'Feeling part of a dynasty in musical terms is a great feeling'

The Watersons are the most famous family in English folk music. It all began with three little orphans, Norma, Lal, and Mike, singing round Grandma's fire. Now they're a musical dynasty

Uncle Harry played organ, piano, banjo and one-string fiddle. Uncle Sam played the musical saw. Uncle Ronnie was a monumental mason and blew cornet at the silent pictures with the local band. "He got two and a half quid a week for that," says Mike Waterson. "He only got two quid as a mason." He coughs and goes on. "He was in an orphanage in Hull ... "

Hull is a short syllable fired from the back of the throat like a cannonball, without an H. There follows an anecdote about how Uncle Ronnie was exempt from the pious rigours of the orphans' Sundays because he was a musician. The whole family laughs. It's a family routine, the sort we all have. But there's something more to this. This family is the Waterson family - a family but also more than a family. The Watersons are a dynasty.

Mike is the younger brother of Norma Waterson. They had a younger sister, Elaine ("Lal"), who died nine years ago, nine days after being diagnosed with cancer. The three of them, in conjunction with their second cousin John Harrison comprised the Watersons, perhaps the most famous family unit in English folk music.

Norma and her husband and fellow "Waterson", the folk singer/guitarist Martin Carthy (he joined the group when he married its de facto leader in 1972), live in Robin Hood's Bay, close to Whitby, in a mighty Victorian semi.

We sit in Norma and Martin's sitting room. It is warm and cosy. The family sits on the furniture while their ancestors swarm up the walls in frames. "We" means me, Norma, Martin and Mike, plus Norma's nephew, Oliver Knight, who is the late Lal's guitarist son and administrative factor of the Watersons enterprise. Eliza Carthy, Norma and Martin's extravagantly talented daughter, is away on tour.

Norma, Mike and Lal were orphans too. According to Norma, the dynastic tap root was "Grandmother". "Grandmother was the beginning," she says, kneeding her arthritic knuckles. "She was part Irish Gypsy and she hawked eggs round Hull when she was young. Grandfather went through the first world war in the trenches without a scratch and then died of the flu two weeks after the war ended ... " And when Norma, Lal and Mike's mother died towards the end of the 1940s, their father followed swiftly on, 10 days later, the victim of a stroke. The children, all of them under 10, went to live with Grandmother.

"She liked all her tribe around her," says Norma. "She had her daughters, her sons and all their families, and at one time we had 15 people living in the big house, during the war ... "

"I was brought up in a house full of women, 'cause all the men went off to the war," says Michael.

"It was a matriarchal society, all right," continues his older sister. "When Mum and Dad died, each of Grandma's children wanted to take on one of each of us. But Grandma wouldn't let them. She said, 'They've lost their parents and I'm not separating them!' So that's how we ended up being brought up by our grandmother."

The basic Watersons story is: three working-class orphans raised in a fug of Catholic probity and Gypsy superstition by their grandma in austerity Britain, singing round the fire to stave off bedtime, then taking it to the coffee bars and pubs of Hull, followed by national prominence of a sort, while the three of them glued themselves firmly together with the gum of musical dependency.

In performance, they are not a gang, like a pop group; they are a family. The all-for-one-one-for-all ethos is not a rhetorical position but their psychological reality. It must have been tough for Martin to penetrate the family thicket when he married Norma in 1972 ...

"Well, yes, that's true," says Carthy, slowly. "The musical side was comparatively easy because a lot of that is down to intuition. Anything else took much longer to resolve because ... well, I'm just a southern bloke ... I was lucky to have a very patient wife ... "

Mike piles in: "You took a long time to have an input though. You were in the group, but you didn't decide anything for a long time ... "

Carthy: "Well, that's only to be expected ... "

Mike: "It's 'cause you were a fuckin' southern incomer, that's why!"

