Album of the Week, January 12: Norma Waterson

NormaWatersonFew artists wait as long to record their solo debuts as Norma Waterson. Born in Hull, in the north of England in 1939, she grew up in a famously musical family. They loved everything from Tin Pan Alley to jazz to standards to traditional songs. She formed a skiffle band with her younger siblings, Mike and Lal, and cousin John Harrison. They quickly switched to traditional folk and developed a significant following. The Watersons recorded a handful of albums before taking a break. Norma moved to Montserrat and became a DJ; she moved back to England and married fellow folk pioneer Martin Carthy. They united with Mike and Lal and reformed the Watersons, recording and performing sporadically for another two decades. In 1995, producer John Chelew suggested that Norma showcase the breadth of her tastes and talents on a solo album. That suggestion resulted in a highlight of a stellar career.

Title Norma Waterson
Act Norma Waterson
Label Hannibal Release Date 1996
Producer John Chelew
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Black Muddy River
  2. St. Swithin’s Day
  3. God Loves A Drunk
  4. The Birds Will Still Be Singing
  5. There Ain’t No Sweet Man
    That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears

  6. Rags and Old Iron
  7. Pleasure and Pain
  8. Hard Times Heart
  9. There Is A Fountain In Christ’s Blood
  10. Anna Dixie
  11. Outside the Wall

The album features a powerful and sympathetic band: husband Martin Carthy on guitar, daughter Eliza Carthy on fiddle and harmonies, percussionist Roger Swallow, and the famously powerful Danny Thompson on bass and Richard Thompson on lead and electric guitar. They meshed flawlessly, performing with a  power that might have overwhelmed a lesser singer. Norma, however was in her finest form, and the merger of talents worked like such things seldom do.

Intentionally looking farther afield than folk tunes, the album includes only one traditional song, There Is A Fountain In Christ’s Blood. It’s the kind of spiritual that Norma might sing with her family as a rousing chorus. Solo, she makes the most of its darker power, showing of her diversity of skills.

The album also includes songs by other folk musicians. The disc closes with the stirring Outside the Wall, by the underappreciated writer and singer John B. Spencer. Sister Lal Waterson contributed Anna Dixie, a tragic tale of family betrayal that could easily have been a traditional number. Norma has often sung Lal’s songs, and lends this one a solemn grace that suits it perfectly. One big surprise on the disc is a very rare Norma Waterson composition. Hard Times Heart is a wonderful song that merges folk and music hall sensibilities nicely and Norma sings it with gusto.

The album draws from writers of multiple generations. Relative newcomer Ben Harper contributes Pleasure and Pain, a modern protest folk song with real heart. Hearkening back to Tin Pan Alley, Norma selected There Ain’t No Sweet Man by Fred Fisher, a prolific writer. Singing a duet with daughter Eliza, Norma clearly has fun with the song and lifts a potential lament into an anthem of feminist determination. Another older song is Oscar Brown’s Rags and Old Iron, made famous by Nina Simone. Norma takes Simone’s angry lament and slows it down, making it her own and lending it a tragic gravity.

Three of the 20th Century’s finest contemporary composers also lend tracks. Norma covers Elvis Costello’s The Birds Will Still Be Singing, showing a flair for irony not often seen in her work. It’s a perfect reading and one of the band’s finest supporting moments. Urbane folkie Billy Bragg wrote St. Swithin’s Day early in his career. Norma takes this quiet reflection and picks up the pace a bit, focusing on the nostalgia rather than the pain. It’s a nice approach, and Eliza’s accompaniment is a perfect fit. A Richard Thompson song is a natural fit, and we get the rare treat of hearing him provide guitar on a cover of one of his songs. God Loves A Drunk is a powerful tune, and Norma nails it, balancing the bitterness and sorrow flawlessly.

Norma Waterson actually opens with its strongest moment. Norma was given a tape that included a song with no attribution. Over time, it got under her skin and she found herself humming it constantly. It was an easy choice to add to the album. Black Muddy River is a Grateful Dead song, not an intuitive match, perhaps, but an amazing one. Norma owns the song, capturing each line with her unique power. Evocative, resonant, and flawlessly musical, it’s one of her finest moments — and that’s saying something.

FURTHER LISTENING: If Norma Waterson sings it, it is worth hearing. Her work with her family and friends is so filled with highlights that distilling them is almost impossible. Given the untimely deaths of Lal and Mike Waterson and Norma’s own fragile health, newer output is sadly rare. She has released two other very worthwhile solo albums (The Very Thought of You and the traditional collection Bright Shiny Morning). With her daughter, she recently recorded a wonderful set of songs, Gift, that mixes genres and generations nicely. The concert DVD is also well worthwhile.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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