Mike and Lal Waterson

If you’re going to come back, when you’re flame has almost been extinguished by time, you can find no better accompaniment to your resurrection than the meaningful work of Lal and Mike Waterson. This brother and sister duo by the time 1972 had rolled around, were thought of as great icons of the past, but hardly anyone realized that they had the power to come back and shine as brightly as before. 1972’s Bright Phoebus presented a profound circling of wagons, that gave a new generation of folk artists a glimpse of the reason they were so desperately important in the past.

In the past, they were known as members of a band called the Watersons. Before they were a folk band, they were a family. Three children, Norma, Lal and Mike who lost their parents at a young age in the late 40s had to be raised by their Irish Gypsy grandmother, Eliza, in Hull, England. This grandmother was both a devoutly practicing Catholic, who tried to pass on to them a strict regimen to survive, but also a devoted lover of traditional music. She’d teach them how to sing harmonies and practice together, herself always leading the chorus with a song. By the late 50s they’d slowly been enticed by the sound of skiffle groups to form a band together. In these bands, who used very basic accompaniment like washboards and any stringed instruments to get on stage they saw a way out of Hull.

The Watersons – 1965

As a skiffle group they’d closely follow the sound of American folk music and the popular the Weavers sound. Blending banjo with Irish-lilting vocals they sorta started to feel they were going in the right direction. By then they’d saved enough money to start their own folk club and things were looking up. However, as they started to integrate more English traditionals they started to question why they were trying to affect an American sound. For now, they realized that they were sounding like part of the crowd and had to do something differently to stand out. What they did, was turn towards their immediate past.

Dumping instrumentation altogether, they decided to go back to singing acapella as they would back as kids. By singing acapella, they could leave all those rough edges that made their harmonies so downright different. In the past they’d use instinct and intuition to dictate their harmonies. One person would sing as long as they felt comfortable, then the next person would come in to take over, all the while any other member of the band could join in harmonizing as they pleased. It was such a wrong way of doing things, that it sounded so right. This new sound captivated an old folkie Bert Lloyd. Bert mentored them to keep this sound and to explore forgotten traditional music with it. He was so ecstatic about this sound that he tried to describe to them their brilliance, stating how wonderful their mixolydian harmonies were, only to see them turn back with befuddled looks. They were so young and thoroughly untrained in any musical methods that they didn’t even know what mixolydian meant, all they knew was that this new sound was special.

In 1965, they traveled to London to record an album, the monumental Frost and Fire: A Calendar of Ritual and Magic Songs. In one morning, everything done in one take, they recorded this album full of deeply mystical and ritual songs. All songs they had learned by either imagining melodies for uncharted traditionals they discovered from that past or by pure instinct and experimentation with each others harmonizing. The album’s song cycle that goes from the mid-winter songs, all the way through other seasonal songs and back, portrayed songs of life, death, and rebirth in their own distinctly magical way.

Frost and Fire album cover.

What made the sound so glorious was that it showed that you could be young and untrained, but still use your sheer gall to conjure something uniquely yours. Its this sound that made the album so influential among neo-folk groups who were debating whether their take on traditional music was right or wrong. The Watersons showed that you could be wrong, but still be so right. That’s why the album itself, and the BBC documentary that  followed their travails as a travelling band is so riveting. It shows the power youth has to inject life into the past:

They were a young group who listened to the Beatles and Stones, grew their hair long and dressed like modern kids, enjoyed club culture, but knew enough of the past to get away from veneration, and turn toward illumination. Illuminating feelings that were getting lost by singing things the common way. They knew they didn’t come from a very common background and that their songs weren’t singing very common feelings other folk bands from the time were covering. This is what made them important. Being uncommon, in this new day and age, made you a star. Relentlessly touring England, and recording just as commonly, they didn’t have time to think too much whether what they were doing was correct. The music they were singing, in the end, wasn’t music that had even been song in ages, so their right was to experiment as they saw fit.

By 1968, though these kids who came from humble means and enjoyed other things other than music were thoroughly tired from all the adoration and touring. Their original goal was to form a band to enjoy performing this music together, now they rarely enjoyed the company of each other and had little of their own life to live. By the end of this year, they had broken up and went their separate ways. Norma went to live in the Antilles and became a DJ. Mike retreated to working day to day as a house painter, while Lal tried ink out a living as an artist (of the non-musical kind). In most instances, this could be a sign of the ending of their musical story but somehow something interesting happened.

During lunch breaks Mike would travel to his sister’s house, accompanied by his acoustic guitar, and helped her put music to some lyrics she would write and sing. The one day, as he was painting a window, he saw the sun appearing behind the clouds, lighting up his pane, and struck him visually… instantly he penned lyrics to a new song “Today bright phoebus she smiled down on me for the very first time…” that snippet became what jump started their new attempt at recording music together.

Bright Phoebus album cover.

In 1972, so completely out of the loop of their influence were they, that when they announced their desire to record an album, out of the shadows stepped out artists like Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks, Maddy Prior (from Steeleye Span), and Ashley Hutchings (from Albion Country Band) to make it happen. Artists that had been deeply moved by those songs released nearly a decade past. Martin Carthy, another artist, worked diligently to get them a label to put this out. So, enamored he was with Lal’s song that he thought it would be a crime if they never got laid to tape. Their attempts weren’t made without detractors though. Many fans who had been used to their a cappella renditions were decrying the use of instrumentation and rock instruments.

No matter, for Mike and Lal the songs they had made were too good to owe anyone anything. In one week, in the basement of their grandma’s house they gathered all these artists, who dropped in for free, to record all these wonderful songs together. Songs like the elegiac Mike-led “The Scarecrow”, the deeply intricate soaring sound of Lal’s “To Make You Stay” point to them reimagining their own past sound in ways only they could. Then you have songs like “Shady Lady” that use Mike and Lal’s unique harmonies in new ways no one could quite match.

Most artists you can sorta know where they’re taking their vocals, but these two just know how to use their vocals to twist you and scoop you up and out, “Red Wine and Promises” gives you a taste of this talent. However, the best song is the one that started it all out, and ends the album, “Bright Phoebus“. Starting with Mike and Lal’s wonderfully off-kilter harmonies, as the melody played by Richard Thompson joins in, just builds this familial sound that beckons you to come in and rejoice. As the song gradually unfolds, can you notice how the harmonies start to balance themselves like a top and drawn you in? Its a shame that only 1,000 copies of this album were ever released in the wild and got re-released to a laughably scarce amount of CD copies (2,000 altogether!). An album that still moves anyone who has heard it, can only remain hidden for so long. More 1972, tomorrow though…

Listen to Bright Phoebus at Grooveshark.