“She was a rare thing, fine as a beeswing,’ sang Richard Thompson on Beeswing, a song widely held to be about the singer Anne Briggs. The elegiac tone employed by Thompson would have you believe that the subject of Beeswing is no longer of this world, and although Briggs is very much alive and well, her almost complete withdrawal from the public eye and refusal to record any new music since the early 1970s has lent her a kind of mythological status. She has always walked with one foot in another world, as it were.
It is not the music writer’s place to draw conclusions about Briggs’ character or search for clues as to why she turned her back on the music industry (from what I’ve seen, I’m surprised more artists don’t take a similar route), but to claim, on the basis of her music alone, that she is some kind of fragile elfin princess sleeping for a hundred years on a pillow of spiders’ webs is missing something. Sure, she was capable of singing with an unmatched delicacy, and her voice is rightly praised for its striking, crystalline beauty, but she was equally at home singing songs about bad working conditions, plucky poachers and dodgy sex. There was purity, but there was also earthiness, flirtatiousness and at times gutwrenching sadness.
In 1999 Topic released Anne Briggs: A Collection, which contained all of her 1971 self-titled debut album plus everything she had sung on prior to that (a clutch of EPs, including collaborations with Bert Lloyd and Ewan MacColl) – twenty-two songs in total. This followed the 1997 release of Sing A Song For You, which Briggs had recorded in 1973 and subsequently shelved due to doubts about her voice – doubts, it must be said, that weren’t shared by anyone lucky enough to hear the album. This new collection is part of Topic’s Introduction Series and contains fifteen songs cherry-picked from the aforementioned releases. The goal is clearly to entice new listeners who have yet to take the plunge, and in terms of quality it succeeds on pretty much every level.
Every facet of Briggs’ talent is represented. She is a wonderful adapter of songs about sexual relationships, and on songs like Rosemary Lane, Gathering Rushes In The Month Of May and The Stonecutter Boy her voice seems to spring from the fertile earth. There is a knowing wink in the way she interprets the often elaborate innuendo and bawdy imagery of traditional songs that belies the perceived innocence in her voice: lines like ‘It seems she got the content of his dream,’ from The Stonecutter Boy, are delivered with gusto, and while the morality behind these songs may remain complex, the meaning is rendered refreshingly unambiguous.
Briggs’ choice of traditional songs was almost as illuminating as the way she sang them. Along with love songs, bawdy and tender, she sang brilliantly about political issues: The Recruited Collier sympathetically deals with the less visible effects of war on individuals and relationships, while The Doffing Mistress is a tiny, cheeky masterpiece describing the quiet solidarity between young female textile workers. A chillingly drawn-out version of murder (or rather manslaughter) ballad Polly Vaughan is melancholy incarnate, while Maa Bonny Lad, at just over a minute, is if anything even sadder.
She is just as good when she moves away from realism to the natural world and even the supernatural. Her reading of The Cuckoo is perhaps the definitive version of that great and popular song. Perhaps her greatest song is Young Tambling, a tour de force of pagan magic, eldritch lust and redemption which Briggs commands flawlessly for nearly eleven minutes. Her voice seems to grow more inhuman, more like water, as the song progresses, until the elf queen’s curse in the final lines – ‘I should have tore out your eyes, Tambling, and put in two eyes of wood’ – when humanity of a jealous, raging kind is finally readmitted in the most unlikely way and via the most unlikely character. This is interpretation of song taken to a new level – startling, vivid and individual.
This collection rightly focuses on the traditional songs, most of which were recorded without instrumentation. But Briggs was an influential musician and a highly underrated songwriter. One of the few traditional songs to feature her guitar is Blackwater Side (famously pinched by on-off partner Bert Jansch, and then Led Zeppelin), on which her fluid playing is the perfect accompaniment to her singing. Go Your Way (My Love), a composition by her and Jansch, is even more graceful. We are also treated to three songs from Sing A Song For You: the title track veers into psych-folk territory thanks to backing band Ragged Robin and in particular Richard Byers’ effects-heavy guitar, The Bonambuie is stranger, wilder and more minimal, and Tongue In Cheek is a fine example of Briggs’ development as a lyricist.
An Introduction To Anne Briggs isn’t definitive, and it isn’t meant to be. Unfortunately, nothing from The Time Has Come, her 1971 album for CBS which included some of her finest songwriting, could be included. And with a back catalogue that is so consistently strong there are always going to be omissions that seem unfair (personal favourites like Willy O’ Winsbury, Thorneymoor Woods and coquettish miniature The Whirly Whorl might have made it on to my own ‘Best Of’), but overall the compilers have done a very good job indeed. It’s no great stretch to say that Anne Briggs is our greatest folk singer, and if this new release brings her incomparable talent to a wider audience, then it will be the least she deserves.
An Introduction to Anne Briggs is out now on Topic Records