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In the Shadow of Her Sister

In the Shadow of Her Sister
Colin Irwin
The Guardian 8 September 1998

LAL Waterson, who has died of cancer aged 55, was one of Britain's most celebrated folk singers and a member of The Watersons, the Yorkshire family group whose passionate unaccompanied harmonies have been the driving force of English traditional song for the past three decades. Yet her most telling contribution may not have been as a singer at all but as a songwriter whose inventiveness was deeply underrated and only rarely showcased due to The Watersons' popularity as traditional performers.

Her 1996 album, Once in a Blue Moon, when she teamed up with her guitarist/producer son Oliver Knight, was a haunting work, demonstrating the dark qualities of her earthy voice and a range of songs involving mysterious characters and deep emotions. Yet it was eclipsed by the success of her sister, Norma Waterson. whose album came out in the same year.

That Lal's work was overlooked was largely due to her modesty. She disliked publicity and avoided interviews. Yet behind closed doors she was a warm, kind-hearted woman, fiercely committed to her family and her roots.

She was brought up in Hull by an Irish, part-gypsy grandmother, whose incessant informal singing sessions imbued the whole family with a love of music, ranging from music-hall to jazz and opera. Lal, elder brother Mike, sister Norma and cousin John Harrison flirted with skiffle before gravitating towards English folk song. Their dynamic singing and colourful repertoire rapidly established the family group at the forefront of the burgeoning revival of the early 1960s was a role enhanced by their involvement with one of earliest folk clubs of the day, The Bluebell in Hull, where they established their reputation as pioneers of English traditional music revival with their early albums, The Watersons, A Yorkshire Garland and Frost and Fire.

Lal never intended to be a singer. She went to art school and trained as a painter and weaver, for seven years she worked as an heraldic artist painting coats of arms, and continued to paint through out her career. Her writing blossomed during The Watersons' four-year “retirement” from l968. Lal, married to George Knight, started turning her prolific output of poetry into song form - work unveiled with a vengeance on The Watersons' controversial comeback album of 1972, Bright Phoebus. Backed by an electric band which included Richard Thompson, Lal's complex, brooding tales particularly confused the diehards. Yet her material from that landmark album has proved exceptionally durable. Enraptured by its “Bergmanesque” imagery, June Tabor still features The Scarecrow - one of the album's most demanding songs - in her own set.

With Norma's husband, Martin Carthy, now in the group, The Watersons went on to release a succession of classic albums through the 1970s and 1980s, notably For Pence and Spicy Ale, and in 1977 Lal and Norma recorded a fascinating duet album A True-Hearted Girl, which also featured Lal's young daughter Maria.

Partly due to ill health and partly to disenchantment with life on the road, Lal withdrew from public performance completely, living in Robin Hood's Bay in North Yorkshire, devoting herself to writing and a loose involvement with the No Master's music co-operative. She had just completed a new album with son Oliver shortly before her death.

Lal (Elaine) Waterson, folk singer, born February 15, 1943; died September 4, 1998