Original members were Norma, Mike, and Lal Waterson, with their cousin John Harrison from Kingston High School. They had a skiffle band in the early 1960s but moved on to playing more traditional material. They were briefly known as "The Folksons".
Their first album was Frost and Fire 1965 (awarded the "Melody Maker" Album of the Year, a rarity for a debut album) followed by The Watersons and A Yorkshire Garland in 1966. The Watersons split up in 1968 when Norma went to work as a disc jockey on a radio station on Montserrat.
The group reformed in 1972 with John Harrison briefly replaced by Bernie Vickers. It was in 1972 that the group performed and arranged the music for the Alan Plater TV play for today "The Land of Green Ginger" set and filmed in Hull. The band appear in a scene filmed in the famous Bluebell Folk Club.
Bernie Vickers was himself replaced the same year by Norma's husband and respected folk singer in his own right Martin Carthy. This lineup recorded For Pence and Spicy Ale 1975, Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy 1977, and Green Fields 1981.
Later lineups featured Mike Waterson's daughter Rachel Waterson, who briefly replaced Lal during a leave of absence caused by ill health in the mid-1980s, then continued to sing with the group on Lal's return. This five-piece line up performed regularly during the late 1980s and recorded a session for the BBC Andy Kershaw show in August 1986. In 1987 the group collaborated with Swan Arcade to form Blue Murder who have performed and recorded sporadically with various line ups to the present day. Subsequent Watersons line ups fluctuated, featuring Eliza Carthy, Anne Waterson and Maria Gilhooley at various times and recording only occasionally.
Lal Waterson died in 1998 and by the early 1990s Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson and their daughter Eliza Carthy had formed the group Waterson:Carthy. The Watersons gradually ceased to sing live on a regular basis but the family occasionally reconvene for special events and festival appearances where they are usually billed as "The Waterson Family". These have included A Mighty River of Song at the Royal Albert Hall on 12 May 2007, the BBC Electric Proms concert Once in a Blue Moon: A Tribute to Lal Waterson at Cecil Sharp House in London on 25 October 2007 and 'A Tribute to Bert,' a concert celebrating the life and work of Albert Lloyd, at Cecil Sharp House on the 15th November 2008. During the summer of 2009 "The Waterson Family" performed at a number of festivals and large concerts throughout England and Ireland.