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The Watersons were one of England's premier singing families. Their early albums played an influential role in the revival of British folk music in the 1960s. British folklorist A.L. Lloyd recalled the group's "hand-crafted harmonies, an immediately recognizable and uniquely distinctive group sound which is uninhibited, spontaneous seeming, and rich in texture," while www.singers.com praised their mastery of "stark melodic scales, stunning polyphonic harmonies, and outstanding song selection." The Watersons represented the combined efforts of sisters Norma (born August 15, 1939) and Elaine "Lal" Waterson (born February 15, 1943; died September 4, 1998), their brother Mike (born January 6, 1941; died June 22, 2011), and their second cousin, John Harrison. Natives of Hull, a city in East Yorkshire County, the Watersons were orphaned at an early age and raised by their Irish/Gypsy grandmother, who often sang at informal sessions. The Watersons operated a folk club, Folk Union One, in Hull, where they established their early reputation.
Initially known as the Mariners and then the Folksons, the Watersons adapted their family name before recording their debut album, Frost and Fire, which Melody Maker named as the Best Folk Album of 1965. The same year, Derrick Knight filmed the group for a video, Travelling for a Living, produced for the BBC. The original lineup recorded two more albums — The Watersons and A Yorkshire Garland — before the departure of Harrison, who moved to London in 1966. The Watersons disbanded two years later, with Norma going on to host a radio show in the West Indies and Lal living with an extended family on a folk commune on the Yorkshire Moors.
Although they focused on traditional British folk songs on their early albums, the Watersons became increasingly adventurous after reuniting in the early '70s. Harrison was replaced first by Bernie Vickers and then by Martin Carthy, who married Norma Waterson in 1972. Their first album following their return, Bright Phoebus, included original songs by Lal and Mike and electric accompaniment by Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, Tim Hart, and Maddy Prior. Although the two sisters recorded a duo album, A True Hearted Girl, and Mike recorded a self-titled solo album in 1977, they continued to record and perform together. Three memorable albums — For Pence and Spicy Ale, Sound, Sound Your Instrument of Joy, and Green Fields — were released before Lal and Mike retired from the road in 1981.
Returning to music in the mid-'90s, Lal Waterson recorded two albums — Once in a Blue Moon and A Bed of Roses — with her son Oliver Knight, an electric guitarist and recording engineer. She succumbed to cancer on September 4, 1998, only ten days after the disease had been diagnosed. Norma and Martin Carthy joined with their fiddler/vocalist daughter, Eliza, to form Waterson:Carthy in 1994. Mike Waterson died of cancer on June 22, 2011 at the age of 70.