Today bright Phoebus she smiled down on me for the very first time
October 12, 2018 9:11 PM   Subscribe

The siblings Norma, Michael (Mike) and Elaine (Lal) Waterson, with their second cousin John Harrison, toured little clubs and coffee shops in England, playing traditional folk music. They released three albums in the mid-to-late 1960s as The Watersons and were known as the premiere traditional folk family*. Then in 1972, Mike and Lal (with various friends and visitors) recorded some unusual, original songs in Bright Phoebus. There were some mis-drilled records, and reviews of that time weren't too positive, sinking the record into obscurity. 45 years later, the album was remastered and re-released, with a set of demos (YT official audio playlist) by Domino. This is the stunning pagan Brit folk cult classic that you must hear before you die!** [via Johnny Wallflower]

* The credit of "the premiere traditional folk family" comes from Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.'s introduction to a tribute/cover album, discussed more below.

**Sorry about the title, honest. -- Richard Metzger for Dangerous Minds

Lost Albums: Bright Phoebus (28 minute audio documentary)
Music journalist Pete Paphides reveals the stories and music behind some of the great albums which have been lost in the mists of time. Folk legends Mike Waterson, Martin Carthy and Ashley Hutchings talk about the writing and recording of the 1972 album now considered one of the definitive recordings of the genre. When it was released, it was shunned by both critics and audiences. First broadcast: BBC Radio 4, 8 May 2007
Bright Phoebus was something of a mythical folk title, in part due to its limited availability -- beyond the problem with the original pressings, there was a suspicious CDr reissue in 2000, but otherwise was traded via tape for decades. Still, the record gained enough renown that in 2002, 30 years later after Phoebus, a number of England's finest singers have gathered to pay tribute to the songs that Mike and Lal Waterson wrote during this period in a tribute album, titled Shining Bright: The Songs of Lal & Mike Waterson (YT official audio playlist)

In 2013, Marry Waterson, Lal's daughter, published a book of her mother's original artwork and poetry, along with some rare demos, and even made an animated short for "Piper's Way," collaborating in a way with her departed mother. Soon after, "an impressive cast made an emotional and long-overdue return to the remarkable songs of the cult 1972 album Bright Phoebus" (Robin Denselow for The Guardian). Sadly, it seems the performance wasn't professionally recorded, so this fantastic version of "The Scarecrow" with vocals by Jarvis Cocker, captured by a fan in the audience, will have to do, along with Richard Hawley and others performing a bit of a rockabilly take on "Danny Rose," audio-only of Norma Waterson covering Lal's "Song for Thirza" (with an introduction about their Gran, and Thirza), as well as this audio of Martin Carthy singing Lal Waterson's "Never the Same" (Martin had married Norma Waterson, and recorded parts in Bright Phoebus).

Somewhere along the way, perhaps in Marry's collection of the family archives, the 1/4 inch master tapes of Bright Phoebus were recovered and remastered, along with a set of 1971 demos. A different lineup of the Waterson Family plays on, seen here with Mike opening the title track of Bright Phoebus with the story of how he came up with the lyrics for this song.

If you want to dig even deeper, Mainly Norfolk has a great collection of pages on the history of The Watersons & the Carthys, documenting them as a group and as individuals, including a fantastic chronological discography.
posted by filthy light thief (21 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
If you live in the UK, or can fake it, BFI has Travelling for a Living streaming for free. It's a 45 minute documentary on The Watersons from 1966. If you can't watch it, here are four clips on YouTube:
- "North Country Maid"
- "30 Foot Trailer"
- "Bonnie Ship The Diamond"
- "Hal-An-Tow"
posted by filthy light thief at 9:21 PM on October 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thank you so much for this.
posted by cookie-k at 9:43 PM on October 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Uh.... I had to listen to a lot of the album before i could confirm that i wasn't being punked... I am still not entirely sure... (Made it through Fine Horseman( Maybe this setup a lot of other groups that came after them, but ... I side with the critics that initially panned the album.

Wait... you say Johnny Walflower directed us to explore this gem? Are they all very good cats singing? Because I could revise my opinion if all the vocals were feline.

I can't even begin to comprehend how much Rubber Band was a WTF... did that predate Sgt. Pepper? If so, maybe it influenced the Beatles and I could entertain that those two songs show the difference between an interesting concept and a band that has talent with an interesting concept... otherwise that is a WTF poorly made ripoff.

I feel scarred by having listened to that. It was like having to Listen to every B side of a one hit wonder ever.

And for that, as odd as it sounds, thank you, because without stinkers like this, we all lose sight of what good production and writing sounds like. Instead, today we mostly suffer from the melancholy of over production. So... Thank you?
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:08 AM on October 13, 2018

yes, english brass band music pre-dated sgt pepper by many decades, and unlike rubber band, which actually takes something musical from that tradition (along with english vocal music), sgt pepper was mostly just a visual rip off and had hardly anything to do with that music at all

back to your pop music, then - you're not capable of understanding the rough and rowdy music of the watersons

(the second song, the scarecrow, reminded me a lot of the incredible string band - they didn't have any hits either, so ...)
posted by pyramid termite at 5:11 AM on October 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Who's a good reviewer? Huh? Who's cranky and funny at the same time? You are, Nanukthedog!
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:28 AM on October 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

If you want more trad. folk, here's Norma Waterson: Death and the Lady (Norma Waterson: intro and vocals, Martin Carthy: guitar), apparently an excerpt or segment from Norma Waterson: English Folk Singing, a free course on OpenLearn.

