The Watersons,
A Yorkshire Christmas
(Witchwood, 2005)

With the death of Lal Waterson in 1998, the Watersons -- sisters Lal and Norma, brother Mike, later joined by Martin Carthy -- have not been such for some years. Not, of course, that there's any shortage of fabulous British folk music still coming from members of the family. There are Waterson:Carthy CDs showing up every year or two (Norma Waterson, husband Martin Carthy, daughter Eliza), plus periodic solo outings by each. They are all more than worthy, and my CD shelves are crowded with them.

Still, there was a particular enchantment to be felt in the Watersons' strange, affecting harmonies, attached to Child ballads, lyric songs, industrial anthems, shanteys and hymns. Their first full-length album, Frost & Fire, released in 1964, is unforgettable, among the enduring classics of the folk revival. Subtitled "A Calendar of Ritual & Magical Songs," it surveyed the seasons through English rural music, carrying the listener out of the dreary present and into a past where pagan and Christian rubbed elbows oddly and uneasily in a haunted, long-lost land. This was not Merry Olde England so much as Old, Weird England.

Along with other material, A Yorkshire Christmas revisits a few of F&F's carols of the season, among them "Christmas is Now Drawing Near at Hand," "Here We Come a-Wassailing" and "Emmanuel." There is also the "Pace-Egging Song," actually an Easter piece, but no matter. The singing is unaccompanied, as the Watersons' usually was, but the sound is so full that one barely notices. Inasmuch as, over the course of their storied career, the Watersons had every possible flattering adjective thrown at them, I will hurl no more myself and simply observe that ... well, these are the Watersons.

Recorded live in 1980 in rural Yorkshire for a small radio station, this recording alternates the singing with charming readings and remembrances of Christmases past by elderly local folk Kit Calvert, Mabel Race and Norman Benson. David Cousins -- I presume the David Cousins who has led the Strawbs, the very British folk-rock band, forever -- produces.

by Jerome Clark
16 December 2006

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