RIP Singer Norma Waterson

Norma Waterson

RIP Singer Norma Waterson

Influential English folk singer dies aged 82.

The great English folk singer Norma Waterson has died (30 January). She was 82. 

Waterson’s voice has been central to the British folk scene since the 1960s, when she came to prominence with her family group, The Watersons. She also was known for her solo singing and for her collaborations with husband Martin Carthy and daughter Eliza Carthy.

The Watersons, which initially included Norma, her sister Lal and brother Mike, and family friend John Harrison, first recorded in 1965 on the album New Voices on Topic Records. The family were from Hull and, after being orphaned at a young age, were raised by their grandmother Eliza Ward, who was of Irish descent. The group’s repertoire included sea shanties and other songs collected by folklorist Bert Lloyd. Following Ewan MacColl’s example, the group also ran a folk club. Their singing was unaccompanied and had a unique and expressive sound. A BBC Two documentary of the time, Travelling for a Living, documented their lives. ‘The van is your home. You go from one town to the next town, and you sing, and move on, and you sing and you move on,’ said Norma in the programme. 

The Watersons released three albums in the 1960s, Frost and Fire, The Watersons and A Yorkshire Garland before taking a break. Waterson moved to Montserrat in the West Indies to work as a DJ before returning to England in 1972. Her siblings were working on the album Bright Phoebus at the time with singer Martin Carthy, who she married the same year.

In 1975, the Watersons and Carthy released For Pence and Spicy Ale, which included the song ‘Country Life’. In the spirit of the times, the three siblings and their partners and children also moved to a farm together and tried to live a self-sufficient life, an experiment that lasted a few years. In 1977, Lal and Norma released A True-Hearted Girl, which included ‘Grace Darling’ and ‘Young Billy Brown’. The Watersons went through a number of different line-ups in the 1980s but recorded only occasionally. 

In the 1990s, Norma, Martin and Eliza began a new era of recording as Waterson:Carthy, featured all three singing as well as Eliza on fiddle. Their first album is full of highlights, including ‘When I First Came to Caledonia’ sung by Waterson. This was followed by her first solo album in 1996. Norma Waterson, produced by John Chelew, took a more contemporary approach and brought her even wider recognition.

In 2016 Waterson received the Lifetime Achievement Award, alongside Joan Armatrading, at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Her health had been in decline in recent years, but she still took part in Normafest, a festival established in 2016 near her home in Yorkshire by Eliza, and in 2020, Waterson presented Radie Peat with the Best Folk Singer award at the RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards.

Norma was pre-deceased by siblings Lal in 1998 and Mike in 2011. She is survived by her husband Martin Carthy, daughter Eliza, and granddaughters Florence and Isabella.

Published on 1 February 2022

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