Strange thoughts, running through my head

I’ve done that proper teacher thing this half term – catching a head cold as soon as the holiday starts – and I’ve spent the week quilt-cocooned, surrounded by tissues and empty DVD cases, and generally feeling more than a little sorry for myself. (Even missed a big night at Castle Grim – who doesn’t want to see the league leaders and metropolitan Fancy Dans comprehensively beasted at the ‘holm of rugby…?)

I’d fully intended to do a couple of dazzling posts over the week, but eyes streaming and head pounding the dry, elegant prose for which this Blog has become known deserted me. The world will never know the shades of brilliance, the wit and the wisdom, and the ham-fisted over-exuberance that will not now see the light of day. (Although I suspect it can make a fair guess…)

As I started to feel better, I’ve been tucking into Peggy Seeger’s memoir, First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, which is a brilliant read, following as it does Seeger’s spirited wanderings across the UK, US and Europe in the late 50s and early 60s. I knew/know almost nothing about Peggy Seeger, but I can see her becoming the latest stroppy subject of a folk-muse crush that I’m currently working on.

But she’ll have to wait a bit, or at least until I’ve got this out of my system…

Lal Waterson

Apart from reading, snivelling and moping, I’ve also spent quite a lot of time listening to Bright Phoebus, a record I bought last year and mentioned at Christmas, but which has grown and grown in my mind over the months. It has an established place amongst the Great Lost Records of All Time, or did until it was re-packaged and released by Domino a couple of years ago. I’ll not go through all the details of the record, the wiki page tells you what you need to know, but if you’ve not yet bought it, I’d urge you to do so.

Released (and largely ignored) in 1972, it’s a darkly beautiful record – there are a few flights of ill-advised “whimsy” – which showcases the dense, wintery songs of Elaine “Lal” Waterson. The Watersons as folk pioneers had pretty much sung and toured themselves into the ground over the previous decade at the end of which, Norma made the improbable move of becoming a DJ in Montserrat. The natural decision seems to have been for her exhausted and dispirited siblings to go to ground.

There’s a 1965 documentary for TV made about the Watersons, three clips of which are on YouTube. They’re a great watch generally but are particularly a lovely keepsake of a world where folk smoked relentlessly, where pints and vans came with handles.

 

With my Bright Phoebus hat on, one of the things that occurs when you watch it a couple of times is how much Lal stays largely in the shadow of her brother and older sister. Norma tended to sing the lead parts and Mike seemed to lead the sparse instrumentation the family allowed themselves. Lal’s role seems to have been largely to sing “unexpected harmonies”.

Once the group had dissolved, she settled back down in Hull with her husband and brought up her family. The following years, however, generated a series of eccentric and grimly beguiling songs that would not lie still and which would, later, charm Martin Carthy and Richard Thomson when they heard them. These songs would form the substance of the Bright Phoebus record. The Domino re-release adds to the body by including an extra CD of demo versions of the songs plus a couple that didn’t make the cut.

At this point, I’d love to include footage of some of them, but I can only find album tracks or covers (there are a load of those – which I guess makes its own point). Lal’s voice, however, is so distinctive – abrasive, stroppy, motionless – that I think we’ll go with an original:

 

This is a bewilderingly beautiful song which manages to sound both fully-formed and incomplete at the same time – it has the feel of an authentic folk piece with vital fragments of continuity that have gone missing over the years. The cooing, clucking tones of the lovers are in spite of the forsaken, rain-swept world that is crumbling around them. Lal’s voice is harsh, but in one ear she is soothed by Martin Carthy’s guitar and by Richard Thomson’s in the other. Oboes and cellos float ethereally around the melody but the overall effect is of thoughts that are strange. The demo version is a much perkier, more self-confident affair, but the version that made the record is shrouded in doubt and misgiving.

There are other earthy gems here too – the haunting “Child Among the Weeds”, reportedly inspired by the still birth of one of Lal’s own twins, with it’s astonishing bridge vocal from friend and folk archivist Bob Davenport; also the murky, forbidding tones of “Never the Same” and “To Make You Stay”, both strongly redolent of personal tragedy.

Recently, I indulged myself and bought a lavishly packaged collection of recordings, lyric sheets and paintings called Teach Me To Be A Summer’s Morning which also doesn’t disappoint:

 

It’s a gorgeous collection which (along with Pete Paphides’ liner notes to Bright Phoebus) yields all sorts of clues to the kinks and idiosyncrasies of the woman – singer Marry Waterson sites her mother’s spontaneous writing style that would lead to missed meals; her refusal to correct mis-spellings dashed down at pace; brother Mike talks about her imperfect guitar stylings which caused him problems with the songs when first presented and which led to some of her stranger chord choices.

The collection also gives us an unreleased version of another of the highpoints of Bright Phoebus – the truly original, and not a little scary “Scarecrow”. On the album, the vocals are taken by Mike and they’re quite good, although distinctly folk-ground, the lost aitches make it sound blokier, pubbier and take a little of the shadow from the lyric. The Teach Me version, sung by Lal has all the folk-horror chill that a child sacrifice (again) demands. A gruesome song sung with a shudder…

Here’s a last little treasure from Teach Me with an animation done by Marry Waterson:

 

Twitter conversations (including Marry herself) tell me there’s more to discover from Lal, including a record she recorded with her son, Oliver, and records by Marry recorded with brother and with Emily Barker. All of which, I’m looking forward to exploring.

She was a remarkable lady and hers is a voice that will linger.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. adamashby
    Feb 26, 2019 @ 17:59:32

    Sorry you’ve been under the weather old chap – and even sorrier you missed the fine events at ‘holm.
    This is a cracking read – and some excellent links. Good work 🙂

    Reply

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