The Watersons’ Frost and Fire: A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs

Cover art for Frost and FireFor a few decades The Watersons were the first family of British folk music, and it all started with Frost and Fire: A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs. First released in 1965, it changed British folk music forever. It first came out on CD in 1990 with some additional tracks from their later album Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy, in 1990, and then was reissued on a remastered CD in 2007. Topic has now re-released it as an LP on a special vinyl pressing (at 45 RPM). The album cover is a replica of the original (with minor adaptations for 2022), including the original liner notes by legendary folklorist A.L. Lloyd.

The Watersons – Norma, Mike and Lal Waterson and their cousin, John Harrison, were known for their stunning, muscular four-part vocal performances, usually unaccompanied, of traditional songs from around the U.K. Their importance is hard to overstate. As their contemporary Anne Briggs said in 2018: “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. Home grown, international, and pure magic.”

After an impromptu appearance at the Troubadour in Earl’s Court, London (where they were invited to the stage by Martin Carthy), they were approached by producer Bill Leader, who signed them to record for Topic. The songs, which together form a cycle of folk songs about the seasons of the year, were recorded at least partly in Leader’s home, as retold by J.P. Bean in Singing From the Floor. “I did many of the recordings in my flat, a two-room, kitchen and bathroom on the first floor of an Edwardian house [in Camden]. The back room was lined with books and tapes – that’s a great acoustic treatment. We’d be monitoring and recording in the front room, and the room that they were recording in was the bedroom.”

The songs are roughly set around the calendar, as the album’s subtitle says, and as noted by A.L. Lloyd in his original liner notes:

We’ve divided our cycle of customs according to the calendar seasons–winter, spring, summer, autumn and winter again. Less formally, we might better have divided them according to the economic seasons–the ploughing, sowing, augmentation and harvesting of crops. For it’s due to their relation with economic life, not to any mystical connection, that the song-customs have persisted right up to our own time. Just as one doesn’t need to be an ancient Greek to be moved by the plays of Aeschylus, so it’s not necessary to be anything other than an ordinary freethinking twentieth century urban western man with a proper regard for humankind, to appreciate the spirit and power of these songs. To our toiling ancestors they meant everything, and in a queer irrational way they can still mean much to us.

That might not be all that apparent to modern listeners. Sure, it starts and ends with wassailing songs, which many will recognize as Christmas songs. But the meanings of the songs and their titles can be a bit of a puzzle, which adds to the fun of listening. What a curious thing is “Pace-egging Song,” the third track on the first side. It turns out that this refers to an early version of the tradition of dyeing eggs for Easter. According to the website Historic UK, “Usually Pace-eggs were either eaten on Easter Sunday or handed out to the Pace-Eggers. These Pace-Eggers were once a common sight in Lancashire villages. They were groups of fantastically dressed ‘mummers’ complete with blackened faces, wearing animal skins and festooned with ribbons and streamers.” The equally delightful “Hal-An-Tow” is an old May Day song.

What to say about the performances? Suffice to say it’s no surprise that this album was so influential and popular in its time. These four people can sing, and they do so with enthusiasm and zero pretension. Mike has a unique, slightly adenoidal voice that, like Dylan’s, grows on you the more you listen. Norma’s burnished alto is one of my favorite voices of all time. Lal doesn’t take lead very often, but when she does as on “Christmas Is Now Drawing Near At Hand” it’s an immediately classic voice and delivery. But of course what really stands out is the group singing, whether in unison or in harmony. Most often, one of the singers will drop down a third or a fifth on the final word of a line or verse (see “Earsdon Sword Dance Song” for especially good examples of this) it’s simply magical.

If there’s a vinyl junkie on your holiday gift list this year (maybe even yourself, just saying), I can’t think of many better options than this new release of Frost And Fire. It’s available from Topic. If that’s not your thing, this one is available in lots of formats including various CD issues and on most streaming platforms. It’s an important album. Also a great one.

(Topic, 2022/original release on Topic UK, Elektra USA, 1965)

In the course of researching this review, I came across a series of blog posts by Stephen Winick, a writer and editor at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, about the history of Hal-An-Tow. It’s definitely worth reading if you’re interested in that sort of thing, but take care if you go down the Comments rabbit hole!

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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