Mike Waterson: Singer and songwriter with the Watersons, luminaries of the English folk scene

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The Independent Online

In terms of sheer imaginative rethinking, the Watersons were the most inspiring, musically original and culturally defining group to shape the English folk-music scene. Even though some bright spark's quip that they were the "Folk Beatles" grew legs, they stayed rooted in folk music's traditional tilth. They had a domestic and international impact way beyond their record sales – and their distinctiveness and musical otherworldliness put them arguably ahead of any other British folk band. Despite fellow sojourners such as John Harrison and Martin Carthy joining the family, at their most basic, most elevated and deepest, it was always Mike and his sisters Norma and Lal at the core, singing their hearts out.

Their numinosity lay in the way they dovetailed their vocal lines, leapt octaves and merged and blurred voices. What they sang was unprescriptive and unpredictable. They continually traded lead and subordinate vocal lines back and forth. Live, it became a matter of not merely listening to them, but watching whose lips were moving and lip-reading mouth shapes to work out who was producing what. Lal and Mike might be singing syllables that only together made up a whole word; Mike might be singing the high notes and his sisters the lower registers.

Such was their intuitive gift that, as Martin Carthy, a Waterson from 1972, when he married Norma, explained to me for the biographical essay accompanying their CD/DVD boxed set, Mighty River of Song (2003), "Sometimes in a Watersons song no one person is singing the melody. The melody's there, but it spreads itself across the four different people because we have not sung parts."

Norma was born in 1939, followed by Mike in 1941 and Elaine in 1943, all in Hull. Their mother, Florence, died in 1946, followed by their father, Charles, in 1948. Mike recalled, "With being an orphan, for years and years, [my birthday] was the 16th of January and it was only when I needed my birth certificate for something that I found I was born on the 17th of January." Raising the family had fallen to their maternal grandmother, Eliza Ward, and, as Lal recounted in "Song for Thirza", a live-in family friend. A born contrarian, Mike told me. "It was Thirzey to me, spelt Thirza. We called her Tut as well. I was probably pushing five years old when my mother became ill and we moved to Grandma's house so she could look after her."

In post-war Hull they grew up speaking the local dialect, a shaping force behind their singing and choice of songs once they graduated from skiffle, trad jazz and the Folksons' less focused repertoire and borrowings. Michael retained his broad Yorkshire accent and a delight in using dialect idioms such as weak verbal forms like "heared" or "seed" for "heard" and "saw" or "seen". Sequestered in Hull in the pre-motorway age, the siblings developed a unique singing style without too much outside interference, though the record collection of Norma's first husband, Eddie Anderson, fed their heads. They became the resident act at Folk Union One, a folk club best remembered for its time at the Blue Bell, preserved in Derrick Knight's Watersons television documentary Travelling for a Living (1965). Of Mike, Knight said, "Mike was already building his boat in his backyard there and dreaming of various things."

The fact that they had a BBC documentary dedicated to them is testimony to their impact. In 1964, on a weekend break from their day jobs, the Watersons – now with their second cousin John Harrison – came down to London, sang at the Troubadour and went home with a recording contract. "We were all asleep on our feet at the time," Mike laughed. "'Oooh, a record! Yes!' We didn't know what it meant, making a record!"

Their singing on Topic's New Voices anthology – shared with Maureen Craik and Harry Boardman – met with critical encouragement. But their debut proper, "a calendar of ritual and magical songs", Frost and Fire, also released in 1965, swept into the folk and wider consciousness. Mike's unaccompanied solo "John Barleycorn" became the template for Traffic's title song for John Barleycorn Must Die (1970). Elektra released Frost and Fire in the US; in 2008 the Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie could still burst impromptu into its material.

Two further LPs followed before the Watersons broke up in 1968, precipitated by Norma's decision to move to "the emerald isle of the Caribbean", to work as a disc jockey on the Montserrat-based Radio Antilles. In February 1972 she came back on a break and never used her return ticket. A new era began that lasted into the 1980s with three LPs, all of which – For Pence and Spicy Ale (1975), Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy (1977) and Green Fields (1981) – have stood up magnificently. There was also the later side-project, Blue Murder, and importantly his solo debut, Mike Waterson (1977), which mixed child ballads, Yorkshire gleanings, music hall minstrelsy and dockside parody.

That Montserratian hiatus found Lal and Mike discovering that each of them, independently, was writing songs. From early on, Mike had been writing new "traditional" material – "Hal-an-Tow" on Frost and Fire opens with Mike's "Since Man has been created..." – but the songcraft revealed on Bright Phoebus (1972) was jaw-droppingly original. As a songwriter he went from strength to strength. A compulsive writer, he was sloppy about preserving his songs. Martin Carthy rescued "A Stitch in Time" – a revenge tale about marital violence picked up on by Peggy Seeger, Christy Moore, Fi Fraser and Jo Freya, Chumbawamba and others. On 1 May 2010 he was diagnosed as having three months to live. He kept writing until the end, and the sheer heroic class of the man can be seen in the DVD The Waterson Family – Live at Hull Truck (2011).

In 2002 he told me, "Going professional was the last thing I wanted to do. It was very romantic and all the rest of it, but I was married with a couple of young children and it meant being away from home. It was like being split in two. It was like being schizophrenic, being two people. Ann married a builder and ended up living with a singer who was away half the time, swanning all over."

He is survived by his sister Norma, his wife, children Sarah, Rachel, Matthew and Eleanor and grandchildren. Lal predeceased him in 1998.

Ken Hunt

Michael Waterson, folk singer and songwriter: born Kingston upon Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire 17 January 1941; married 1964 Margaret Ann Collins (three daughters, one son); died Scarborough, North Yorkshire 22 June 2011.