The Watersons

Jolly Old HawkFrost And Fire
Hal-An-TowFrost And Fire
Willy Went To WesterdaleA Yorkshire Garland
The White CockadeA Yorkshire Garland
Chickens In The GardenFor Pence And Spicy Ale
Country LifeFor Pence And Spicy Ale
The Good Old WayFor Pence And Spicy Ale
Sound, Sound
Your Instruments Of Joy
Sound, Sound
Your Instruments Of Joy
While Shepherds Watched Their FlocksSound, Sound
Your Instruments Of Joy
Young BankerGreen Fields

l-r: Norma, Lal, John, Mike



Watersons playlist


Contributor: John Sprackland

This Toppermost aims to complement Andrew Shields’ excellent introduction to the distinctive genius of Lal Waterson, while also steering clear of the later incarnations of Waterson:Carthy (six albums) and a plethora of solo, duet and side projects – material enough for at least two more Toppermosts, I’d say.

So that leaves me to focus on the six ‘studio’ (a loose term as it applies to the early Bill Leader productions) albums, which presented the unadorned unaccompanied glory of The Watersons in their two four-voice incarnations. There were earlier recordings, five tracks released as part of a Topic Records showcase, New Voices (Topic 12T125), where, alongside tracks by Harry Boardman and Maureen Craik, they were billed as ‘The Waterson Family’. Additional material was released after the group had disbanded, notably the live recording A Yorkshire Christmas (2005, Witchwood Media WMCD 2029) and the 39 previously unreleased tracks that feature on 4CD boxset, Mighty River Of Song (2004, Topic TSFCD4002). Both of these are worthy additions to the Watersons legacy, the latter not least because it included a DVD reissue of a wonderful 1965 film documentary, Travelling For A Living (think ‘Don’t Look Back, with added Yorkshire grit’!).

The primary canon of six albums that I have drawn my selections from fall very distinctly into two phases. The first three albums feature the original line-up of siblings Norma, Michael and Elaine Waterson, with cousin John Harrison, all produced by Bill Leader, and cover the years 1965/66. That group continued to perform until 1968 when they seemed to give up on their professional music careers, albeit temporarily (thankfully). Elaine remained in their hometown of Hull to start a family, Michael became a painter and decorator in Leeds for a time and, more surprisingly, Norma travelled and served a stint as a DJ in Montserrat!

It was during this hiatus that Mike and Lal (as Michael and Elaine came to be known) got back together and the self-penned folk-rock masterpiece that is Bright Phoebus (1972, Trailer LES 2076) came into being (see Andrew’s Lal Waterson Toppermost for more on this).

The second phase of three albums feature the reunited Waterson sibling trio, with Martin Carthy (by then husband to Norma) “replacing John Harrison, who has gone his own way”, as the sleeve notes on For Pence And Spicy Ale (1975, Topic 12TS265) plainly state (I know no more!). These three albums are all produced by Tony Engle and cover the years 1975 to 1981.

My own introduction to the Watersons records, and to so much more music that proved to be a lifelong inspiration on my eclectic tastes in music, came courtesy the record library at the University of East Anglia during my time there (1980-83). It was amazing. I didn’t even have my own record player at the time so I would go into the record library, which was a separate room, and pull out of the racks anything that took my fancy, from Chess Records compilations of doo-wop to, well, the Watersons, and sit in there with headphones all afternoon.

