The English folk matriarch on mystery, contentment and the Bee Gees.
The folk dynast and timeless voice confides about past days, new work and finding a place in the endless river of song .
Seven years ago, Norma Waterson, one of the great enduring forces of the folk revival from her years with the Watersons onwards, almost died. She’d just released the acclaimed album Gift with daughter Eliza Carthy: following a gig in Warrington, Norma went to the local A&E to check out a painful ankle. That’s about all she can remember. She fell into a coma and spent several months in different hospitals suffering from septicaemia and infections. “Everyone thought I was a goner, but they don’t get rid of me that easily,” she laughs. After a painful haul back, she’s now picked up where she left off with Anchor, a new album with her daughter Eliza. She’s even keen to perform live again and is already planning material for her next release. And while many may view her as the ultimate traditional singer, Anchor – recorded in a beautiful old church facing the sea in her home town of Robin Hood’s Bay, Yorkshire – is a veritable cornucopia of styles, influences and sources, including songs by Tom Waits, Kurt Weill, Nick Lowe and Eric Idle.
People may be surprised by the range of some of the album’s content.
Yes. My grandmother brought us up really. She was half-Irish and we were never told we couldn’t listen to a certain music. Some people of our generation were told they shouldn’t listen to The Beatles and stuff like that because it was rubbish, but our gran said good music is good music wherever it comes from. She was a great music hall fan. My dad played guitar and banjo, so we had a very eclectic and catholic love of music, and had influences from everywhere really.
Did you see it as a mission to popularise traditional music in the early days?
No, it was just something we loved and we wanted to find out more about it. All the stuff in the ‘50s done by the skiffle groups was American, and we’d say “Where’s our stuff? Where’s our tradition?” And we’d go up to the Dales to the little villages and meet up with Annie Briggs and talk to people… and I remember getting drunk a lot. Annie would sing a bawdy song like Underneath My Apron and the women would be disgusted.
After The Watersons originally split in 1968, you went off to live in Montserrat – what was that like?
There were these little bands there and on Friday night they had what they called ‘wash your feet and come’ dances. I sang with some of the groups but they didn’t know anything about traditional music, so it was mostly things like Leaving On A Jet Plane. I became a DJ on Radio Antilles, which was pop music and news. A bit like Radio 1. I read the news and did English programmes. They had Spanish and German programmes too. It was very strange. I was there four years but I missed the family and took the opportunity to come back.
What do you think of the folk scene these days?
To be honest, I don’t have a lot to do with it. It has become a lot more poppish. It’s not my thing. It’s become a more concert-y thing. The modern practice is to go to a festival and listen. When Eliza started Normafest [an annual January festival in Robin Hood’s Bay held in Norma’s honour] she didn’t want lots of concerts, so there were a lot of [communal] singarounds. She wanted to get people more involved and that has worked to a certain degree.
Are your grandchildren into folk music?
They’ve both got fiddles but we don’t try and push them. We never did with Eliza. She’d say she wanted to go to Manchester to see Prince, and we said, “OK, off you go.” She went through that phase, but one day she borrowed one of [her dad] Martin’s songbooks and suddenly came running downstairs and said, “Mum, Mum, have you read the stories in this book!?” Martin and I looked at one another and said, “We’ve got her!”
Is music as important to you now as it ever was?
In some cases more so. When I look at the scene now and the songs, I think if we and other people like [Tyneside singer] Louis Killen hadn’t been around, those songs that the young people sing now may not be there. We stood on the shoulders of giants and sent the music out there and I’m sort of proud of our little place in the music.
What songs attract you?
Mysterious songs. Interesting songs. I was in Ireland once, and this old man dressed in a black suit opened his mouth and sang a song called The Brown And Yellow Ale. It’s about a man walking down the street with his wife and he meets another man who says, “Lend me your wife for a year and a day”, and this man says yes. But in a year and a day the wife won’t go back with him, won’t even look at him, and says she wants to make him a coffin made of holly. A very strange song. This old man, who must have been at least 80, sang it and I burst into tears. I had to leave. I do cry a lot over songs.
How do you look back on your life?
I am nearly 80 and I don’t mind that I’m getting to the end of my life. I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve been to fantastic places and I have a wonderful family. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Tell us something you’ve never told an interviewer before.
I love the Bee Gees but I don’t like Elvis Presley. Martin loved the early Elvis songs but I never did like him. I never liked the Stones either. I thought they were just stealing from black singers.
Come Hull or high water: the incomparable Norma, not an Elvis fan.