Norma Waterson: London folk scene pays tribute to a legend

Norma Waterson
Norma Waterson died on 30 January aged 82. Photo: Doc Rowe

‘Norma Waterson once said that the news and stories told by word of mouth are just as important as anything written down.

“Oral history is what made us march. It’s what made us sing, it’s what made us happy, and deserves as much respect and dignity as any of those history books high on a shelf.”

And, fine singer that she was, Norma was also a consummate oral historian. In every song she sang she told the story, not only recreating the scene, but identifying with the people whose lives were unfolding. And not just the facts but the feeling.

Norma sang from the heart and clearly cared about the fortunes and misfortunes of the folk whose story she told. But of course she was far more than a historian.

Above all else she was a very fine singer. Starting with those wonderful harmonies of the Waterson family, along with brother Mike, sister Lal, cousin John Harrison, and then Martin Carthy – untaught but uninhibited – Norma’s great voice and personality were always at the forefront.

Songs of the ordinary folk, the miners, the travellers, the farmworkers, that carried images of lives many listeners had never been aware of before.

So sadly Norma has left us but her voice, her spirit and those songs will be with us always.’

Mike Norris
Presenter of Classic Folk and former EFDSS chair

‘Thanks for the memories, Norma’

‘Like all people involved in the folk music scene we were so sad to hear of the death of Norma Waterson. Whether she was singing a traditional ballad, a hymn, or a song from the great American songbook she always seemed to live the song.

Hearing her and indeed seeing her perform was always special. How Norma ever managed to conform to the discipline of standing behind a fixed microphone is a mystery! – the swaying from side to side, the hand and arm gestures were all part of what we loved about this most expressive of singers.

Thanks for the memories, Norma. RIP.’

Ken Hall and Peta Webb
Musical Traditions Club

Norma and Martin Carthy at home in Hull. Photo: John Harrison

‘She could laugh just with her eyes’

‘When I was a child in Hull in the 50s, my earliest memory of Norma is when she was visiting her in-laws who lived next door but one to me.
I can still see her clearly, smartly dressed and saying hello to us children as she walked up the path. Of course, I didn’t know who she was then but, in the 60s when I was 15 I started going to a folk club and soon got to know the the family.

In the 70s, when the Watersons moved from Hull to Fylingdales Moor, we bought Mike and Anne’s house and Tim Hart bought Martin and Norma’s which was next door! We became closer in the 80s when I moved up to Whitby.

Mike and Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and Jill Pidd
Mike and Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and Jill Pidd, filling in for Lal Waterson, on Singing the Seasons, a 1990 tour of the US and Canada. Photo: Doc Rowe

We also went to folk clubs around the area and I’ve never known anyone who could laugh just with their eyes, and if something amused her she would look across at me trying to make me laugh, too.

After an advert appeared in the Whitby Gazette for extras in the new Heartbeat TV programme, I rang her to see if she fancied applying.

We did many episodes together on that cold moor and had great fun. We can still be heard singing We Shall Not Be Moved over the soundtrack of an episode disembarking from the steam train at Goathland station with our banners when we played protesters against the early-warning station at Fylingdales Moor.

I was singing with Mike and Anne Waterson in the late 80s as a trio called Michaelannjillo and when Lal was unable to perform due to ill health I was asked if I’d take her place on the forthcoming tour of the US and Canada.

Touring with the Watersons in 1990 was one of the most memorable times of my life, and I was brought in at a week’s notice! We performed a two-hour concert almost every night for six weeks across the US and Canada and it was the most thrilling and exhilarating feeling to be on stage and singing among that wonderful wall of sound that is the Watersons.

There are many more happy memories that I shall treasure of this generous, kind and warm woman who would always be there with a hug if you needed one but the overriding one is of fun and laughter. Bless you, Norma.’

Jill Pidd
Family friend

‘Passion and wonderful singing’

‘We had both independently (before we met) seen the Watersons live, and of course bought their albums, but the only time Norma came to the Goose was when our concerts were held at the local football club, Dulwich Hamlet.

She headlined in March 2010 with Martin Carthy and Chris Parkinson. Ticket prices were £11 advance, £7 concessions. What a bargain!

It was a fantastic evening, and Sue has always said that despite being on the door (at the back of a very long room) for almost all the evening, for her it is still the most memorable of all our gigs, over 14 years.

Norma’s passion and wonderful singing shone out and filled the space, and she gave Sue a lovely warm hug from her wheelchair after the gig. She will be very much missed, and we send our love to her family.’

Nygel Packett and Sue Whitehead
Organisers, The Goose is Out!

‘One of the great singers’

‘I was lucky enough to have been friends with Norma since the 70s (I met her first at the Inverness Folk Festival in 1973), and to have stayed with her and Martin Carthy at their lovely house in Robin Hood’s Bay on various occasions.

I booked her to perform at my club many times, initially with the Watersons, starting when we met downstairs in Cecil Sharp House in the 70s, and later with Martin and sometimes in a trio with Chris Parkinson.

It goes without saying that she was one of the great singers, but she was also great company – thoughtful, funny and passionate about traditional songs and socialism – and I find it hard to accept that I’ll never talk to her or hear her sing again.’

Sheila Miller
Organiser, Cellar Upstairs folk club

‘Our world is less bright’

‘Norma was a remarkable individual with a kind and generous spirit – it really is difficult to find superlatives as they all fail to characterise the unpretentious soul she was, with her joy of singing that was foremost.

She joins Lal and Mike but our world is less bright and we’ll miss that regular celebration of life, song and energy.’

Doc Rowe
Folklorist