mike waterson r.i.p.
for almost five decades, the waterson family had an enormous influence within and beyond the british folk music scene. at the core were three siblings – norma, her sister lal (who died in 1998) and her brother mike waterson, who has died of cancer, aged 70.
as the seminal traditional folk group of the 1960s, with mike as the male lead singer, the watersons toured the country with traditional english songs in harmony and largely unaccompanied, breaking the mould of guitar and banjo-led folk groups. they appeared at folk festivals and clubs and recorded three solo albums in as many years before retiring in 1968, only to return with less punishing touring schedules in 1972.
in the intervening years, mike and lal revealed themselves to be significant songwriters, and though mike's songs never achieved the popular success of his sister's, their hard-hitting topics and humorous reflections on everyday life have been widely praised.
the waterson family came from hull. mike, lal and norma were orphaned when very young, and their grandmother eliza ward looked after the children. she was a tough but kind character who ran her own business as a secondhand goods dealer, and was helped in raising the children by a family friend, thirza – later immortalised in lal's song for thirza.
mike's schooldays were not a great success. his worst subjects were music and woodwork – ironic given that he later earned a living in the building trade and as a singer. music was an essential part of family parties, and when norma's boyfriend, later her first husband, introduced them to jazz and to alan lomax's blues recordings, it set the three siblings on a path that led them to traditional british folk music.
but first there was skiffle and the american folk influences of pete seeger and the weavers. mike and lal sang together as a duo, the mariners. then, with norma, their cousin john harrison and a friend, pete ogley, they became the folksons. when ogley left, they rebranded as the waterson family, later the watersons, and dropped the american repertoire in favour of british and, increasingly, yorkshire songs, largely delivered a capella.
they had already started a folk club in hull, folk union one, which settled into the city's biggest pub room at the blue bell, but it was a weekend trip to london in 1964, when they sang at the troubadour folk club, earl's court, that attracted the attention of topic records' recording engineer bill leader, and they were included in the album new voices (1965) alongside harry boardman and maureen craik.
the impact was immediate. within a few months, they had turned professional and their first solo album, frost and fire, had been released. with considerable influence from topic's artistic adviser, al lloyd, this album of english seasonal songs established them as the foremost folk band in the country. mike's solo song on that album, the traditional john barleycorn, was later taken up by the rock band traffic on their 1970 album john barleycorn must die.
the following year, 1966, saw two more watersons albums released on topic, including a yorkshire garland, featuring songs from their native county. the same year, their singing was documented on a bbc2 programme, travelling for a living, which showed them on tour, in their own folk club and researching songs in the vaughan williams memorial library in london. these were boom years for the british folk scene, and mike was the lead singer of such songs as three score and ten, dido bendigo and fathom the bowl, which, along with the white cockade and the holmfirth anthem, quickly passed into the repertoires of folk club and festival singers.
exhausted by relentless touring, in early 1968 the group disbanded. mike returned to work as a painter and decorator, but continued singing for fun, often alongside his friend ian manuel. together they started the rugby hotel folk club in hull.
mike started writing his own songs and soon found that lal was doing likewise. they swapped songs and ideas, and their collaboration culminated in an album, bright phoebus (1972), which caused more than a few raised eyebrows among traditional folksong enthusiasts. although most of the songs on the album came from lal, mike provided the two most enduring ones: rubber band (later covered by fairport convention) and the title track. their jointly written song danny rose was recorded by billy bragg.
the watersons reformed in 1972 when norma returned home from montserrat, and her new husband, the folk singer martin carthy, replaced harrison in the family group. the new lineup's first album, for pence and spicy ale, became melody maker's folk album of the year in 1975. their appearance at the american bicentennial celebrations the following year, where they heard a variety of religious music, inspired them to record an album of such songs, sound, sound your instruments of joy (1977). the album green fields followed in 1981, once again highlighting the family's organic, often improvised harmonies. by now, the extended family had relocated from hull to a farm near robin hood's bay, north yorkshire.
in the meantime, mike had recorded an eponymous solo album in 1977, with vocal support from the family. the standout track was his reworking of tamlyn, a supernatural ballad he had learned from lloyd. it was mike's version that inspired benjamin zephaniah to rewrite the story in a modern setting for the imagined village album and tour in 2007.
lal's decision to stop touring in the late 1980s marked the end of the watersons, though mike sang for a while in a trio with his wife, ann, and jill pidd. martin and norma had teamed up with their daughter, eliza carthy, and were sometimes joined on stage by mike. in more recent years, mike occasionally sang alongside the gateshead singer louis killen. two of his daughters, rachel and eleanor, have sung with various family lineups, including at the mighty river of song concert, celebrating the family's legacy, at the royal albert hall in 2007.
drawing on hull's fishing industry, mike wrote three day millionaire, about the potential wages of trawlermen, contrasting it with the declining industry and the tragedy of lost lives in cold coast of iceland and three ships. his ability to tell a story in song is perhaps best illustrated by a stitch in time, where a woman uses her seamstress's skills to sew her drunken and violent husband into his bed sheets so that he cannot move. the song has been recorded by martin carthy as well as christy moore and chumbawamba, though not by mike himself. indeed, in recent years, he resisted topic records' suggestions to re-enter the recording studio.
whether it was an informal folk club gig or the royal albert hall, mike invariably appeared on stage dressed in chunky sweater, jeans and cloth cap. this was no affectation – here was an ordinary man, still working in the building trade, but with extraordinary talents as a singer and songwriter. his last stage performance was at the bromyard folk festival in september 2010, shortly after a family homecoming concert at hull truck theatre.
mike is survived by ann and four children, sarah, eleanor, rachel and matthew.
michael waterson, folk singer, born 16 january 1941; died 22 june 2011
guardian.co.uk, wednesday 22 june 2011 14.18 bst