Carthy, unfazed: "Weeell, the thing I had to understand straight off is that any fourth member of the Watersons is going to be an outsider. These three were thick as thieves and there's no way you're going to get inside. So the only thing you can do is hover round the outside and fit in where you can. And eventually the door opens a crack ... "

Norma, neutrally: "I wasn't aware of difficulties. Well, maybe the odd thing. But because the three of us ... I mean, when we got together to sing, nothing ever got in from the outside. We were just a unit, you know. It's families. It is families - you have the same DNA, the same blood, the same history and it's all there and it works out."

Norma is the matriarch; everyone says so except Norma. She has always overseen things. Mike does a lot of the talking, but it's Norma who exercises authority. "Oh, I wouldn't say that," she says. "Oh, yes you do," says her husband. Oliver laughs quietly.

Why do you think that is, I ask - everyone's agreed on this except you. "Because I'm the eldest." She places her hands palm-down on her lap.

"She was our mother," says Mike. "She became our mum when she was eight years old."

There is obviously a big hole where Lal used to be; the unassertive, even recessive, formidable Lal. Norma is very moving in the way she describes singing with her sister, which she did at a distance of a very few inches for the best part of five decades of raw, fibrillar harmony. "You could feel the sound," she says, "going from mouth to mouth."

"When Lal died it really shattered this family," says Norma. "We didn't see it coming. Nine days." Another silence. "But we won't talk about it because it's very, very sad and it's silly to talk about it. It won't change anything."

And what about conflict? Every family has scraps, petty or otherwise. How do the Watersons resolve theirs? Is there a duty to the family edifice, to stop it from crumbling?


Norma: "No, no."

Michael: "Well, there is in a way. It's like, you have a row, you say things you shouldn't say - the next day it's forgotten! That's a rule."

Can you conceive of an unresolvable family conflict?

"It doesn't work like that," says Mike. He's not cross but you sense something pushing towards the surface. "It doesn't work like that because we were orphans. Somebody once said of Lal's writing that it was self-deprecating. We were asked why we thought that was. I said, it's because when you're orphans you have to prove to yourself that you have a place."

The afternoon draws in. Martin makes more tea. The Watersons roll on. We move into the area of ghosts and superstition: how Grandma would never put two spoons in a cup, never permit mayflower in the house. I learn about the family hauntings: the shadow in the stairway and the picture of the Watersons' mother that fell off the wall at the moment she died. "They said it were a lorry going by," says Mike. "But there was no lorry."

A few days later, I catch up with Norma and Martin's daughter Eliza, on her mobile in Newcastle. I confess that I may have made myself a bit too comfy in her parents' sitting room. She laughs. "It never stops, does it?"

Eliza says she's more aware now of the family's dynastic tendencies than she used to be. "When I was a kid, I was really into the fact that my mum's side of the family were Irish Gypsies - all of that. But I recently became more aware of the arc of my dad's family too and how many musicians there were in that lot. They go back seven generations. Feeling part of a dynasty in musical terms is a great feeling ... "

But what about emotional terms?

"Well, growing up on the farm, the whole family singing together - it's very emotional, especially seeing my little nieces and nephews, seeing them play and sing ... It's like seeing me aged five. Also, I'm doing more and more of what you could call 'family material' - less original digging around and more exciting myself in the songs that were always around. The ones my mum used to sing me to sleep with."

Does she feel any top-down pressure to carry on the dynasty?

"What, other than my mum saying, 'Where's me grandchild?'" She cackles. "No, not really. Occasionally they might go, why're you doing that? Stop doing that, it's rubbish! But only occasionally."

What about central authority? Does Eliza feel any obligation to defer ... ?


And who is that central authority?

"Who do you think? It's a family made up of very, very strong women. And one thing about Waterson women is they don't give a toss what you think about them. They know who they are, what their place in the world is. They're big stroppy lasses, the lot of them."

· The Waterson Family performs A Mighty River of Song at the Royal Albert Hall, London, tonight. Box office 020-7589 8212 or www.royalalberthall.com


Nick Coleman

The GuardianTramp

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