It was the rather plain-sleeved second and third albums that I first encountered there in the UEA Library. So when I later came across and purchased Frost And Fire: A Calendar Of Ritual And Magical Songs (1965, Topic 12T136), with that somehow unsettling photograph of a solitary ‘Pace Egger’ on its front cover, I took it for a later release, rather than being the debut release that preceded the two albums I was familiar with, and I’ve never really been able to get that idea out of my head. Frost And Fire, still sounds to me like a more mature record (‘sophisticated’ wouldn’t be the right word). I think many would regard it now as the classic Watersons album and amongst the most influential folk recordings of all time. The songs collected here set the template for the ‘weird folk’ and English paganism so evident today. Not only that though. Despite their committed traditionalism, the Watersons sound was radical – I’d never heard singing like that when I first encountered it in the early ˈ80s and no one had in 1965. Their hard, even harsh, voices certainly had plenty of precedents in the rural and travelling singers recorded by people like Alan Lomax and that feature in Topic Records incredible Voice of the People series. And the first ‘First Family of Folk’, The Copper Family of Sussex, had already demonstrated to folk record-buyers that special power of voices that belong to the same family in harmony. But the Watersons sang harmonies like no else. I think some indication of the source of that unique musicality was probably only revealed when, in 1972, Bright Phoebus brought forth the unusual melodies of Mike and Lal’s own compositions.


From Frost And Fire, I’ve started my list with two selections; Jolly Old Hawk, a Christmas song with a cumulative chorus (in the manner of The Twelve Days Of Christmas) and Hal-An-Tow, a processional song traditionally sung to usher in the summer. And so we encounter, in the lead solos of these two songs, two of the most distinctive voices in English music; the unarguably great husky-grey voice of Norma and the undeniably arguably great voice of Mike! I won’t say that ‘you either love it or hate it’ because, trust me, if you’re listening to the voice of Mike Waterson for the first time and finding it mannered, even ridiculous, there’s a very good chance that, in the fullness of time, you too will come to acknowledge Mike as every bit as great a singer as his sisters. An acquired taste, if ever there was one.

By comparison with its predecessor, and what was to follow, The Watersons (1966, Topic 12T142) is frankly underwhelming. It appears to have had an awkward genesis; ‘Topic 12T142’ was originally assigned to an album billed as Folk Union One, a live recording from the club of the same name run by the Watersons in Hull. A number of tracks from this session did appear on the record that emerged as The Watersons but they are a largely unremarkable bunch of folk club singalong standards – I Am A Rover, Fathom The Bowl, All For Me Grog and The Plain Of Mexico (featuring John Harrison’s only solo lead). Then there are several tracks with an unnecessary basic guitar accompaniment which seems to have a soporific effect on the singing. From this album, Dido Bendigo and Brave Wolfe would be contenders for a longer list but, with only ten places to fill and such riches to choose from, I’ve passed straight on to the release that followed that same year.

If the second album gives the sense of someone making a misguided effort to give the Watersons more mainstream appeal, A Yorkshire Garland (1966, Topic 12T167) has the sense of the group reasserting itself and fixing their feet firmly on home soil. And there is most definitely nothing soporific about the singing! I could honestly have chosen all ten tracks from this album and be happy with my selection (though, to be fair, the same could probably be said of four of the six albums …). I’ve plumped for Willy Went To Westerdale, an irresistible bit of light-hearted nonsense, and The White Cockade, which I think is just a great group performance (even though Mike seems to be freestyling it a bit … well, because of that!)

It’s curious to speculate on the fact that, had Mike’s decorating business or Norma’s career as a DJ taken off, the reputation of the Watersons might now rest on those first three albums alone. Surely two stone-cold classics out of three would have stood their legacy in good stead?

However, after that break, during which Bright Phoebus appeared and John Harrison went his own way, in 1975, the Watersons were back with a fine new album and a new member. Martin Carthy was, of course, a leading light of the English Folk Revival, with acclaimed solo and duo (with Dave Swarbrick) albums to his name. He had also, as a member of The Albion Country Band and Steeleye Span, and on Bright Phoebus, already featured on four classic folk-rock albums. But Mike, Norma and Lal had been and remained the heart of The Watersons sound and the best compliment that can be said of For Pence And Spicy Ale (1975, Topic 12TS265) is that it sounds like The Watersons! In fact, Martin’s voice is rarely prominent, though there’s certainly no diminishment of the power of the four-part harmonies. Probably Martin’s influence was most significant in the range of song material that was to feature on subsequent albums.

From For Pence And Spicy Ale, I think my selections of Country Life and The Good Old Way would be amongst the first on the team sheet of anybody’s ‘Best of’; Chickens In The Garden is, perhaps, a more idiosyncratic choice but it’s a personal favourite and Mike at his playful best.

