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Norma Waterson

Norma Waterson: Norma Waterson (Hannibal HNCD 1393)

Norma Waterson
Norma Waterson

Hannibal/Carthage HNCD 1393 (CD, USA/UK, 1996)

The CD brings family members Eliza Carthy and Martin Carthy together with Danny Thompson, Richard Thompson and drummer Roger Swallow, catching the mood of the times in skilful arrangements of songs by a roll-call of contemporary writers: Jerry Garcia, Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, Ben Harper, Lal Waterson, John B. Spencer and Graeme Taylor.

Produced by John Chelew;
Recorded at Ocean Way Studio 2, Los Angeles, California on 5-9 December 1995;
Engineer and associate producer: Larry Hirsch;
Production consultant: Joe Boyd;
Mastered by Tim Young at Metropolis Mastering, London;
Sleeve design by Matthew Rudd at Intro;
Photography by Greg Allen;
Cover photography by Paul Slattery

fRoots Critics Poll Album of the Year 1996

Norma was nominated for the 1996 Mercury Music Prize.


Norma Waterson: vocals;
Eliza Carthy: vocals, violin;
Martin Carthy: acoustic guitar, vocals;
Richard Thompson: electric & acoustic guitars;
Benmont Tench: Hammond B-3 organ;
Danny Thompson: acoustic bass;
Roger Swallow: drums, percussion


  1. Black Muddy River [Jerry Garcia / Robert Hunter] (4.21)
  2. St Swithin’s Day [Billy Bragg] (2.56)
  3. God Loves a Drunk [Richard Thompson] (4.41)
  4. The Birds Will Still Be Singing [Declan McManus (Elvis Costello)] (2.56)
  5. There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears [Fred Fisher] (2.54)
  6. Rags and Old Iron [Norman Curtis / Oscar Brown jr] (4.18)
  7. Pleasure and Pain [Ben Harper] (6.03)
  8. Hard Times Heart [Norma Waterson] (3.20)
  9. There Is a Fountain of Christ’s Blood (Roud 663; trad) (3.48)
  10. Anna Dixie [Lal Waterson] (3.41)
  11. Outside the Wall [John B. Spencer / Graeme Taylor] (6.14)

Hannibal Records’ release notes

The Reigning Queen of British Folk Releases First Solo Album

Hannibal Records is pleased to announce the release of Norma Waterson, the first solo album by one of the world’s great voices. Rather than taking on the traditional English material for which she is known, the reigning doyenne of British folk delivers remarkable interpretations of songs by Elvis Costello, Jerry Garcia, Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg and Ben Harper, among others. Backed by a band that includes Richard Thompson on guitar, Danny Thompson on bass, Roger Swallow on drums, her husband Martin Carthy on guitar, and their daughter Eliza Carthy on violin, Norma Waterson gives fresh eloquence to each song with her rich lived-in voice, creating a collection that is sure to widen her already devoted following.

Norma began her career back in the early 60s. To put it in historical perspective, when the woman Mojo magazine called “possibly the finest English singer alive today” first committed her voice to record, the Beatles hadn’t yet landed in the United States, man hadn’t yet landed on the moon and the Who hadn’t yet landed a recording contract.

So why did it take this woman 32 years to make her first solo album? Well, it isn’t like she hasn’t been working.

Norma first performed professionally with a group that included her brother (Mike), her sister (Elaine, known as Lal) and their cousin, John Harrison. The band was initially called The Mariners, then The Folksons, and finally The Watersons. The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music proclaimed The Watersons “one of the most important and influential of the UK folk revival groups.”

Their 1964 debut was on an anthology aptly titled New Voices. By their first full album, Frost and Fire, The Watersons were attracting significant critical attention, and the disc was named Melody Maker’s “Folk Album of the Year.” Two albums followed in 1966: The Watersons and A Yorkshire Garland. Despite incessant touring and a continually expanding fan base, economic pressures forced the band into a recording hiatus that lasted seven years. In the interim, Norma departed for the warmer climes of Monserrat, where she spent four years as a disc jockey.

Norma returned to England in 1972, picking up where she had left off. The reformed band featured a new member, ex-Steeleye Span vocalist/guitarist Martin Carthy, who took the place originally occupied by John Harrison and subsequently by Bernie Vickers. Carthy and Norma Waterson were married later that year. It was this lineup of the group that recorded For Pence and Spicy Ale, released in 1975. The Watersons have been more or less continually active with that core lineup thereafter, though other family members have augmented the band over the years. In 1977, the band released an album of Victorian hymnals (Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy) and Lal and Norma released A True Hearted Girl. Four years hence, the group released Green Fields, the most recent Watersons release to date. They continued to tour throughout the world, and it was on their American tour of 1991 that the idea for a solo album was initially broached with producer John Chelew.

“We were touring without Lal,” says Norma, “and we had a date in Santa Monica, California. I did There Is a Fountain in Christ’s Blood, singing lead vocal. After the show [producer] John Chelew came up to me and said he really loved my voice and asked me why I had never made a solo album. I told him that no one had ever asked me to, and he said, ’Well I’m asking!’ He put the idea to Joe [Boyd], and off it went.” (There Is a Fountain was later recorded for the album, the only traditional English song to be included.)

Coordinating the schedules of the all-star cast that they planned to assemble for the record turned out to be a challenge for Chelew and Waterson. The initial recording dates in the summer of 1994 fell through, and the next available window of opportunity came the following year. Even daughter Eliza had a bustling schedule. In fact, the youngest member of the clan had been busy opening up the folk scene to a new generation. She has been recording and touring with fellow violinist Nancy Kerr, as well as with her parents. The Waterson:Carthy ensemble, comprising Norma, Martin and Eliza, released a self-titled debut in 1994 which was wildly lauded in the British press and named Folk Roots’ Critics’ Choice of the Year.

Touring schedules notwithstanding, in December of 1995, John Chelew and Norma’s band met up in California for two weeks of recording. “I like to get in and get out,” says Norma. “I’ve never been one to do tracks and then come back weeks later and record the vocals. What I most want to do is to preserve the live feel as much as I can.”

Working with songs from great contemporary writers, including Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg, Ben Harper, and Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, Norma has strayed from her traditional moorings somewhat, although she sees these songs as having a greater kinship with folk music than might be immediately apparent.

“We tend to want to put things in compartments,” says Norma, “to label them, put them in a little box. At the heart of the matter is that these are human songs. People’s songs. When people talk about folk songs, I don’t know what they mean any more. The contemporary ’hold-hands-and-smile-and everything-will-be-fine’ approach really doesn’t have much to do with traditional music. Lots of the traditional songs said it won’t be all right, things are going to go badly, and that’s part of our existence. We’ll still have murder and adultery and incest and grief … and life and love and everyday joys and sorrows. There’s no need to sugar-coat it. I don’t want to sing children’s songs, Disney’s idea of life. I want to sing about real issues. I refuse to treat the audience like they’re children.”

She doesn’t. Songs such as Richard Thompson’s acerbic God Loves a Drunk and Ben Harper’s Pleasure and Pain comment on the human condition from a mature perspective, while Lal Waterson’s lovely Anna Dixie brings a measure of English history to the mix. From the first bars of Black Muddy River to the last ringing chord of Outside the Wall, it’s apparent that Norma Waterson, the album, is rooted in tradition with a modern sensibility and a keen eye to the future.

The question of why her debut was so long in coming perplexes even Norma, but she waxes philosophical: “Sometimes time just gets away from you.” One can only hope that we don’t have to wait until 2028 for Norma Waterson II.