The Waterson siblings — Mike, Norma, and Lal — grew up in a musical family. They were surrounded by all kinds of songs: classical, jazz, big band, pop, and more. They also heard the traditional English songs of their native Yorkshire. In the late 50’s they toyed with forming a skiffle band, but soon dropped that idea. Joined by cousin John Harrison, they switched to a cappella versions of traditional folk songs. Their harmonies were powerful and unique and their love of the music shone through in every note. They quickly became a major force in the folk revival of the 60s. They released three albums in two years and appeared on many compilations. By 1968, tired of touring and concerned with the uncertainty of raising families on folk wages, they took a break. Norma followed a boyfriend to Montserrat where she became a DJ. Mike and Lal stayed in Yorkshire, where they discovered that each had been writing their own poems and songs while pursuing other jobs. They decided to collaborate on an album of original material; thus was Bright Phoebus: Songs by Lal & Mike Waterson born.
Once they got started, they assembled a crack team of singers and musicians to join them. Norma was back in Yorkshire; her new beau and future husband Martin Carthy joined the party. Guitarist Richard Thompson contributed to most of the tracks; his former Fairport Convention bandmates Dave Mattacks and Ashley Hutchings were the rhythm section for several songs. Tim Hart and Maddy Prior (Hutchings’ and Carthy’s cohorts from their time in Steeleye Span) contributed a number of guest vocals. The all-star approach together with the unique writing of the Waterson siblings resulted in one of the finest underappreciated albums of the 70s.
Things kick off in fine fashion with Mike’s Rubber Band. Rife with wordplay and joyously energetic, it’s a rousing choral tune that rings with lovely harmonies. The full band is in place, making it clear that this isn’t a typical Watersons disc. The addition of a jaunty brass section makes the Yorkshire via New Orleans feel complete. Up next is a distinctly English song, the haunting The Scarecrow written by Lal and Mike together. Its mystical tone and agricultural setting make it seem like a part of their traditional repertoire, with Mike’s aching vocal adding to the timeless quality. It’s one of the finest songs on the album and has been covered many times. Lal’s Fine Horseman is next, keeping with the traditional feel and mystical bent. Mysterious and powerful, it’s one of Lal’s finest vocal moments.
Things shift in tone again with Winifer Odd, a character sketch of an aptly named woman. Lal writes and sings her story, in which nothing ever goes quite right. Poor Winifer is even snubbed by Death, left behind with her sad life. Up next is Mike’s Danny Rose, another fictional biography. This character is a notorious criminal, and the song reads like a 30s crime story from Chicago. It’s nicely crafted and deftly explores the public fascination with flashy ne’er-do-wells. Side one of the original LP wraps up with Child Among the Weeds, a duet between Lal and fellow folk luminary Bob Davenport. A quirky but ultimately uplifting lullaby, it presages her later work with son Oliver Knight.
The second side opens much like the first, with a full chorus number about an entertainer. Magical Man, written by Lal and Mike, is a fun look at stagecraft. Switching narrative point of view between the astounded audience and the supremely confident performer, it’s nicely crafted and delightfully sung. Never the Same is one of Lal’s darkest songs, a look at the many ways that people crush the joyous spirits of children. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful. To Make You Stay is a romantic song, a plea for a lover to remain. Lal is in especially fine voice on this track as well, backed by a simple guitar and bass figure.
The final trio of songs are different forms of celebration. Shady Lady is Mike’s entreaty to a woman to make the most of her life and not hide herself away. It’s another choral treat, with all the voices coming together to urge her to “take a chance.” Red Wine and Promises is another true standout, even in this company. Lal composed a magnificent song that June Tabor has introduced in her shows as “a song of somewhat vulgar independence.” That sums it up nicely. Sung beautifully by sister Norma, it’s a declaration of the self, wonderfully rendered.
The siblings saved the best for last with the title track. Mike credits the inspiration to a flash of sun caught out of the corner of his eye. That moment led him to write a powerful, jubilant celebration. With everyone joining in, it’s an amazing song of hope.
Ironically, the album that got the Watersons recording together again was poorly received. Fans wanted traditional, unaccompanied songs. With Martin Carthy replacing John Harrison, the quartet began providing just that, releasing a number of wonderful albums over the years. Mixed with various side projects, the family discography is impressive. Despite — or perhaps due to — its starkly different nature, Bright Phoebus remains a singularly fine element in that canon.
FURTHER LISTENING: Over the years, many tracks from Bright Phoebus have been covered by a wide variety of folk, pop, and rock acts. Scarecrow, Red Wine and Promises, and Fine Horseman have had especially robust careers. For the album’s 30th anniversary, producer and graphic artist David Suff assembled a loving tribute collection. Shining Bright features fifteen songs (including two versions of the title track) by a wide variety of friends, family and fans. They cover eight of the original album’s songs as well as six other lovely tracks written at the same time. It’s a great companion piece.