Folk enters Britpop

Eddie Ford reviews Norma Waterson by Norma Waterson (Hannibal/Ryhodisc, 1996)

Norma Waterson is one of the legends of the British folk scene. She has been singing traditional, and some not so traditional, material for over 30 years.

Somewhat bizarrely, and to her own amazement, Norma Waterson has suddenly become a star - well, almost. Norma Waterson, her first ever solo, was one of the nominees for the Mercury Prize (‘Britpop’) Award. This found her competing with the likes of Pulp, Oasis and Peter Maxwell-Davies, that well known popster. Obviously, these awards were absurd from any ‘aesthetical’ point of view, as comparing chalk and cheese is never very helpful - unless you want to get involved in an unproductive debate about whether Mozart is ‘better’ than the Beatles, or King Crimson ‘better’ than Brahms.

Still, even though she lost out to Pulp on the day, at least the powers-that-be that organised the Mercury Awards recognised that there is life beyond the ‘pop/rock world inhabited by the likes of Pulp and Oasis. (Whatever happened to Blur?) Let us hope that the hype attending these awards will help to break down the considerable prejudice directed against folk music.

All musical labels and categories are, to a certain extent, artificial and constrictive. Norma Waterson is a prime case of this. It contains all manner of musical idioms and influences - having quite a jazzy feel to it. This is hardly surprising, as Roger Swallow (drums and percussion) and Danny Thompson (double bass) are musicians associated with the jazz world.

Norma’s singing is characteristically strong and committed. Her in-house family group, The Watersons, performed unaccompanied vocals which drew heavily upon the pre-Christian traditions of the British Isles, and on rural crafts and customs.

It is has to be said that Norma Waterson is not what you might expect from an artist (wrongly) associated with the ‘purist’ wing of folk music, consisting as it does of covers of songs by Jerry Garcia, Billy Bragg, Richard Thompson, Ben Harper and others. There is only one ‘real’ folk song, ‘There is a fountain in Christ’s Blood’, on the entire CD. However, it is no coincidence, I am sure, that this is one of the most powerful songs on the collection - mainly thanks to the chilling playing by guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson (folk/rock titan, who shot to fame in Fairport Convention), whose near patented guitar style (subtle, understated, vaguely menacing) infuses Norma Waterson from the first minute to the last.

The weaker tracks are those where she tries to ‘assimilate’ the modern breed of English songwriters.

The most powerful and satisfying track is Ben Harper’s ‘Pleasure and Pain’, which is transformed into a soul-tormenting epic: “How I wonder why the world can be so cold /And if only good die young / Then left with me cruel here to grow old.”

A word should also be said for Martin Carthy, Norma’s husband, who plays acoustic guitar (mainly mandolin) on Norma Waterson. His careful, ‘mannered’ playing, rooted firmly in the English tradition, helps to anchor down the record, preventing it from straying too much into the field of ‘easy-listening’ pop.

Overall, an excellent CD, which deserves the attention it has received. It is certainly not the best folk release of recent years or even of this year - Dick Gaughan’s Sail On could well be that - but it is still a very satisfyingpiece of music.

Eddie Ford