Lal Waterson

TrackAlbum
Fine HorsemanBright Phoebus
Child Among The WeedsBright Phoebus
Red Wine And PromisesBright Phoebus
The Welcome SailorA True Hearted Girl
Meeting Is A PleasureA True Hearted Girl
At First She StartsOnce In A Blue Moon
Midnight FeastOnce In A Blue Moon
MemoriesA Bed Of Roses
To Make You StayTeach Me To Be A Summer's Morning
Song For ThirzaTeach Me To Be A Summer's Morning

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

I first became aware of Lal Waterson’s brilliance as a songwriter through Dick Gaughan’s cover version of Fine Horseman on his 1998 album, Redwood Cathedral. From the first time I heard it, I found the song gripping. Although not strictly speaking a folk song, it had that quality inherent in all the best such songs of sounding both contemporary and as old as the hills at the same time. There was also something mysterious and haunting about the lyric, an elusive and poetic quality which made it particularly intriguing. Having discovered this remarkable songwriter, I then went on to find out that she (with her brother Mike) had made one of the finest English albums of the 1970s, Bright Phoebus, one of those very rare records whose reputation seems to grow with every passing year. Having long been a fan of the great English folk-influenced songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s (notable examples being people like Nick Drake, John Martyn, Bert Jansch and Richard Thompson) it was an exciting discovery to find a songwriter who was on a par, at the least, with all of these and who had a poetic voice which was uniquely her own. What was most striking, perhaps, was her ability to craft memorable images and to describe the natural world in an unusually graphic and vivid way.

Lal Waterson photo

Even before recording that classic, however, Lal Waterson had already made a hugely significant contribution to the second wave of the English folk revival. She had done so through being a member of one of the greatest vocal groups ever to appear there – that is The Watersons. Along with the other members of the group – her sister Norma (arguably the greatest female singer in contemporary English folk music), her brother Mike and their cousin, John Harrison – she had brought a distinctive North East of England sensibility and a unique singing style into the mainstream of English folk music. The Watersons were renowned for their close harmonies and for the marvellous way in which their voices blended together. Their repertoire was also distinctive, as it included many songs from the Gypsy tradition in both England and Ireland which had not previously been heard outside that community. After making a number of fine albums, however, the group split up in 1968 with Norma leaving the country to work (rather incongruously) as a DJ in Montserrat in the West Indies, and Mike and Lal returning to their home base of Hull in Yorkshire.

It was during this enforced absence from the music business that Mike and Lal discovered that they had both begun writing songs independently of one another. This was a major departure for both of them, as they had made their names as peerless interpreters of traditional folk songs. They now began to collaborate with one another, generally fine-tuning those songs which they had originally written on their own. On occasion, however, as with the classic song The Scarecrow, the song would emerge from the trading of ideas and verses between them. They both remained unsure, however, about the quality of the work that they were producing. Indeed, the first person to recognise the high calibre of their work together was Lal’s brother-in-law, the great English folk-singer, Martin Carthy. After Lal had played some of the songs to him, he was so enthused that he insisted that they should be recorded as soon as was practically possible. He then gathered some of the best folk musicians in England (these included the great Richard Thompson on guitar, Ashley Hutchings on bass and Dave Mattacks on drums) in order to do so.

The album which eventually emerged from these sessions proved to be one of the greatest records of the English Folk Revival. On it, Lal’s brilliantly poetic, if sometimes sombre, songs were neatly juxtaposed with the generally far more upbeat and sunnier ones written by Mike. The album was also distinctive for its combination of influences, on the one hand from the folk tradition, with which The Watersons were primarily associated, and, on the other, from contemporary songwriters like Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and, perhaps most especially and surprisingly, The Beatles. Indeed, a number of the songs on Bright Phoebus (particularly those like Rubber Band and the title song which had been written by Mike) owed a clear debt to the latter’s masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had first been released in 1967. Generally speaking, though, Lal’s own songs on the record were striking for their originality, both musically and in terms of their lyrical content. They are of such a consistently high standard that it was very difficult to choose between them for this toppermost.

In the end, however, my choice was based on selecting those tracks which gave a good representation of the qualities of the album as a whole. The first of these, Fine Horseman, ranks as one of Lal’s very finest songs. Like many of her songs, there is a mysterious, dream-like quality to the lyric, which does not lend itself to any simple or straightforward explanation. The song was, however, a striking example of her ability both to craft immediately arresting images – like the “fine flying sparrow” which appears in the chorus – and beautifully poetic phrases such as, “your dreams among my dreams are blue seas amongst sunbeams” in the third verse. My next choice, Child Among The Weeds, was written in response to the stillbirth of the twin sister of her son, Oliver. It is a devastatingly haunting song, made even more so by the remarkable high part sung by the great English folk singer, Bob Davenport. The combination here of a superb lyric (“sing for the love of weeping and burning”) and a beautiful melody makes it a high point of the album. My final choice from this classic album – Red Wine And Promises – is possibly my favourite of Lal’s songs, and serves as a declaration of her commitment to both personal and artistic independence. It also features one of the best images for being completely plastered that I have come across:

If I was a black beetle upside down
I could kick all night long and never turn around
But I’m flat on my back in the rainbow rain
Still I know in the morning I’ll be on me feet again.
Just can’t get a grip on the ground
I’m upside down the right way round

At the time it was released, however, this superb record did not achieve the commercial success that its quality deserved. Indeed, having signed an agreement that they would not receive any royalties unless the record sold over two thousand copies, Mike and Lal were left in a position where they received virtually no financial reward from the album at all. To compound a bad situation, the later release of the album in CD format was very poorly handled and the sound quality on it was of a very inferior quality. Despite this, the album’s reputation has only grown over the years and it is to be hoped that, in the near future, a properly re-mastered version of it will be made generally available. (2 years after this was written, Bright Phoebus was remastered and reissued by Domino – see link at the foot of this post … Ed.).

