue and develop, and that her involvement with them was just one part in a long and ever-changing story.  In an interview she said: “If people say traditional music has got to be like this or like that, you may as well put it in a museum or bury it in the ground in a time capsule.  You can’t do that with tradition.  You have to hope each generation brings their own thing to it, so it keeps going.”

Steve Gardham recently paid tribute to the very unique and important role that Norma and her family have played.  “That world that Norma and the rest of the Watersons created in Hull, in Yorkshire, in England, still exists today and will continue for many generations to come.  We’ll all miss Norma, but the communities that she was so central to building means that her presence – like that of Lal’s and Mike’s – will always be there.  Folk music, and the folk scene in general, has decorated the lives of my family, brought us many wonderful friendships, as it has countless others.  I know that a lot of people were responsible for laying those foundations, but I’ve always felt that we owe Norma and the rest of the Waterson family a particular debt for all they created.”

And though the wider folk community feels the loss of Norma deeply, we are grateful for having such a warm, loving person as Norma in our midst for so long, leaving us such a great legacy of song. Heartfelt condolences to Martin, Eliza, her son Tim (from a previous marriage to Eddie Anderson) and her large circle of family and friends.

Pete Heywood