1977 was a bumper year for fans of the Watersons, bringing not only a fifth group album, Sound, Sound Your Instruments Of Joy (1977, Topic 12TS346), but also Norma and Lal’s A True Hearted Girl (1977, Topic 12TS331) and an essential solo album, Mike Waterson (1977, Topic 12TS332). Since the release of For Pence And Spicy Ale, Martin too had released a solo album, and one of his best, Crown Of Horn (1976, Topic 12TS300), and all of the Watersons had also found time to participate in the recording of Peter Bellamy’s seminal ‘ballad opera’, The Transports (1977, Free Reed FRR 021/022).

Sound, Sound Your Instruments Of Joy is a glorious collection of folk hymns. As a ‘Sacred Harp’ singer myself, this is a record that is particularly dear to my heart, including as it does a number of songs from that American tradition of choral singing (including Idumea, David’s Lamentation, Windham and Morning Trumpet). However, my selections from this album stick with the English tradition. The title track, Sound, Sound Your Instruments Of Joy, according to A.L. Lloyd’s (as ever) informative sleeve notes, is an 18th century composition that the group learned from a 1934 BBC recording of a Cornish male voice choir. It’s a truly joyful celebration of The Watersons’ art. My other selection is one of many variants in the folk tradition of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks – by virtue of it being sung by The Watersons, it’s my favourite version of the carol.

Four years elapsed before the release of The Watersons’ sixth and final album, Green Fields (1981, Topic 12TS415), an apt title for this collection of bucolic songs (although, perversely, a song called Green Fields appears on Sound Your Instruments Of Joy, not on Green Fields). It’s a good album but, together with The Watersons, one of the two of their six releases that I would concede is not a classic. There are plenty of fine songs on it, nonetheless, and Young Banker completes my list.

The group continued to perform, billed as ‘The Waterson Family’ when Mike’s daughter, Rachel Waterson, came in to deputise for Lal during a period of illness and other family members began to appear. Lal’s two excellent solo albums were still to come and the family entered a new phase when Martin and Norma’s daughter, Eliza Carthy, joined them to form Waterson:Carthy and to go on to establish her own prolific career. But the six albums released by The Watersons between 1965 and 1981, represented by the ten tracks I have chosen, stand alone as a precious record of the preeminent celebrants of harmony singing in the English folk tradition.




The Watersons and Anne Briggs on “Folk Britannia” (2006)


The Waterson Family sing Bright Phoebus (2009)




Elaine “Lal” Waterson (1943–1998)

Michael Waterson (1941–2011)

Norma Waterson (1939-2022)


The Watersons on Topic Records

“Travelling for a Living”: this 1965 musical profile of the Watersons is a rare document of the British folk revival, see it here at the BFI website

The Watersons Chronolography at the fabulous Mainly Norfolk website

Come Sing It Plain (A Martin Carthy Fansite)

The Watersons biography (AllMusic)

John Sprackland is a life-long music lover who, for a few precious years in the middle of a checkered career history, was able to express this as Programme Manager at Southport Arts Centre. Coming of age on the cusp of prog and punk, he credits his broader musical education as courtesy of attending his local festival from the age of 14 (Cambridge Folk Festival), reading NME and Melody Maker, and listening to John Peel, Alexis Korner, Andy Kershaw and Jim Lloyd (‘Folk on 2’) on BBC Radio. Increasingly nostalgic; now almost entirely reliant on an annual pilgrimage to Green Man Festival to discover great new music. His previous Toppermost is on Bob Fox.

TopperPost #936

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Feb 17, 2021

    A superb Toppermost on a brilliant group. Such magnificent singers.
    There is a great story by Mike in the Bert Lloyd biography. He says that when they were working on Frost and Fire Bert asked them to sing the same song several times in a row. This went on until Norma asked ‘what’s wrong with it?’. And Bert said ‘Nothing…just personal indulgence.’
    Thanks also for the name check.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.