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Lal Waterson: Obituary notice

Daily Telegraph, 11 September 1998

Singer who in the Sixties revived interest in folk music with the family group she founded

LAL WATERSON, who has died aged 55, was a member of Britain's best-known family of folk singers.

She formed the Watersons in the early Sixties with her brother Michael, sister Norma and their cousin, John Harrison, and for more than 30 years their largely unaccompanied, polyphonic singing has been highly influential in folk music.

The band provided a platform for Lal Waterson's rich and full voice, but she also emerged as a songwriter of unusual sensitivity whose lyrical content challenged the orthodoxies of the folk tradition.

Elaine Waterson was born in Hull on February 15 1943. She was orphaned when young, and the children were brought up by their part gipsy Irish grandmother.

Her first love was painting, and from the age of 11 she attended a school specialising in art. She later trained as a weaver, before spending several years working as a heraldic artist, painting coats of arms.

The family began to sing in Hull in the late Fifties, especially at the Blue Bell pub. Having abandoned a flirtation with skiffle, their unalloyed vocal style brought them to the fore of the folk revival of the early Sixties.

The group released a number of albums, notably Frost and Fire (1965), a collection of ritual songs and carols. For most young people listening to music at that time, it was the era of the Beatles-led revolution in British pop. The Watersons' music was, of course, deeply unfashionable; their long hair and unorthodox lifestyles may have assisted a little, but it was still remarkable that they made an impression on even a small part of that generation.

But in 1968 the Watersons disbanded as its members began to pursue their own interests. Harrison left the group, Norma Waterson moved abroad to work as a disc-jockey on a radio station in the tropics, while Lal Waterson, who particularly disliked touring, went to live with her extended family in a folk commune on the Yorkshire Moors.

The Watersons reformed in 1972, and were joined by Norma Waterson's husband, Martin Carthy, himself a performer of note. In the meantime, Lal Waterson had begun to give musical settings to some of her poetry. The result - a collaboration between her and her brother Michael - was Bright Phoebus (1972), an album on which their traditional folk sound was married to the electric guitar of Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention.

Fairport had already helped to establish folk-rock as a vibrant but controversial strand of the revival. Bright Phoebus, perhaps because it implicated so revered a family in the process, caused further dismay to purists in a manner reminiscent of the consternation felt in Greenwich Village at Bob Dylan's comparable change of direction in 1965.

But many young female singers found inspiration in the content of Lal Waterson's darkly complex and passionate lyrics and several of the album's tracks have since been recorded by, among others, June Tabor and Annie Briggs.

The Watersons released a number of well-received LPs in the Seventies, including For Pence and Spicy Ale (1975), which was voted the best folk album of the year by Melody Maker, and Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy (1977), which gave voice to the tradition of unaccompanied hymn-singing that had been largely stifled in Victorian times.

Lal Waterson also sang with her sister and her daughter, Maria Knight, on A True Hearted Girl (1977), which marked the emergence of a second generation of Waterson singers. Accompanied from time to time by their mothers, Maria Knight [Gilhooley] and her cousin Eliza Carthy went on to form The Waterdaughters.

During the Eighties, Lal Waterson concentrated on writing, and sometimes performed with the collective No Master's Voice. She had recently returned to the recording studio to make with her son, Oliver Knight, two of the finest albums of her career, Midnight Feast (1995) and Once in a Blue Moon (1996).

Lal Waterson married, in 1968, George Knight.


Garry Gillard thanks Steve Willis for the cutting.