Reading and reviewing Mick Houghton’s excellent new Sandy Denny biography recently, I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn, reminded me of a piece I wrote for The Herald after interviewing the great and somewhat elusive Anne Briggs in 2007. Eight years later, I wonder whether she’s still ‘working at’ recording new music?
In the intervening years she established herself as not only perhaps the purest folk voice of her generation, but also as an elusive figure, uncomfortable operating within the confines of stage and studio. Briggs never truly lost her inhibitions in formal situations, hence perhaps why her recorded legacy is so slim: a handful of songs scattered across EPs and compilation albums, one album for Topic and two more for CBS. She has been silent since 1973.
Briggs arrived in Edinburgh in 1959, having hitch-hiked with a friend from her home in Nottinghamshire, drawn by the city’s vibrant folk scene. “I was interested in folk music, and I knew this Scots lad who was working in Nottingham who knew Ray and Archie Fisher,” she says today. “He was going up to see them in the Easter holidays and asked me along. I knew their music from their first record, so I said ‘Yes, that would be fantastic.’ I stayed for the whole of the holidays and just about managed to get back for school!”
In Edinburgh she met Bert Jansch for the first time and quickly embarked upon a friendship that has lasted to this day. “It was almost like we already knew each other,” she smiles. “I can’t explain it. We were drawn to each other, very comfortable and relaxed with each other. Maybe it’s one of those things – when you both come from difficult backgrounds you can subconsciously identify it and relate to people in some strange way.”
Nearly half a century on, Jansch recalls “a brilliant, very natural singer. She sang in an Irish idiom, which was unusual for an English girl, and she would improvise like a jazz singer. It’s fantastic to be able to hold someone’s interest singing 30 verses unaccompanied, but she could do it.”
By 1962, Briggs had come to the attention of Ewan MacColl, who had heard her sing on the Centre 42 tour – a rolling review featuring local talent that he was taking around the country – and invited her to join the tour. Soon after she left the home of her aunt and uncle, with whom she lived after being orphaned at an early age, and moved to London, where she became part of the scene that included Jansch, John Renbourn, Clive Palmer and the Incredible String Band. Despite the calibre of her friends, she says that she “didn’t learn a lot, because they were doing totally different things that I personally didn’t relate to a great deal. I did, however, relate to Bert’s songs, because it was like relating to Bert. That’s how we managed to work together quite successfully. I identified with his music, and somehow he identified with my very traditional approach to ballads. It was like we unlocked musical doors for each other.”
In London, Briggs taught Jansch the standard Blackwaterside, which he made his own on his debut album, and Briggs made her first recordings for Topic, singing two songs on the 1963 thematic album The Iron Muse as well as the Hazards Of Love EP. Most memorably, she appeared with Bert Lloyd on the 1966 EP of traditional songs of love and lust, The Bird In The Bush.
But she was rarely in one place for very long. “I don’t have a romantic idea of travelling, it’s just happened to me,” she says today. “And when it did happen I felt totally comfortable with it, in the right place doing the right thing. I don’t know where I got it from. The Irish side of my family travelled barely half a street away from each in a small town in Ireland. And the same with the Briggs side – they were Midlanders, and they all lived close to each other too. So I’ve no idea where it came from.”
In the mid-sixties, many summers were spent in Ireland with her lover, the traditional singer Johnny Moynihan, who later formed the Sweeney Men. They travelled around the country in a horse and cart or a VW van, meeting new people and playing for anyone who would listen. Briggs learned the bouzouki and loved busking, relishing the excitement of singing for her supper away from the formal atmosphere of a concert.
“The travelling I did and the singing was a more valuable experience to me personally than the gigs and the recording,” she says. “It was always difficult for me. Occasionally I did gigs when I got really into the ballads and the singing, where I really got through to the people that I was singing to – that was great, when I could do that, amazingly, within the structure of a club. But it was always much easier to do informal sessions in the Irish countryside with traditional musicians or busking in the street.”
It’s this period that provides the wildest accounts of Briggs’ antics: tales of drugs, seriously hard drinking and dangerous stunts like jumping off Malin Head in Donegal to chase seals. “Sandy [Denny] was always saying, ‘Oh, you must meet Annie’,” says Richard Thompson. “So I’d meet her and she’d be stretched out on the floor, having drunk herself into unconsciousness.” Was she really that wild, I wonder? “Oh yeah,” she laughs. “I did some very crazy things. It’s amazing to still be here talking about it. I was wild, I admit it, and I’m not that different in a way. I’m older and a bit quieter, but I’m still not very stable. I’m not mad, but I’m inclined to go outside the box occasionally.”
In the late sixties her concession to building a “home base” was moving into a caravan on a Suffolk heath. Perhaps because of this relative accessibility, she began writing more songs and was finally persuaded to sign a record contract by Jo Lustig at CBS. Two albums were released in 1971: the first, Anne Briggs, was a set of traditional songs sung in the sean nos style and released by Topic. “It was very unconscious,” she says of the album. “An amalgam of stuff I’d been listening to on the radio as a teenager, plus recordings I’d heard of people like Isla Cameron and Mary O’Hara and Jeannie Robertson – field recordings. I loved the songs and just started singing them. It wasn’t a conscious attempt to sound like anyone, it was just to try and sing the songs as I felt was right.”
