With her death from cancer on September 4, 1998, England lost one of its truly great folk song interpreters in Lal Waterson (born Elaine Waterson). A founding member of the Watersons, a group she shared with her brother, Mike, and sister, Norma, Waterson played an important role in the resurgence of interest in traditional British folk songs for more than four decades. The London Times referred to her as "a plaintive voice that was one of the great glories of English folk music." Her brother-in-law, Martin Carthy, who replaced John Harrison in a re-formed version of the group in the mid-'80s, said "She used all the techniques of traditional song-making in her lyrics and she never sounded like a revival singer."
Born in Hull, a small village in East Yorkshire County, Waterson was orphaned at an early age and raised, along with her siblings, by their Irish/Gypsy grandmother, who sang at informal pub sessions. Drawn to creative endeavors, she attended art school at the age of 11, and studied painting and weaving for seven years. She later worked professionally as a heraldic artist, painting coats of arms.
Music, however, continued to capture her attention. Together with her sister, brother, and second cousin, John Harrison, she began singing traditional British folk tunes. Initially called the Mariners and later the Folksons, the quartet attracted attention with its frequent performances at the Hull folk club the Bluebell. They later operated a similar club, Folk Union One. Making their recording debut with a track on a New Voices anthology compiled by Topic Records in 1964, Lal and the original Watersons went on to record three groundbreaking albums. Frost and Fire, which Melody Maker named "Best Folk Album of 1965," was followed by The Watersons and A Yorkshire Garland in 1966.
She continued to perform with the Watersons for another two years before the group disbanded. Temporarily living in a folk commune on the Yorkshire Moors, Waterson was ready when the group reunited in 1972, with Harrison (who had moved to London) replaced by Bernie Vickers, and then by Martin Carthy, who subsequently married Norma. On the quartet's first album since re-forming, Bright Phoebus, she began to demonstrate her skills as a songwriter. Apart from a duo album, A True Hearted Girl, that she recorded with her sister in 1977, she remained active with the group throughout the '70s.
Forced to leave the road by illness in 1981, Waterson maintained a low profile for more than a decade. Although she joined the Rotherdam-based No Masters Voice songwriting collective and became involved with the BBC's Hard Cash project, she recorded very little until the mid-'90s, when she recorded a comeback album, Once in a Blue Moon, with her electric guitarist/recording engineer son, Oliver Knight. During the last year of her life, she recorded A Bed of Roses, which was completed by her son and released in 1999. ~ Craig Harris