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Lal Waterson: Obituary notice

The Independent, 8 September 1998
Karl Dallas

THE LUDICROUSNESS of the division between traditional singing and contemporary singing and song-writing that has bedevilled the English folksong revival over the past 50 years was never better demonstrated than in the career of Lal Waterson. As Martin Carthy, her brother-in-law, puts it:

It was impossible to separate her singing from her song-writing. She used all the techniques of traditional song-making in her own lyrics and she never sounded like a revival singer. All the rest of us did. She was tremendously inventive, and as different from her brother Mike and her sister Norma as it was possible to be. She and they were and are the very, very best to be heard today.

Coming from the acknowledged doyen of the English folk music revival, that is high praise indeed, and while his marriage to Lal's sister might be thought to colour his judgement, there are few of his peers who would dispute it.

I first met Lal, Mike. Norma and their second cousin John Harrison when I was compering a benefit concert in St Albans in the early Sixties. They had not yet shaken off their roots in the skiffle movement and accompanied their songs with a guitar, yet there was an integrity and an authenticity that distinguished them from many of their better-known colleagues in the second wave of the revival (the first wave being that led by Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd).

The folk producer Bill Leader had picked up what he billed as “The Waterson Family” for a New Voices sampler he was putting together for Topic Records, and in the liner notes for that album Lloyd himself wrote:

They have a wide repertory but their abiding interest is in the songs and customs of their native East Yorkshire. They make their own harmonies to the songs and in all the world of the folksong revival there is nothing quite like the Waterson sound.

Actually, Lloyd was only the first of many to make the mistake of describing the interweaving melodies of their a cappella singing as “harmonies”: their style was strictly polyphonic, and the lines they sang had the same relation ship to the root chords of the tunes as the three-part voicing of a New Orleans jazz front-line. And like many jazz virtuosi, their ensembles were the combination of four very individual solo voices.

Elaine “Lal” Waterson was born into a Hull family partly of Irish gypsy descent in 1943. She, her brother and sister were orphaned early in life and brought up by their grandmother. They started singing around Hull as the Mariners in late Fifties, and later as the Folksons, along with John Harrison until they reverted to their family name and started up what became one of Britain's leading folk clubs, Folk Union One, at the largest venue they could find in the city, the old Bluebell pub.

They were never keen on the touring that soon became necessary, Lal less so than the rest. As Carthy recalls: “She was a very private person. She didn't enjoy singing on stage, or in any public event, for that matter.” When in 1966 Norma went abroad to work in a tropical radio station in the unlikely role as a late-night DJ, and Harrison moved to London, they stopped performing for a while. Six years later they returned to public platforms, for a short time with Bernie Vickers, and ultimately with Martin Carthy.

The group last toured in 1993, but had been performing without Lal for some time. She had been plagued with ill health, and had to withdraw from a US tour in 1991, after which she was replaced by Jill Pidd, who was joined on their final US tour by Lal's niece Eliza, Norma and Martin's daughter, today a Brit Award nominated star in her own right.

However, in the previous two decades Lal and her brother had both begun writing songs, at first unaware of what the other was doing, but then coming together triumphantly in May 1972 for what is probably the seminal British folk rock album of all time, Bright Phoebus (on Bill Leader's Trailer label). The two singers, known till then predominantly for their unaccompanied singing of traditional lyrics and ballads, blazed forth to the accompaniment of electric alumni like the great Fairport Convention electric guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson.

Lal contributed six songs, ranging from the drunken reminiscence of Red Wine and Promises to the devastating picture of industrial poverty in Never The Same. Perhaps her most remarkable was The Scarecrow a joint composition with her brother Mike (later recorded by June Tabor on Abyssinians) with its chorus:

Ah, but you'd lay me down and love me,
Ah, but you'd lay me down and love me, if you could.
For you're only a bag of rags in an overall
That the wind sways so the crows fly away
And the corn can grow tall.

Mike's I'm the Leader of the Rubber Band was licensed to RCA as a single, and there was talk of a Top of the Pops appearance, but the group refused to go on the show. Bright Phoebus is out of print, but two tracks (one, The Magical Man, another composition by Lal and Mike) reappeared recently on Castle Communications' reworking of the Electric Muse folk-into-rock compilation).

Lal also recorded with her sister and daughter Maria on Topic's A True-Hearted Girl, in 1977, which included her solo performance of The Welcome Sailor. She joined the Rotherham-based No Master's Voice song-writing collective (forced by HMV to drop the last word in their name), for whom she joined with her son Oliver Knight in recording Once in a Blue Moon, an album in many ways as significant as Bright Phoebus

She was also involved in a television project, Hard Cash, for the BBC, who took fright at its condemnation of mid-1980s Thatcherism, and refused to show it. Her song, Hilda's Cabinet Band, was the most outwardly political of her material, though her life and the disregarded tradition upon which she based her work, was a political statement of great power.

In the last year of her life she was working with her son Oliver, a highly talented electric guitarist and recording engineer. Their follow-up album has not progressed past the rough mix stage.

Elaine “Lal” Waterson, born Hull 15 February 1943, married 1968 George Knight (one son, one daughter), died Robin Hood's Bay, North Yorkshire, 4 September 1998.