Like countless other ’50s teens, siblings Mike, Norma and Lal Waterson’s musical baptism embraced skiffle and trad jazz before, in their case, gravitating towards folk. Their unaccompanied style was nurtured in folk clubs around Hull, defying convention further by developing an exclusively Yorkshire repertoire.
Their vocal sound stood apart; they sang less in harmony than across parallel melodies, creating an energy as exciting as any rock’n’roll. This joyous noise was captured on a classic debut album, Frost & Fire, which sent shock waves through the folk scene of 1965. Traditional but with pop-like appeal, they were dubbed “the folk Beatles”.
CD 1 draws heavily on these early, influential years, including a dozen unreleased or out-of-print tracks. The bonus DVD, a black-and-white film made for BBC2 in 1966, is a perfect companion, conveying the group’s thrill of performance and obsession with researching and collecting traditional song.
In 1968, Lal and Mike concocted the genrebusting Bright Phoebus. With not one traditionally arranged song, it alienated the trad community. Its release in 1972 heralded The Watersons’ return after a six-year break, and they were soon joined by Martin Carthy, Norma’s husband.
They ploughed on for nigh on 20 years, mixing traditional and original songs, interspersing three albums with works in their own right from Carthy, Lal, Norma and Mike. Spanning these two decades, the strength of discs two and three is in highlighting the group’s club and festival appearances, with plenty of previously undocumented performances.
Lal and Mike ceased touring in 1991 but, as they bowed out, the second generation was entering the family business, Mike and Lal’s daughters, Rachel and Maria, having already been inducted. But it’s Waterson: Carthy (Martin and Norma with daughter Eliza) who have become the true flag-bearers, while albums by Norma and Eliza have won Mercury nominations. The Waterson family has surely never been more productive, as the final disc illustrates. Even Mike was enticed back into the Blue Murder offshoot. On a sadder note, Lal died in 1998, but not before creating another great work, the agelessly enigmatic Once In A Blue Moon recorded, appropriately, with her son Oliver.