The commercial failure of the album also meant that these two fine songwriters were not really given the chance to further explore the new avenues in English folk-influenced songwriting which they had opened up. Indeed, soon afterwards, they were to resume their folk music careers, re-joining the reformed Watersons, in which Martin Carthy eventually became the permanent replacement for the departed John Harrison.

My next two selections here are from the fine album, A True Hearted Girl, which Lal made with her sister, Norma, in 1977. This album clearly displayed the fact that neither had lost any of their supreme skills as interpreters of folk songs. It also caught two magnificent singers at the peak of their powers. Although the album is mainly made up of duets between the two sisters, it also includes a small number of solo performances by both. My first choice from it, The Welcome Sailor, is one of Lal’s finest versions of a folk song. The second, Meeting Is A Pleasure, is an example of the beautiful way in which their two voices blended and it also shows the earthiness and sense of humour which was a central part of both Lal and Norma’s art. Indeed, there was nothing rarefied about their singing style but, rather, they were both brilliant examples of singers who treated folk songs as part of a living tradition.

The commercial failure of Bright Phoebus also meant that, sadly, it was not until late in her life that Lal returned to recording her own songs. She did this in collaboration with her son, Oliver Knight, who is a very fine guitarist and arranger in his own right. The two albums that they made together, Once In A Blue Moon, first released in 1996, and A Bed Of Roses, from 1999, are both superb pieces of work. They also displayed the fact that Lal’s gift for crafting extremely distinctive melodies and evocative images had remained as sharp as ever. Of my choices from them here, At First She Starts combines an unusual melodic line with a finely crafted lyric, while Midnight Feast is one of her best songs and features some of her trademark striking imagery (with lines like “soaked in moonlight, hedged in roses on either side”). Memories from A Bed Of Roses is a beautifully elegiac song and one that serves as a fitting finale to the career of this superb artist, who had never really received the recognition she deserved in her lifetime.

However, in the years since Lal died in 1998, interest in her work has seemed to increase at a remarkable rate. One side-product of this was the beautifully produced book, Teach Me To Be A Summer’s Morning, which was put together by Lal’s daughter, Marry (a fine singer in her own right) and first published in 2013. The book combined a biographical sketch with Lal’s handwritten lyrics, art works (on both paper and stained glass) and poems to excellent effect. Along with the book, there was also a CD which included demo versions of many of her best known songs. Many of these had a beautifully raw and unvarnished quality to them which made them, in some instances, more effective than the already released versions. It is for this reason that I have included the great version of To Make You Stay from this collection rather than the one which was included on Bright Phoebus (as good as that rendition of the song is). My final selection, Song For Thirza is both one of Lal’s very best compositions and a typically keenly observed portrait of a close family friend, who was an important figure in her youth.

To sum up, then, Lal Waterson was a very special artist indeed and, in my opinion, ranks among the handful of great songwriters who emerged from the English Folk Revival of the 1960s and 1970s.

In recent (and relatively recent) times, there has been an ever growing number of excellent cover versions of her songs. I have chosen ten here. The first two are by Lal’s sister, Norma – the second one was Lal’s riposte to a particularly unpleasant newspaper article written by Joe Haines after Freddie Mercury’s death:

Song For Thirza (Norma Waterson)
Reply To Joe Haines (Norma Waterson)
Fine Horseman (Dick Gaughan)
The Scarecrow (June Tabor)
Piper’s Path (Christy Moore)
Red Wine Promises (Richard Thompson)
Evona Darling (Linda & Teddy Thompson)
At First She Starts (James Yorkston)
Midnight Feast (James Yorkston)
Child Among The Weeds (Eliza Carthy)

Note: For those interested in finding out more about the genesis of Bright Phoebus there is an excellent radio documentary about it available in two parts, first part here.

 

Lal Waterson (1943–1998)

Mike Waterson (1941–2011)

Bright Phoebus – Songs By Lal And Mike Waterson (2017 CD reissue)

Marry Waterson official website

Lal Waterson biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …

TopperPost #467

5 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Aug 20, 2015

    Such an unusual yet evocative voice. Equal mix Marlene Dietrich, Bob Dylan, Martin Carthy and Sandy Denny…

  2. Gareth Simmons
    Aug 20, 2015

    Excellent article. I love Lal’s singing.

  3. Ian Ashleigh
    Aug 20, 2015

    Andrew, you have done a magnificent job. I had a copy of Bright Phoebus that I’d borrowed from the Brent Town Hall Library in the mid 1970s. I know Norma’s story – and indeed she is Eliza Carthy’s mother. Having read a short biography of Lal (Elaine) after reading your appreciation above, I am sad that I have left it 40 years to revisit Lal’s music. Thank you for the prompt.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Aug 22, 2015

    Thanks for these comments and agree that, both as a singer and a songwriter, Lal was a marvelously unique talent…

  5. Andrew Shields
    Jun 21, 2017

    Just to let all of you Lal fans know that at long last Domino Records are issuing a re-mastered version of “Bright Phoebus”. Not before time but much better late than…

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