Song of the Day, July 8: Hard Times Heart by Norma Waterson

NormaHardTimesToday’s song is a rare writing effort by a renowned interpreter of many genres. As a member of the Watersons, Norma Waterson established herself as one of the finest voices in folk music. She also delighted in singing and recording standards, dance tunes, and gospel songs, finding the thread of human spirit that runs through all music. When she finally released a solo album after three decades of collaborative work, she brought all these elements together in a brilliant package.

She also brought an original song of her own. While her siblings, Lal and Mike, and husband Martin Carthy had written and recorded many songs that they wrote themselves, Norma had not committed her own work to vinyl. Hard Times Heart is a lovely offering and a standout moment on her solo outing. Norma offers a heartfelt lyric inspired by the disintegrating marriage of a friend, delivered in her fine alto. The band provide a stirring backdrop, cautiously hopeful for days ahead.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

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Song of the Day, April 29: Poor Wayfaring Stranger by Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson

WCGiftStrangerToday’s song is The Wayfaring Stranger. It’s a gospel-tinged American folk song [Roud 3339] dating to the early 19th Century. The narrator is a troubled soul, doing her best to get by in a world of troubles and looking forward to peace in the end. The song has been recorded many times by a wide array of artists and was recognized by the Western Writers of America as one of the Top 100 Western Songs in 2010.

I enjoy a wide variety of interpretations of this song.

  • Burl Ives recorded a version in 1944 and it became one of his signature songs.
  • Legendary folk singer and song historian Almeda “Granny” Riddle also included the song in her collections over the years.
  • Emmylou Harris recorded a version on her 1980 album Roses In the Snow and released it as a successful single [#7 Country].
  • Neko Case included a stirring version on her 2004 album The Tigers Have Spoken.

On the other side of the pond, Martin Carthy sang the song on Sydney Carter’s television program Hallelujah in 1966; that version was included in the album released to celebrate the show’s musical themes. Over 40 years later, Carthy’s wife and daughter turned in my favorite take on the song.

Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson released their first album as a recording duo in 2010. The lead-off track was a beautiful take on the song (using its alternate title) that Liza describes this way:

…this one comes from Mam and Aidan [Curran] sitting having a tune one night. Aidan led the arrangement, right down to trying to tell Danny Thompson what to play without being too scared.

Family member Marry Waterson provides haunting harmonies that round out the song. Enjoy this lovely rendition of a classic folk tune today.

Song of the Day, October 10: Song for Thirza

SongForThirzaToday’s song is Song For Thirza, written by the amazing Lal Waterson. Lal and her siblings — Mike and Norma — were orphaned young and raised by their grandmother, Eliza Ward. Helping in the household was a family friend and a fixture in the children’s life, Thirza. Lal wrote this beautiful, haunting tribute while composing songs for what became her brilliant collaboration with Mike, Bright Phoebus. They recorded a demo but did not include it on the album.

Thirty years later, producer David Suff  brought together an amazing array of folk talents to celebrate that album. Shining Bright features smart covers of nine tracks from the 1972 disc as well as interpretations of five songs not included in the original listing. One of the finest moments is a tender treatment of Song For Thirza, sung by Norma Waterson — one of the finest interpreters of her sister’s unique vision — with her husband Martin Carthy, daughter Eliza Carthy, and longtime family friend Ben Ivitsky rounding out the sound.

Enjoy this flawless reading of a touching song today.

Song of the Day, July 23: The Pretty Drummer Boy by the Watersons

WatersonDrummerGarlandToday’s song is The Pretty Drummer Boy by Lal and Norma Waterson. They recorded it for the Watersons’ third album, A Yorkshire Garland. Since the track only features the two sisters, it was re-released on the CD version of their duo outing, A True-Hearted Girl.

An old traditional song [Roud 226], it features a standard motif, the woman who dresses as a man to enlist in the army or navy. This powerful tune, however, avoids the tropes of a secret lover or a tragic pregnancy. The Pretty Drummer Boy carries off her disguise without a hitch, admirably carrying out her duties.

With a fine cap and feathers, likewise a rattling drum
They learned her to play upon the rub-a-dub-a-dum
With her gentle waist so slender, and her fingers long and small
She could play upon the rub-a-dub the best of them all

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, May 1: Midnight On the Water by Waterson:Carthy

WCMidnightToday’s song is Midnight On the Water. Like the Country standard Tennessee Waltz, this is a song about a song. In this case, however, writer Ron Kavana built a beautiful celebration of music and love around a real song. Midnight On the Water is a traditional tune, adapted by and often attributed to Lewis Thomasson, usually played on the fiddle. Kavana used that tune as the basis of his song, adding original lyrics that celebrate the power of music to free us from ourselves and help us enjoy the company of our loved ones.

When Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson formed Waterson:Carthy with their daughter, Eliza Carthy, they included this wonderful song on their first album. Eliza’s friend and frequent collaborator, Nancy Kerr, adds fiddle power along with Jock Tyldesley, emphasizing the significance of that instrument in Kavana’s narrative. With Norma on lead vocals, it’s one of the best songs recorded by this iteration of the extended family and a delightful performance overall.

I never thought much of that fancy dancing
With my two left feet and my roving eye.
But when the band plays that slow air in three-four time,
I could dance with my darling until morning comes.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

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.

Song of the Day, November 26: Lal Waterson’s Reply to Joe Haines

NormaReplyToday’s song is Reply to Joe Haines. When Queen singer Freddie Mercury died, journalist Joe Haines wrote a scathing article about him in the Daily Mirror. Filled with faulty assumptions, rabid homophobia, and smarmy self-congratulation, the piece was a vitriolic misery. Lal Waterson was so enraged that she took to her craft and wrote an open letter to Haines which she later set to music. Shortly after Lal’s untimely death in 1998, her sister Norma included a cover of the song on her second solo album, The Very Thought of You. She describes the song in the liner notes.

the white knuckle fury of my sister Lal’s Reply to Joe Haines (originally called An Open Letter to Joe Haines) which is just that. A reply to the iniquitous article written by that man on the subject of Freddie Mercury’s disclosure that he was HIV positive (indeed that he had full blown AIDS) and which the Daily Mirror saw fit to print.

It’s a perfect description, and Norma sings it with a cold anger that does the lyrics proud. As with most of the album, it is half of a song pair, with Mercury’s Love of My Life from the band’s brilliant A Night At the Opera providing a beautiful counterpoint.

Read your letter, tore the page
Wondered whether to write in rage
Then I thought it better to use your trade
No-one should ever die of AIDS

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Album of the Week, June 2: Bright Phoebus by Lal and Mike Waterson

brightphoebusThe 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.

Title Bright Phoebus
Act Lal & Mike Waterson
Label Trailer Release Date September 1972
Producer Bill Leader
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Rubber Band
  2. The Scarecrow
  3. Fine Horseman
  4. Winifer Odd
  5. Danny Rose
  6. Child Among the Weeds
  7. Magical Man
  8. Never the Same
  9. To Make You Stay
  10. Shady Lady
  11. Red Wine and Promises
  12. Bright Phoebus

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.

Song of the Day, January 29: Fallen Leaves by Norma Waterson

NormaFallenToday’s song is Fallen Leaves by Norma Waterson. Nearly 40 years into her amazing career, she assembled her second solo album. The Very Thought of You is a careful song cycle, consisting mostly of song pairs that tell stories together. One of the exceptions to this structure is the powerful closing track written by her daughter, Eliza Carthy. As with most of the sonic diptychs, it is a meditation on fame and life. As Waterson writes in the liner notes

It’s a song triggered by many events, not least the life of Marilyn Monroe , the death of Princess Diana, and society’s (men’s?) notions of what constitutes beauty in women.

Carthy has explored similar themes throughout her career. This tune is particularly moving and is ideally suited for her mother’s incomparable voice.

You are only pretty when you disappear
And you must be beautiful for them my dear
Whatever before you wanted to achieve
Is lost to this to turn to fallen leaves

Enjoy this beautifully written song and reflection on social norms today.

Song of the Day, December 6: John Ball by the Waterdaughters

Today’s song is John Ball as performed by four of the women of the extended Waterson – Carthy family. The three Waterson siblings — Norma, Mike, and Lal — originally performed and recorded with their cousin, John Harrison. In time, he was replaced by folk legend (and Norma’s husband) Martin Carthy. The four singers worked in a wide variety of combinations, some solo work and a number of alternate combinations of the family often with friends and other folk musicians. In 1977, Lal and Norma recorded a disc together, A True Hearted Girl. Lal’s daughter, Maria (also known as Marry Waterson and Maria Gilhooley), joined them on a couple of tracks. When the album was released on CD in 1999, it included a more recent recording as a bonus track. John Ball is performed by all three women with Norma’s daughter, Eliza Carthy. The four sometimes go by the tongue-in-cheek label the Waterdaughters.

The song was written by Sydney Carter (1915 – 2004), an English poet and folk musician known for his upbeat songs and modern spirituals. His most famous composition was Lord of the Dance, inspired both by the life of Christ and a statue of Shiva, demonstrating his universal approach to the world of the spirit. His lyrics tend to emphasize fellowship and the golden rule, strong themes in this song. The historical John Ball was a 14th Century English priest famous for a sermon demanding that all people be treated equally and for his encouragement of the Peasants’ Revolt.

All shall be ruled by fellowship I say
All shall be ruled by the love of one another
All shall be ruled by fellowship I say
In the life that is coming in the morning

Sing, John Ball and tell it to them all
Long live the day that is dawning
And I’ll crow like a cock, I’ll carol like a lark
For the life that is coming in the morning

The four singers make the most of the joyous composition, with complex harmonies and robust singing. Enjoy this happy tune today.

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