Marry Waterson on Bright Phoebus: an album of myth and magic for all the family

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The great ‘lost’ folk album, Bright Phoebus, means a huge amount to a lot of people, most of whom assumed that it would remain lost given that its two central figures – Lal and Mike Waterson – have now passed away. But a springtime announcement changed all that when it was revealed that Lal’s daughter, the artist and singer Marry Waterson, had been working on a Bright Phoebus re-release in conjunction with David Suff and Domino Records. 

Needless to say, we were delighted here at the Grizzly Folk blog, and jumped at the opportunity to put to Marry some of the questions that have occupied idle brain time over the years. Questions such as: are the stories concerning step-ladders and docked pay true, are there really tonnes of warped editions floating around out there, and what do the next generation of Watersons feel about the album that so many folk fans shunned at the time of its original release?

Gracious as ever, Marry sat and answered these rabid wonderings for what must’ve been the umpteenth time. Here’s what she had to say.

You have lived with this album for a very long time. You must have a very different relationship with it to the legions of fans who talk about it so much. What does it mean to you?

It means pictures to me – memories of mum and Mike singing, playing in front of the fire, cuppas and cigs, drop-D tuning. The feeling of complete joy any time the family get to get together to sing ‘Bright Phoebus’ or ‘Shady Lady’.

What did your mum and Mike think of the album? Did they have fond memories of it, or had its slightly fraught existence soured things for them?

I can’t speak for Mike, but mum had very happy memories recording the album. It was a joyous time, with people popping in and out of the studio at Cecil Sharp House. She was chuffed to be working with so many talented people. Mum wished that the record hadn’t had such a tragic history, but that didn’t detract from the creative side. She was pleased with it. She also found it interesting when people told her what her songs were about, or what they thought they were about, though most were wrong. She didn’t mind that; she once said, “does it have to mean anything?”

Due to the ‘lost’ nature of the album, plenty of rumours have sprung up over the years. Which of the various stories are true? Is it true that Mike was up a stepladder when he wrote ‘Bright Phoebus’, and that a delivery man sang on the album? 

Yes, Mike was up a ladder painting when his mate asked him where he got his ideas from. Just at that moment the sun came out and he said, “today bright Phoebus she smiled down on me….”, shortly followed by, “I’ll be back later”, as he cycled to mum’s to finish the song. He was docked an hour’s pay! And, yes, a delivery man sang on a chorus when he came to deliver a parcel to the studio. Brilliant, eh?

Very! What is the truth behind the album’s disappearance? I’ve heard that some of the pressings were warped and that it met with a general lack of enthusiasm on its release…

There were 1,000 copies printed on Bill leader’s ‘Trailer’ label. It was the biggest run he’d ever printed. More than half of them had the hole printed off centre. Bill says that it was Christmas and he heard that the workers at the plant left the press to go down the pub. The presses were old, and when they finally checked them, they put a new stamper on the back end of the run – those were the playable copies. Fans of The Watersons’ traditional material, records like Frost & Fire, just didn’t get the songs on Bright Phoebus. It was ahead of its time.

Your mum had a particularly distinctive way with a melody and a set of lyrics, and Mike’s songs – particularly ‘The Scarecrow’ – seem to come from a similar, sightly off-kilter landscape. Do you think there’s a reason for that? Is there something in the way they were brought up that might have informed those sensibilities, for instance? It’s just my opinion, but I think the reason that the Sgt Pepper comparisons actually work quite well is that the listener is completely transported into a world that they wouldn’t normally inhabit. I wonder where that world came from…

Mum was a natural harmony singer – she would wind a tune round any melody, seldom the same thing twice. She loved poetry, in particular Rimbaud, and that informed her own writing. Me and dad don’t believe that Bright Phoebus was influenced by St Pepper – people are always comparing myself and mum to other artists, people we haven’t even heard. On the release of Once in a Blue Moon she was compared to Nick Drake. We’d never even heard him, so we got a record and had a listen and of course we were very glad we discovered him then.

I wonder also what Norma and Martin made of Bright Phoebus when it was first presented to them. Was it presented as a whole, or did they grow to be aware of these songs slowly? Did they like what they heard, or was it not a natural progression for the album to be part of the Watersons’ canon?

Martin came to stay at mum and dad’s and mum played him some songs. He was so totally enchanted and amazed by her songs that he contacted Richard Thompson and Ashley Hutchins to galvanize the project into fruition. Norma was away working as a DJ in the West Indies, and on her return they played her all the demos they’d made at Bill Leader’s. Norma said it was an emotional night as they were glad to be reunited and some of the songs were about their childhood.

The recording was done very quickly somewhere in Cecil Sharp House, was it not? What was it like going back to those tapes for the remastering process?

It was recorded in the basement at Cecil Sharp House. Bill Leader fashioned a studio. It was done on a shoe string. The remaster is amazing – the detail you can hear that wasn’t reproduced on the original is a little spooky for something you know so well. When Martin heard the tape he was very moved and said, “that’s what the record should have sounded like”.

As the generation that came after Bright Phoebus, what do you, Eliza and the others feel about it? Is it like a family heirloom?

Me and Liza are in the same boat as everyone else who loves the album. We’re in love and in awe.

‘Bright Phoebus’ will be reissued on Domino Records on August 4th. You can pre-order a copy here

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2 responses to “Marry Waterson on Bright Phoebus: an album of myth and magic for all the family”

  1. mr m walker Avatar
    mr m walker

    I have a copy that I bought from a car boot sale in west lancs 30 years ago for fifteen pounds. I was was an aspiring teenage fiddler and a big Steeleye Span fan! Somebody told me it was very rare, so I have only ever played it a couple of times, I copied it onto tape, and put the lp away safely. The sleeve has some moderate wear and tear, a butter stain on the back, but the lp is in excellent state. Very proud to own a copy!

  2. Hugh Mann Avatar
    Hugh Mann

    Loved it ever since I borrowed a copy (with not great sound quality) from Bradford Central Library in around 1975. Everyone puts their own meaning onto Lal’s songs – “we came through a ford, riding over the moors” always reminds me of coming over the top from Haworth through Denholme on a stormy day.

    There must be about 15 or 20 different versions of Fine Horseman now. I’m just sorry I only discovered Judy Dinning’s after she died – another great voice. Promise And The Monster’s version is good too.

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