The English folk ma­tri­arch on mys­tery, con­tent­ment and the Bee Gees.

Mojo (UK) - - Contents - Colin Ir­win

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.

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