And even more of that old traditional folk:
* Frost & Fire: A Calendar Of Ritual And Magical Songs (1965) - full album
* Live in the London Folk Song Cellar, 1966 - 16 minute set with some chatter
* Early Days (official audio tracks of the 1994 compilation) - gathering tracks from a few compilations, albums, and one previously unreleased track
posted by filthy light thief at 8:38 AM on October 13, 2018

Oh my gosh, so much smoking! Thanks for the clips, I hadn't seen those before. I read about the Watersons in Rob Young's Electric Eden and purchased a CD of Bright Phoebus...and it'll probably click eventually even though I always struggle a bit with music like this. But you've given me a reason to dig a bit deeper and listen more closely. Thanks!
posted by plasticpalacealice at 8:40 AM on October 13, 2018

The rough-and-rowdy singing is lovely for some a capella but sounds odd when married with a more reflective folk style. It’s as if Bert Jansch suddenly started hollering at me.
posted by argybarg at 8:40 AM on October 13, 2018

But wait, there's more! Marry Waterson has some lovely work of her own. Keeping the family tradition alive, she has recorded four albums from two different partnerships: first, with her brother Oliver Knight, and then with David A. Jaycock, mixing traditional tales with her own compositions, and they're all up on her Bandcamp account. Continuing the Memento Mori October thread from her aunt Norma's performance of "Death and the Lady," the title track of her latest album, Death had Quicker Wings than Love, was inspired by the local history of maidens' crowns or garlands, wreaths of paper used as funeral mementos for, usually female, virgins.
“The maidens’ crown, or garland, would be carried before the coffin or a similar looking girl would wear it in the funeral procession. The garlands were embellished with strips of white linen, paper flowers and ribbons, or white gloves to symbolise purity. It was customary to hang the garlands up in the church above the dead girls’ pew."

“The quote “death had quicker wings than love” is found in the works of the late Reverend John Wesley and according to a tragic tale, was inscribed on the gravestone of Mary Woodson who died on her way to be married at Beeley Church in 1785. No longer visible on the gravestone a copy of the following transcription is said to be kept in safekeeping in the village.

“A faithful maid lies buried here.
A lover true a friend sincere.
She wished the marriage state to prove
But death had quicker wings than love.
Here o'er her corpse her friend
Regrets her short and hasty end.
This sculptured stone his passion rears
and bathes her hapless name in tears.
But hold fond swain Nor wing thy constant heart
We'll meet again Hereafter ne'er to part.’
posted by filthy light thief at 9:21 AM on October 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

I can't even begin to comprehend how much Rubber Band was a WTF..

You want Rubber Band WTF? I'll give you Rubber Band WTF.

Seriously, some of the odd melodies and harmonies were striking in a weird way, but oof, those voices, and on extended notes it was hard to take. The female lead did remind me of a very rough Kirsty McColl. I guess in my head I expected something like Vashti Banyan.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 11:54 AM on October 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

that's not rubber band WTF - THIS is rubber band WTF!!
posted by pyramid termite at 12:10 PM on October 13, 2018

I used to be in a band and - at our guitarist's insistence - we used to do Bright Phoebus (the song) and I can confirm that it's a delight to sing, and eventually audiences get it.
posted by YoungStencil at 1:37 PM on October 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Who's a good reviewer? Huh? Who's cranky and funny at the same time? You are, Nanukthedog!

Scritch, scritch (behind ear).
posted by Chitownfats at 1:37 PM on October 13, 2018

I have been wracking my brain all day trying to figure out where I've heard Bright Phoebus (the song, not the album) before. My first thought is maybe on one of my many Martin Carthy box set/compilation/something or other CDs. But my association with the song is really visceral, like I don't just know the tune, I have personal emotions that go along with it. I've concluded that Martin Carthy played it when I saw him in the little back room of a pub in Sheffield a few years ago, and we all had a right sing-along. If that didn't actually happen, please no one tell me, because I feel like I've recovered a very special memory.

Anyway, thanks for this. It's not my favorite album of the era/movement, but I don't understand the hate/bafflement.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:39 PM on October 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

soren_lorensen - I know what you mean. When I heard it for the very first time (Sorry!) I was sure I'd heard it before, and the only thing I could think of was having seen Martin Carthy years before in the back room at a pub in Edinburgh. I don't know if he did or not, but it feels like it's always been there somewhere, even though it was written in my lifetime.
posted by YoungStencil at 1:47 PM on October 13, 2018

Thanks for all these great links!

My dad had the LP when I was growing up in the 70s, and I love it*, but if you made me choose, I would take the two albums Lal did with son Oliver Knight in the 90s. Only the best songs on Bright Phoebus are as well-written and well-sung as the overall standard of those, especially Once in a Blue Moon, and not having been imitated as much, they seem even stranger and fresher. Anyway, anyone who with an interest in the Watersons should definitely check them out.

*I'm not crazy about "Rubber Band" either
posted by doubtfulpalace at 4:12 PM on October 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

That title song is incredible. Where do songs come from, indeed.
posted by solarion at 7:01 PM on October 13, 2018

I really really love Bright Phoebus, which I just heard for the first time here. But is it terrible that it also viscerally reminds me of the Spinal Tap boys playing LIsten to the Flower People?
posted by Cocodrillo at 7:04 AM on October 14, 2018

Thank you for sharing this! This sort of stuff is totally my jam and I knew nothing about this album, though I've long been a fan of June Tabor's gorgeous version of "Scarecrow."
posted by neroli at 10:10 AM on October 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another really nice post, flt. You don't get Anaïs Mitchell without the Watersons in the background.
posted by glasseyes at 10:40 AM on October 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

But is it terrible that it also viscerally reminds me of the Spinal Tap boys playing LIsten to the Flower People?

I hereby sentence you to forty years of Donovan.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:41 AM on October 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

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