To see this story with its related links on the guardian.co.uk site, go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2011/jun/22/mike-waterson-remembered (by Colin Irwin)
Remembering Mike Waterson, a born storyteller
The singer, who died on Tuesday, had a passionate belief in folk song as a voice for the true values of the working class
Anybody with even a passing interest in British folk music will be choked by news of the death of Mike Waterson, who passed away on Tuesday.
Not only was he one of the great interpreters of traditional song, throwing himself into a narrative with all the mannerisms and instinctive inflections of a born storyteller, he was a master of wordplay, writing what he would self-effacingly describe as "ditties", whether Rubber Band ("We're the band to catapult to stardom/ We'll never get wound up, we're never slack") from his classic 1972 album Bright Phoebus with sister Lal; or the celebrated A Stitch in Time, inspired by a newspaper story he'd read that describes, in delicious detail, the highly ingenious revenge of a battered wife who sews her drunken husband into his bed while he's asleep.
Even last August, already looking alarmingly frail on one of his final stage appearances at the Waterson family's emotional homecoming gig at Hull's Truck Theatre, he still managed to steal the show when baggy brown jumper, trademark flat cap, pint of ale in hand he giggled like a naughty schoolboy and sang his latest masterpiece Tea's Made, hilariously pillorying drinks machines: "The milk is in small saches that you can't get in no-how/ And it tastes of burning plastic and it's never seen a cow/ So do not use this cafe/ Join the picket line with me/ Then they'll have to find a robot/ To drink their fucking tea. "
In the obituaries that will follow over the next few days, Mike will quite rightly be heralded as one of the key figures of the British folk revival for his long-running role in the Watersons, the Yorkshire singing family whose dynamic voices and instinctive harmonies galvanised the nascent folk scene back in the day and whose early career was guided by the great folklorist Bert Lloyd. "He asked us to sing a song once, which we did, and then he asked us to sing it again," Mike told me, recalling early days with his sisters Lal and Norma. "When he asked us to do it yet again we said are we doing it wrong? He said: 'No, it's pure indulgence because it's giving me so much enjoyment.' He told us we had wonderful mixolydian harmonies. We all looked at eachother and when we got home we went to Hull Library to find out what it meant."
With his long dark hair, sullen looks and scrawny physique, he was the coolest looking bloke on the planet back then. Check out the brilliant Derrick Knight documentary Travelling for a Living from 1965 and you'll see a dude who makes Liam Gallagher look like Val Doonican. No wonder the Watersons were dubbed "the folk Beatles". But, like the rest of his family, Mike never had any interest in fame or celebrity. He was a great singer with a passionate belief in folk song as a voice for the true values of working-class men and women and his main motivation was to put that music back in the hands of local communities. When the rigours of touring took its toll, he was quite happy to give it all up to paint houses and build boats, quietly knocking out his "ditties", living in a farmhouse in north Yorkshire and rejoining the family on their odd musical adventure.
A couple of years I spent a magical afternoon with Mike and Norma Waterson in Robin Hood's Bay where the pair of them bickered affectionately about everything under the sun, from rising stars of the modern folk scene to widely divergent memories of Eliza Ward, the grandmother who raised them after their parents both died young. The anecdotes were long and rambling, the images colourful and vivid and the opinions sharp and passionate. And now Norma is slowly recovering from major illness and Mike is gone. It's good to know a new generation of Waterson-Carthys has emerged to carry the baton, but the sense of loss today is still immeasurable.