English Folk II: The wit of the working man.

If there is one family that stands at the forefront of the English Folk scene it is of course the Watersons. Norma, Mike and Lal (Elaine) Waterson were orphaned and brought up by their grandmother in a working class environment in Hull. They absorbed the music and in the late 50’s formed The Watersons with their 2nd cousin John Harrison.

The original Watersons from Hull, left to right: Mike Waterson, second cousin John Harrison, and sisters Lal and Norma Waterson.

Their music was never particularly fashionable and never reached the popularity that another band from Liverpool in the same era, but it has endured for 50 years. When Norma married Martin Carthy (the man who famously taught the young Paul Simon the traditional English tune ‘Scarborough Fair’) Martin replaced John Harrison in the Watersons.

The Watersons – The Prickle Holly Bush – BBC Archive May 1968

Lal developed into an astute songwriter releasing 4 records with Mike (‘Bright Phoebus’ 1972), Norma (‘A True Hearted Girl’ 1977) and later in the 90’s with her son, Oliver Knight (‘Once In A Blue Moon’ and ‘A Bed Of Roses’  before she died suddenly of cancer in 1998.

In recent years The Watersons regrouped and expanded to feature Norma and Martin with their daughter Eliza Carthy, Mike with his wife Anne and their daughters, Rachel and Eleanor, and Lal’s son and daughter, Oliver Knight and Marry Waterson. Often other family members would join the cast and the Ironbath thought that perhaps they should include a copy of the family tree in the programme.


The Ironbath was fortunate to see this configuration of the band 3 times in 2010 and 2011. Their performances were delightful and as they sat on stage in an arc you could see the cousins swapping smirks as the matriarch, Norma Waterson, told tales.

Sadly Mike passed away back in June. He was a champion for the working class and used music to challenge the system. At their concerts he performed 2 songs solo without accompaniment.

The Ironbath should point out that both songs include some words of various shades of blue!

The first ‘Teas Made’ was inspired when he saw the words “untouched by human hand” on a sachet of sugar and reacted with disdain. It is not just about the importance of a good cup of tea to an Englishman but also about the importance of the person whose job it is to make that cup of tea.


The second ‘Oranges On The Dock’ is a tale about a dock labourer in the 1950’s who happened across a broken crate of fresh juicy oranges in a time when imported fruit was rare and heavily rationed. The dock police only had the power to detain, and could not charge an offender until the regular police arrived.


Eliza Carthy gave birth to her second daughter, Isabella, last November so the dynasty continues and the Ironbath imagines it won’t be too long before Florence & Isabella Carthy are performing traditional English Folk songs on a stage.


About Ironbath

The Ironbath is a passionate music lover.
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