Norma Waterson, who has died aged 82, was one of the finest and most versatile singers of the British folk revival. She spent most of her life singing traditional songs, many from her native east Yorkshire, in two highly successful groups, the Watersons and Waterson:Carthy, in which she was joined by other members of her family. But her no-nonsense, soulful and unashamedly emotional approach was well-suited to a wide variety of other musical styles, as she displayed in the solo recordings and collaborations with Eliza Carthy, her daughter, that won her a following far beyond the folk scene.
She was a hard-working, prolific artist who refused to stop recording or touring, and was singing as well in her 70s as she had in her 20s. Her final album, Anchor (2018), was the second that she had recorded with Eliza, and was a typically varied and experimental affair. It included Norma singing lead on a dramatic, jazz-edged treatment of the Tom Waits song Strange Weather and on a gently powerful version of Nick Lowe’s The Beast in Me.
The duo’s award-winning debut album, Gift (2010), was followed by a tour, during which Norma fell seriously ill, suffering from heart problems. She recovered, and returned to her home in Robin Hood’s Bay, on the Yorkshire coast, cared for by her husband, the singer and guitarist Martin Carthy, and Eliza. Although she found it hard to travel, she wanted to continue singing, and performed at the local annual festival, Normafest, set up in her honour. Her last such appearance was in January 2018.
Norma was brought up in the port of Hull, Yorkshire, by her maternal grandmother, Eliza Ward, partly of Irish Gypsy descent, who ran a second-hand shop during the second world war. Norma’s parents, Florence and Charles, died when she was very young and she spent much of her childhood looking after her younger brother Mike and sister Elaine, better known as Lal. It was a time, Norma said, when “most people had a piano in the parlour. We didn’t have a telly but my grandma knew all the music hall songs and we listened to pop music on Radio Luxembourg”.
The children sang together around the house, and formed a group, the Mariners, during the trad jazz and skiffle era of the 1950s. From American folk, they became increasingly interested in the English tradition. They started a folk club in a Hull pub, the Blue Bell, and changed their name to the Watersons.
The group consisted of Norma, Mike and Lal, and their second cousin John Harrison, and they transformed the 60s folk revival in Britain partly because they dressed like any other fashion-conscious young musicians of the time (they were nicknamed the “folk Beatles”), but mostly because of their attacking, unaccompanied harmony treatment of ancient English songs. As Mike commented at the time “we’re earthy, like the Rolling Stones”.
He and Norma handled most of the lead vocals, with Lal providing often highly adventurous harmonies – this was a group that followed no traditional rules. As Norma explained: “If you couldn’t find a note, you sang a harmony.” The Watersons’ first album, Frost and Fire (1965), was followed by The Watersons and A Yorkshire Garland. The group were widely praised but split up in 1968, exhausted from touring.
Norma’s first marriage (in 1958), to Eddie Anderson, had also ended, and now
she spent time away from her brother and sister, moving to Montserrat in the West Indies, where she worked as a DJ. When she returned in 1972, she married Carthy, who joined the reformed Watersons, taking the place of Harrison. The new line-up recorded three albums, For Pence and Spicy Ale (1975), Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy (1977) and Green Fields (1981). In 1977 Norma also recorded the album A True Hearted Girl with Lal.
In 1976, all three siblings and their families moved to Kirk Moor, a group of isolated farming cottages on the edge of the North York Moors. It is an exquisite, remote location, reached down a narrow lane that can be snowbound in winter, and was known to local villagers as “the hippy commune”. The arrangement ended in the late 80s when Norma and Lal and their families moved to Robin Hood’s Bay.
Lal left the Watersons in 1990, but Norma kept working in a new group, Waterson:Carthy, in which she was joined by her husband and daughter. This group differed from the Watersons because it made use of instrumental backing, with Martin Carthy demonstrating his celebrated guitar work and Eliza playing the fiddle.
Waterson:Carthy recorded six albums, first as a trio (on Waterson:Carthy, 1994 and Common Tongue, 1997), then with Saul Rose joining them on melodeon (Broken Ground, 1999), and later with Tim van Eyken taking his place (A Dark Light, 2002, Fishes and Fine Yellow Sand, 2004 and Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man, 2006). They concentrated on English traditional songs, but also included material from the Bahamas, the US, or a song by Mike.
Norma was also part of the occasional folk harmony “super-group” Blue Murder. On their 2002 album, No One Stands Alone, she was joined by Martin and Eliza, Mike and the vocal trio Barry Coope, Jim Boyes and Lester Simpson, for a set that included a rousing treatment of Mike’s Rubber Band.
Norma was one of the finest exponents of English traditional songs, but displayed her love of other styles in her eclectic and soulful solo albums. Norma Waterson (1996) included songs by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson and Lal, as well as the self-composed Hard Times Heart. The album was nominated for a Mercury prize, an award usually associated with pop and rock rather than folk, and very nearly won – the prize went instead to Pulp’s Different Class.
Three years later, she expanded her range with The Very Thought of You, which included an emotional (but never sentimental) reworking of Over the Rainbow, and Love of My Life, by Freddie Mercury – along with the first recording of Lal’s angry Reply to Joe Haines, written after Harold Wilson’s former press secretary had written what Lal thought to be a deeply offensive article about Mercury’s death from Aids. In 2000, Norma recorded her first solo album of traditional songs, Bright Shiny Morning.
With the album Gift, and the subsequent tour, she brought all these different musical influences together. She had suffered from a series of health problems, and had difficulty in walking, but was still in magnificent voice and handled the majority of the solos during the tour. At the BBC folk awards in 2011, Gift was named album of the year, and the song Poor Wayfaring Stranger, taken from the album, best traditional track. In 2016 she received a BBC folk awards lifetime achievement award. She was made MBE in 2002.
Her last London concert, at which she appeared alongside Eliza at the Union Chapel, in 2010, was recorded and released as The Gift Band – Live on Tour album. It provided a triumphant and suitably emotional summary of her career. She told her audience that “it’s hard to stick to just one kind of music”, before joining her daughter for a set that included folk songs, contemporary songs by Thompson, the slow and emotional Dreaming, written for her by Loudon Wainwright, along with the gloriously tuneful Bunch of Thyme, a song about mortality, and songs she had learned in her childhood. Between songs, she chatted to the audience in the same easy-going and humorous way that she chatted to those who visited her home.
Lal died in 1998; and Mike in 2011. Norma is survived by Martin and Eliza; and by Tim, her son from her first marriage.
• Norma Christine Waterson, singer, born 15 August 1939; died 30 January 2022