“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. Continue reading
Anne Briggs sang Lowlands in 1964 on her Topic Records EP The Hazards of Love. This recording was reissued on her Fellside and Topic compilation CDs ,Classic Anne Briggs and A Collection. A.L. Lloyd wrote in the album’s sleeve notes:
The song is a bit of a mystery. It has often been found in tradition in Britain and USA but always as a sailor shanty, usually sung while working at the pumps. Two distinct sets of words accompany the tune: one text tells the present story of the dead lover who returns; the other text concerns the work and pay of cotton-lumbers in the port of Mobile, Alabama. Deceived by the latter version, some specialists declare it to be a Negro song. More likely, it’s a fragment of an Anglo-Scots ballad, full form forgotten, that lived on among British seamen who passed it on to longshoremen in the Gulf ports. The “Lowlands” refrain may be an echo from the old ballad of The Golden Vanity. Captain Whall, best of the pioneer shanty collectors, says that in Liverpool in the old days a crew of merchant seaman was often spoken of as “the Johns” so the term “my John” in the ballad is no more personal than “my lad”. Anne Briggs sings Lowlands not as a shanty but as a ballad, in what is probably something like its original form.