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‘I didn’t want to be tied down’: Anne Briggs’s short career, long reputation and Beeswing connection

It is the 85th anniversary of Topic Records this year, and the British music magazine Uncut is out of the blocks early.

Its January issue has a Topic covermount CD that includes some classics from the label’s history, as well as a previously unreleased Anne Briggs track. Inside, there’s a long interview with Martin Carthy. And as part of this folkfest, the magazine has re-released online a long interview with Anne Briggs that was published in the magazine at the time of Topic’s 80th, five years ago.

The interviewer, Jim Wirth, talked to Briggs when she came to London to mark Topic’s 80th anniversary. They met at Kew Gardens, which seems appropriate, since she mostly worked outdoors with plants after finishing with music. 

IMG_5398(Anne Briggs in the 1960s. Credit: Anne Briggs Promotional Photo/ Fire Records)

Briggs’s career as a singer—if “career” is the right word, which it probably isn’t—lasted for about a decade, and her recorded output from that time extends to a fraction over three hours.

One of her records, The Time Has Come, sold poorly and was quickly deleted by CBS, although listening to it now it’s hard to work out why. (It is now available through Fire Records.) Another, Sing A Song For You, a foray into folk-rock, was withdrawn at the time at Briggs’s request, and she handed back her recording fee.

There is a handful of tracks on various Topic compilations from the 60s. And then there is Anne Briggs, which will probably be played for as long as people understand English and have the means to listen to recorded music. 

Apart from The Hazards of Love, an EP for Topic in 1964, all her records came in a bit of rush after she’d been performing through much of the 1960s. The interview gives the strong sense of her dislocation during the decade. Briggs was brought up by an uncle and aunt in Nottingham, after both her parents died before she was five. 

She clearly chafed against the low expectations of working class girls at the time:

“In the village I came from I was known as ‘the Bohemian’,” she tells Wirth. “I was particularly pissed off with the role in life for working-class girls. So pissed off. It was awful. That I would be a hairdresser. I was a clever girl! A hairdresser! That was the aspiration: your own little salon.”

 

And perhaps she got lucky, because Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger heard her sing one night in Nottingham when she was 17, and took her to London to join Centre 42, a radical travelling folk-arts-politics festival that probably could only have existed in the 1960s.

In London, she was taken in by Gill Cook, the folk music matriarch who ran Collet’s, baby-sat for Sidney Carter (of The Lord of the Dance), and got to know A L Lloyd, who supplied her with traditional songs for her repertoire. Along the way Bert Jansch was a lover and a friend. Contemporaries like Frankie Armstrong and June Tabor say her simple and untutored single style and clear voice were unlike anything else in London at the time.

 

But she was never a comfortable performer. She says to Wirth:

 

”I was always singing to myself. I hated being in front of an audience. I was nervous. I was just so fucking nervous. ... I didn’t like being watched. I didn’t like having my photograph taken."

She was more comfortable singing casually in north London Irish pubs, after falling in with a bunch of Irish labourers:

“They’d play the fiddle and the flute, and I’d sing unaccompanied – and they’d say, ‘All right, you’re one of us.’ That was so important to me. I had no awareness of the class thing; I just knew we were all at the bottom of it, but the Irish guys just seemed to adopt me and look after me.”

 

She started to spend more time in Ireland, sometimes living and travelling with Johnny Moynihan, sometimes busking, sometimes doing casual work like fruit-picking, sometimes travelling back to England to raise some money from doing gigs. She spent one summer living in a tent on a beach in Ireland:

“I did live on a beach,” she says. “Alone. For several weeks. I was totally happy with that. I didn’t want to be tied down; anybody putting pressure on me, I didn’t want it.”

Her song, Living by the Water, was written about this experience. 

 

 

And on one occasion she tells Wirth, when hitchhiking with her lurcher, Clea—seen on the cover of The Time Has Come—she got a lift from the serial killer Fred West, although she doesn’t elaborate. 

Reading the interview reminds you that it’s often been said that Briggs might have been the inspiration for Richard Thompson’s song Beeswing (one of our Cover Story songs).


Thompson talked about this to David Honigmann a few years ago, and it turns out to be partly true. He also drew on a tramp who used to visit every few months the cottage where he lived in the mid-70s: 

Ted, the tramp, dreamt of settling down in a caravan and putting down roots; he never did. “But also, in the Sixties, the thing was ‘getting your head together in the country’: there were these mythological women, like folk singers Vashti Bunyan or Annie Briggs, who would disappear for years in caravans, go off to Ireland or live on a farm and you’d never see them again.”

 

At the start of the 70s, Briggs’s  reputation had gained lustre as a result of Sandy Denny’s The Pond and the Stream—which is definitely about Briggs. The manager Jo Lustig, who had worked with Pentangle and Steeleye Span, persuaded CBS to give Briggs a contract to make five records for £500 a time—worth around £6,000 these days—when Briggs needed money. 

The first didn’t sell well. The second record was recorded with Steve Ashley’s band Ragged Robin in the studio with her, with a minimal amount of rehearsal and recording time. 

I did it purely for money. I thought: ‘I’ve got to provide for the babies.’ I’d got two of them, one in there,” she says pointing at her waist “and one being carted around.” Briggs disliked her singing on the record so much that she forewent the £500 to block its release, and abandoned any plans to sing again.

She still writes, and she still owns her bouzouki. Over the years, she has been persuaded back onto the stage a few times, but was overcome by stage fright, although she was filmed playing with Jansch in the 1994 Acoustic Routes documentary. “‘I’ve had a hard life,’ she tells Wirth, seeking no sympathy. But she sounds like a woman who has lived life on her own terms. 

 

Topic is releasing a ‘deluxe’ edition of Anne Briggs later this year.

Comments

Linda Thompson

Via Facebook

A one off as an artist and a person.

Ann La Touche

Via Facebook

I love the song Beeswing. She certainly deserved such a lovely song. I think there are old videos of her in Folk Britannia as well as a documentary I came across about the Watersons.

Chris Brady

Documentary about the Watersons is at BFI Player for free viewing.

John Head

Again via Facebook

I am a rock and roll traveller from Nottingham England. Through my travels I met a guy in the USA called Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan’s guitarist for 10 years) who is a true friend. He said I had to tune in to Anne Briggs. So true to his calling I have and not been disappointed. I also found out she is a girl from Ilkeston,nr. Nottingham. I have also heard Maddy Prior talk of her at her shows.

Victor Eisenberg

Ken Hunt, an English music critic, journalist, broadcaster and translator, published an article about Anne Briggs (or was it an interview?) in "Swing 51" No. 13. I'll upload it once locating my copy.

Patricio Ramos

And again…


Anne Briggs in UK, Violeta Parra in Chile...

FRANK ODONNELL

knew annie well, lovely singer, and person

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