. . . and his wings were grey. Now let us sing.
Who’s going to win the girl but me?
Jolly old hawk and his wings were grey.”
A variant perhaps on The Twelve Days of Christmas. Singer and collector of folk songs, AL Lloyd (left below) suggested that the tune may have come from France or Flanders in the Middle Ages. Cecil Sharp (right), an eminent activist in the folk revival of the early 1900s, apparently found the song at Bridgwater in Somerset.
The song featured on Frost and Fire, recorded in 1965 for Topic Records by The Watersons, a folk ensemble from Hull, comprising brother and sisters Mike, Norma, and Elaine (always known as Lal) Waterson, and their cousin John Harrison, mostly singing unaccompanied and with a musicality of sublime harmonies.
Frost and Fire was followed up in 1966 by A Yorkshire Garland, and I purchased that as well, keeping both as part of my collection until they were taken in burglary while we lived in Costa Rica in 1978.
I’m not sure what drew me to The Watersons or how and when I first encountered them. But I must have been taken with them immediately being inspired to purchase Frost and Fire when it was first released.
However, my interest in folk music and dance had begun a year or so earlier, when I enjoyed a couple of BBC television programs. The White Heather Club, broadcast between 1958 and 1968, had Robin Hall and Jimmy Macgregor as resident folk singers.
The Hoot’Nanny Show was broadcast from Edinburgh in 1963 and 1964. Residents on the show were the Corrie Folk Trio (whose Flowers of Scotland has become the country’s unofficial anthem) and Paddie Bell. But other regulars included the Scots singer Ray Fisher¹ and her brother Archie, The Ian Campbell Folk Group (from Birmingham, including virtuoso fiddle player Dave Swarbrick), and The Dubliners.
These and some other singers like Bob Davenport (from Gateshead) were my introduction to folk music, and on arrival at the University of Southampton as an undergraduate in October 1967, I joined the folk club and the English & Scottish Folk Dance Society. That introduction to folk dancing extended a year later into morris dancing as well.
Among the singers who appeared more than once at the Sunday night folk club in the Students’ Union were Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, among the co-founders of the electric folk group Steeleye Span which formed in 1969.
I didn’t encounter Steeleye Span until September 1970, when I first heard the song Lovely On the Water although it wasn’t released until March 1971 on the Please to See the King album.
Martin Carthy joined the Steeleye Span line-up for their second and third albums although he was mainly a solo artist, but also releasing several duo albums with Dave Swarbrick.
Anyway, returning to The Watersons, I never thought I’d ever see them perform live. But, on 10 February 1968, when they made their farewell performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London, I and several friends were in the audience.
Norma left the group and moved for several years to the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Returning to the UK by 1972, she married Martin Carthy who became a regular in The Watersons line-up. I read that John Harrison left the group in 1966, but I thought he was still singing with them at their 1968 farewell concert.
Martin and Norma’s daughter, Eliza Carthy (a singer and multi-instrumentalist) has become one of the UK’s foremost folk performers.
Apart from Frost and Fire and A Yorkshire Garland that was my exposure to The Watersons for the next 50 years. Until a year ago, when I came across an obituary for Norma in The Guardian newspaper on 31 January 2022. This appreciation was also published in the newspaper on the same day. Lal died in 1998, and Mike in 2011.
Thanks to YouTube and Spotify I have been able to find so much of their music online, and in videos such as this one, they talk about themselves, their origins, and their music.
One song that became Norma’s signature piece, it seems, is A Bunch of Thyme. Here she is singing with Eliza in 2017. Enjoy.
¹In 1969, I joined Ray and her husband Colin Ross when they led a group of pipers and dancers to a folk festival in Strakonice, Czechoslovakia.