Ancient and modern


The honour of being the first family of English folk music belongs to the redoubtable Copper clan, but the Watersons - sisters Lal and Norma and their brother Mike - have emerged as the spiritual leaders of the movement in the 1990s. For 30 years they were a secret within their community, singers of plain-spoken power and expressiveness who emerged only rarely, on records that the wider audience would never have seen or heard. Maybe it was the advent of Norma's daughter - Eliza Carthy, a singer and violinist whose wild-child looks suggested a mischievous counter-current to folk's prevailing crustiness - that helped her family out in the publicity department. Or perhaps, as so often, a national treasure was finally recognised very late in the day.

Almost too late, sadly enough, since Lal Waterson, the younger of the two sisters, died suddenly last year. Norma's new album The Very Thought of You (Hannibal) is dedicated to her sister's memory. After a lifetime singing hardy traditional songs of one stripe or another, Norma took a graceful plunge into more contemporary waters with her self-titled 1996 record, and it caused a modest shock when it was declared runner-up in that year's Mercury Music Prize competition. This second record is almost a copycat rerun of what went before, with many of the same musicians and a similar choice of songs. It has its charms. But this is an unhappy record.

The notion of such a "traditional" singer covering modern material shouldn't be so disconcerting. Folk singers have always sung in a vernacular that is the common tongue of the day, and it might be as legitimate to interpret Freddie Mercury - as Waterson does in the first track here - as it is to interpret any ancient broadsheet and call it the people's music. This, though, is the modern language - something far too calculated and impure to pass muster as a continuation of a passed-down legacy. There's a certain novelty in hearing Waterson handling lyrics by writers steeped in the business of rock, but novelty is not an enduring quality. It's not as if she is lending dignity to mere chart fodder: the writers represented here include Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright and Clive Gregson, composers who would never trouble the top 20 today. Yet they are craftsmen in the knowing ironies of the rock language, and there are moments here when Waterson sounds uneasily like their patsy.

"Josef Locke", "Al Bowlly's in Heaven" and "On Fridays He's Fred Astaire" seem like clever songs, but they're not nearly as clever as the writers imagine, and Waterson lends them a sobriety that they almost don't deserve. She does at least as well by Mercury's rather gauche "Love of My Life". The feel of all of these tracks, though, is merely lugubrious. As a modern interpreter - instead of a peerless vessel of the folk tradition - she is merely unremarkable. Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You" is matchless in its shapely lyricism; Waterson simply blunts all the beauty of the lyrics.

Even so, there are moments when she suddenly asserts her unanswerable authority. I've already heard two dreadful covers of Nick Drake's masterpiece "River Man" this year. Waterson's treatment, over a baleful drone from the musicians, is an astonishing riposte to the idea of the song as some kind of soul ballad. Just as sharp and unsentimental, in its way, is A Bed of Roses (Topic), the final record by Lal Waterson and her son, Oliver Knight. Completed not long before Lal's death, this tough, sinewy set of original songs has the kind of hard-won marrow that Norma's record misses. Instead of using old rock hacks such as Richard Thompson, Knight manages most of the music himself and makes it a cold, clear setting for Lal's writing. Her voice is thinner and less melodious than Norma's, but it suits the tart and sometimes stinging images she mulls over in these songs. Frankly it's a much better record.

Norma Waterson appears on Friday 30 July at the 35th Cambridge Folk Festival (for information about the festival, telephone 01223 457245)

This article first appeared in the 19 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The transport row: who is to blame?