Reissue Review: The Watersons “Frost And Fire : A Calendar Of Ritual And Magical Songs”

Topic Records, 2022

An excellent reissue of one of the key albums of English folk music.

Watersons Frost and Fire LP coverOriginally released in 1965, ‘Frost And Fire: A Calendar Of Ritual And Magical Songs’ was the debut album by The Watersons, Comprised of Norma, Mike, and Lal Waterson, with their cousin John Harrison, they performed mainly traditional songs with minimal accompaniment. Their distinctive sound came entirely from their closely woven harmonies. They have been described as the “most famous family in English folk music”. This new reissue brings one of the staple albums of 60s English folk music alive for a new generation of fans.

Nick Hart Sings Ten English Folk Songs’ has been praised as the outstanding folk album of 2022, and you can draw a direct line to it from ‘Frost and Fire’. Norma Waterson’s daughter Eliza Carthy has taken folk music into new places. Her new album ‘Queen of the Whirl’ reinterprets her own legacy and adds to the story which started here.

Recorded by Bill Leader, who was the outstanding producer of Folk in the 60s and 70s in a Camden flat, the original recording has stood up well and the sympathetic mastering for the reissue takes us right back to 1965. This is music that has as much impact now as it did 60 years ago. As a cycle of songs covering a whole calendar year it is difficult to pick out individual pieces without losing the sense of time that is the key to understanding what they were trying to do here. ‘Hal-an-Tow’, ‘Pace-Egging Song’ and ‘Wassail Song’, are probably the ones to try first. Although ‘John Barleycorn’, a solo turn from Mike Waterson, is the song that really harks back to the pre-industrial world where these songs began. Listening to these songs in the context of movements like the Diggers and Levellers of the seventeenth century and our current political and social issues is instructive.

If you are new to traditional unaccompanied folk singing this is the place to start. Annie Briggs, no mean interpreter of songs herself said of it: “First hearing the Watersons live was a shock, a revelation. Their voices and their musicality were unique. Raw, passionate and brilliant, and so were they. Their musical instincts were perfect, and they redefined the possibilities of the British folk scene, they had somehow opened a door wide and it’s still open. This is an album as important as ‘Kind of Blue’ or ‘Sgt Pepper’ are in their corners of the musical world.


About Tim Martin 254 Articles
Sat in my shed listening to music, and writing about some of it. Occasionally allowed out to attend gigs.
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Jonathan Aird

That is a great album – The Watersons at full power are like a folk gale. What a sound!