The second album, The Time Has Come, was very different, consisting largely of original songs backed by her own guitar playing. “I started playing the guitar and I found I couldn’t sing my traditional stuff with a guitar at all, but I just really loved playing the music and suddenly songs and words started coming out, influenced by the fact that I was playing guitar,” she recalls. “The songs are very evocative of my life at that point, when I was holed up in that caravan on a Suffolk heath, just me and my dog and occasional friends who would come.”
The recording of the album was “in and out – one take for the lot! Some stuff on it I really do like, and some stuff I think, Oh God you could have made a better job. If I’d had more time I could have made a better job of the singing, because you do get tired belting that stuff out. And the tensions and the pressures in the studios is hard – it sounds forced and immature to me. But it’s alright. I like Railroad Bill – it’s very easy to sing. I like Lal [Waterson’s] Fine Horseman, Clea Caught A Rabbit and Tangled Man.”
By the time she’d finished her third record, Sing A Song For You, in 1973, Briggs had become even more disillusioned with the restrictions of a formal recording career and playing sterile venues like the Royal Festival Hall. She “really didn’t like” the record and refused to let it come out, with the result that CBS “washed their hands of me.” In any case, her life was changing. She married Pat, a forestry worker, and had two children in quick succession. When Pat’s job took him to Sutherland in the north of Scotland, they moved to a remote village to raise their children. And that, effectively, was the last the world heard of Anne Briggs.
Over thirty years later, she insists it wasn’t a conscious retreat. “Having children focuses your mind wonderfully well on trying to get things together,” she says. “People would phone up and ask if I could do this or that, but the answer was always, ‘Sorry, no.’ I missed it hugely. It was hard for me to settle down. It really wasn’t easy, but I was tied up in a totally different life.”
The music stopped, but it was a productive life in other ways. In the 1980s she and her family moved to Lincolnshire, where she made a living selling environmental plants at rural markets, as well as undertaking conservation and education work with the Forestry Commission. In the 1990s she returned to Scotland, where she and Pat ran an award-winning “bunkhouse and tea garden” on the Isle of Cara. Now retired, they recently returned to live on the mainland, just outside Oban.
“She certainly didn’t ever feel that singing was all she had,” points out Bert Jansch. And yet the pull of making music has never left her. She was persuaded by friends Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick to play a handful of shows in the early 1990s, but the experience was fraught, partly because it involved her leaving her natural habitat. “I’m not neurotic, but I don’t like cities the same way some people don’t like flying or water,” she says. “Arriving to do a gig at the end of the day in a state of nervous tension wasn’t good.”
Briggs performing in 1991:
She admits to feeling “guilty” at letting her talent go unused, but that unsettling experience, and the continued passing of time, has clearly dented her confidence. However, she doesn’t discount some kind of return to music. New friends – the young, Glasgow-based folk musician Alasdair Roberts is a frequent correspondent – and old mainstays like Bert Jansch are gently trying to tempt her back, with some success. Visiting her son in Australia recently, Briggs “just took off and travelled around, and it was just like being on the road again. It freed something up in me and I’ve started playing music again at home. I don’t feel I’ve got sufficient material together in good enough form to record tomorrow, but I’m aware that if I want to record again I should do it fairly soon. I just don’t feel I’m good enough at the moment. I’ve got to keep working at it.”
Whatever she chooses to do next, it will be firmly on her own terms. Aged 62, she seems as wary as ever of the glare of the spotlight, but is happy that her timeless music hasn’t been forgotten. And this most private and pleasant of women has one last message to the world: “Say I’m OK,” she smiles. “You tell them that.”
RICHARD THOMPSON: I wrote the song Beeswing kind of about her. There was a thing in the 60s where people dropped out to live in the country and get their heads together. People like Vashti Bunyan and Annie Briggs: these wild, free spirited women. They were quite inspirational. Anne was great. I saw her a couple of times in folk clubs, but the only times I only actually ever met her she had drunk herself into unconsciousness.
BERT JANSCH: I don’t remember meeting her in Edinburgh, although she assures me we did. I remember her first in London. She was a brilliant singer – really brilliant, very natural. We clicked straight away. She was pretty wild when I knew her, but then I was even wilder! She has calmed down quite a lot. She does sing at home for her own pleasure and her voice sounds the same to me. I think any singer would feel guilty about not using that talent, but if you haven’t done it for a while, it can be hard. Unless you do it regularly you’re going to be insecure. She’s not used to the modern day music scene. In the old days, you could stop half way through a song and start another, but audiences expect a degree of professionalism these days. I’d be really over the moon if she started again. A lot of people have been trying to coax her back into it. I gave her a mini disc player to record with, but she’s not very good with hi-tech. I probably should have given her a cassette player!
ALASDAIR ROBERTS: Her voice has a directness and understated-ness that appeals to me. She doesn’t dramatize. And it’s incredibly beautiful, particularly on her traditional ballads. She doesn’t feel the need to alter her singing personality. She sings like it’s the most natural thing in the world for her to be doing, like it’s an ingrained part of her. Although I couldn’t hope to attain that kind of technical brilliance as a singer, she was one of the first traditional singers that I heard who inspired me to take up singing traditional songs myself.