A special gift for music

Norma Waterson with her daughter Eliza Carthy at Robin Hood's Bay.
Norma Waterson with her daughter Eliza Carthy at Robin Hood's Bay.
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Three years ago the grande dame of British folk music, singer Norma Waterson, spent months in intensive care, but she has has fought her way back to health. She talks to Sheena Hastings ahead of two rare concert appearances.

NORMA Waterson won’t hear a word against the NHS, and she has every right and reason to praise it.

The Watersons: From left, Mike, second cousin John Harrison, and sisters Lal and Norma.

The Watersons: From left, Mike, second cousin John Harrison, and sisters Lal and Norma.

Three years ago, the woman who’s so often called “The Queen of English traditional music” left a gig she and her daughter Eliza had been playing in Warrington. She wasn’t feeling well, and decided to ask the local A&E department to have a look at a small but painful wound above her ankle. Investigations found she had the life-threatening infections cellulite and septicaemia. Her condition was deteriorating rapidly, and Norma – then 72 – spent two months in intensive care.

It would be another five months before she was finally discharged, having been moved first to the James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough and then to Whitby Hospital.

“Nurses are magicians,” she says. “But everyone who looked after me was fantastic – they saved my life. Without them and my husband (the legendary guitarist/singer Martin Carthy), who stayed by my side throughout, I wouldn’t be here now.”

After returning home with a gap of several months in her memory – and a few episodes from her life previous to the illness also missing to this day – she set about getting her strength back with the help of physiotherapists and family. Talking, walking and singing all meant hard work.

Their youngest daughter, the singer-songwriter-musician Eliza moved back to live with her parents in Robin Hood’s Bay in order to help in Norma’s care. With Eliza’s four and six-year-old daughters in residence as well, today the Waterson / Carthy home high up above the sea buzzes with music, laughter and life.

Now fully back from her brush with death, Norma’s beautiful north country voice sounds as good as ever. Singing to little Florence and Isabella (who arrived just weeks after Norma fell ill) helped her, and after a while she and Eliza often fell instinctively into harmonising together around the house as they always had.

A few months ago Norma performed on stage at a festival with her family for the first time since her illness, followed by a few dates at the Barbican in London.

“We started practising the songs two to three weeks beforehand, then ran through them with the band for a couple of days,” says Norma. “Returning to the stage, I felt all the old pride in singing the songs that are our tradition, our culture, sung by generation after generation.”

Another source of pride to Waterson nowadays is that Florence and Isabella have moved on from singing accompanied by the clatter of pan lids to their own little fiddles. And so the music that the great Norma has been singing almost since she sprang from the womb is osmotically moving on to yet another generation.

She laughs an earthy, slightly wheezy laugh. “We are so lucky to have them here – seeing the wonder of the world through a child’s innocent eyes is a great gift.”

Norma Waterson’s own childhood was spent in Hull, where she was born in 1939. She and her late sister Lal and late brother Mike were brought up by their grandmother after their parents had died tragically at only 32 and 34 years old.

“Music was always there in the house,” recalls Norma. “My grandmother liked to sing World War I songs, and all our relatives sang or played music. At parties everyone did their turn. Yes, there were folk, or traditional songs, as I like to call them – but we were exposed to many kinds of music. One uncle loved opera; for another it was music hall.

“As we got older the three of us would be paid to sing at events, including parties on the River Boat Shuffle – a ferry that went across from Hull to North Lincolnshire. But it was just a hobby. I trained as a nurse and Mike went into building.”

The Watersons’ reputation spread though, and they began to get gigs around the country.

By 1964 Mike and Lal were both married and there were children. Norma was divorced from her first husband and the gigs had ceased to be fun.

“Even though we loved singing together, we never intended to be professional singers, and to be honest it was becoming a chore. So we stopped.”

Norma took off to Montserrat in the Caribbean, following “a fair, handsome Irishman”. The relationship didn’t last, but she fell in love with the culture and music of the island.

After four years as a radio DJ and newsreader she was back in Yorkshire. “I’d missed the family so much, and within a few days of my return, Lal, Mike and I were playing a gig.”

Martin Carthy, already revered on the British folk scene and an acknowledged influence on artists like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, had met Norma years before via music. They now met again and fell in love. They married and there are four children between them, including one each from their previous marriages.

The Waterson / Carthy clan moved to the moors above Robin Hood’s Bay, to a large farmhouse with barns to convert into two more houses and 13 acres to grow food and keep animals. For 14 years they lived this rural idyll, but in 1989 Norma and Martin moved down into the relative warmth of the village.

The family made a recording studio in a house around the corner, youngsters in the family like Eliza and Lal’s son Oliver Knight were proving their own talents in the musical arena, and Norma and Eliza joined Martin on the road as Waterson: Carthy. Norma says she’s never yearned for a more “regular” existence.

Among the dozens of albums created by the Waterson / Carthy dynasty are solo collections and joint efforts. The loss of Lal 11 years ago, then Mike more recently left Norma and the whole family bereft.

“Yes, it was a very difficult time. We had always been so close. Apart from everything else, there’s a comfort in singing with family,” says Norma. “I would instinctively know where Lal would come and go with her part in a song, and it’s the same with Eliza.”

In 2010, mother and daughter released Gift, their first album together – which included traditional ballads like Pretty Grey Hawk, folk songs including Poor Wayfaring Stranger, blues, jazz and even a nod to Amen Corner with (If Paradise Is) Half As Nice.”

“I love all my children equally, but when it comes to music Eliza has a special gift, and she’s more experimental than me; she has great musical imagination. I’m more traditional.

“When she was about 13 she borrowed a book of Scottish and English ballads and took it upstairs. A while later she came down and said ‘Have you seen the stories in this book, Mam? There’s love, death, war… everything.’ Of course it appealed to her – she’s been writing stories since she was five.”

Norma refers to her core repertoire as traditional (not “folk”) music because “it’s music passed down through generations, and you can feel that there are thousands of people stretching back in time who sang it in their own way before you. “It’s about life experiences, including war, poverty, industrial unrest, everything – and emotions we can all recognise. The ‘folk’ scene isn’t about these sorts of song now – at festivals the music is largely what you’d call popular, really. So many people do that thing where they sing in an American accent, then when they speak you hear they’re actually British. I’ve never been able to or wanted to do that; I sing as I speak.”

Is Norma Waterson optimistic about the future of the music she and her family have researched, cherished and passed on?

“I don’t know if I am or not, really,” she says simply. “The whole music scene has changed enormously, and today money is king. If you don’t sell million of records you can’t get booked for gigs. Hair, make-up and clothes seem to be more important than the music. But none of those things can make your music good. This attitude affects our kind of music, too, so unless you’ve got a new album out you can’t get a gig booked.”

This particular musical family have always managed without a manager. They keep it simple, and have probably been able to do so because they’ve been big box office for more than four decades, and have the Mercury Prize nominations, Radio 2 Folk Awards, MBEs and other accolades they could wave about if they were that sort.

Norma’s clearly not calling time on her career – although she is being selective about how often she plays. When she and Eliza step out on stage next month in Whitby with Martin, niece Marry Waterson and various musical friends, they’re sure to feel the usual huge waves of love.

“I have an ideal life apart from a few aches and pains of arthritis and being less mobile than I was. I have a great family, Martin and I still love each other very much, and I get to sing… That’s pretty good, really.”

• Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy, Marry Waterson and special guests will play the Whitby Coliseum on January 9 and 10. Tickets from the venue or Musicport, Skinner Lane, Whitby. 01947 603475, www.musicportfestival.com