Anne Briggs - Biography

In the 1960s and ‘70s, folk singer Anne Briggs sang a repertoire of traditional ballads with a striking and startling voice throughout the British Isles, earning near universal acclaim in the process. Though she had an influential and vocal chorus of supporters, she was apparently less interested in trying to make a career of music and after tentatively moving into singer-songwriter material, dropped out of the music scene entirely.


Anne Patricia Briggs was born in Toton, Nottinghamshire (in the East Midlands) on 29th September 1944, about 30 miles from the famous Sherwood Forest shire wood of Robin Hood fame, appropriate for someone who would later gravitate toward age-old traditional music and a pastoral nomadicism. When Anne was still young, her mother died of consumption and shortly after her father was seriously injured in combat as World War II drew to a close. Thus Anne was sent off to be raised by her aunt Hilda and uncle Bill whom she lived with alongside another aunt, Beryl, and her daughter Betty.


In 1959, the spontaneous and adventurous teen and a friend, attracted by the burgeoning Scottish folk revival, rode their bicycles to Auld Reekie. There they met Archie Fisher, who as part of the Fisher Family had established himself as a key figure in the traditional Scottish scene. In 1960, he opened a folk club, The Howff which soon became a key venue around which the scene coalesced. One of the club’s regulars, fellow Scottish folkie, Bert Jansch, was introduced to Briggs through Fisher. After hitting it off, Briggs taught Jansch the Irish folk tune, “Blackwaterside,” the English ballad, “Reynardine” and others.


In 1962, the Trades Union Congress passed "Resolution 42," which sought to encourage the development of British culture beyond London. Under the leadership of kitchen sink dramatist (and Londoner) Arnold Wesker , Scottish folksinger Ewan MacColl, English folksinger A.L. “Bert” Lloyd and producer Charles Parker, Centre 42, toured around Britannia on a quest for local talent. At their stop in Nottingham, they heard Anne Briggs singing the renaissance-era tune, “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” and the Irish ballad, “She Moves Through the Fair” which resulted in her being invited to perform. In addition, Centre 42 offered the seventeen-year-old an administrative job and position as a touring member of the unit. Later that year, back in London, A.L. Lloyd oversaw the recording of The Iron Muse - a Panorama of Industrial Folk Song (1963 Topic Records) which contained two contributions by Briggs, “The Recruited Collier” and “The Doffing Mistress.”


The following year, 1963, Briggs and Jansch squatted together in Earl’s Court before moving to a house on Somali Road where lived another talent folkie, John Renbourn. Briggs’ solo debut, recorded that year, was released the following August, The Hazards of Love EP (1964 Topic Record). Though acquainted with several talented musicians, the album was unembellished by instrumentation. Instead, it showcased Brigg’s brilliant, untarnished readings of the four traditional songs in the raw.


Whilst touring England in 1965, Briggs crossed paths with The Dubliners who convinced her to accompany them back to Eire where she met Johnny Moynihan. For the next four summers she returned, going from performance to performance on a horse-drawn cart. Irish ballads and the Sean-nós style of singing, greatly influenced the sound of her subsequent recordings and performances, which in turn grew more sporadic as her reputation for erratic behavior began to grow as she failed to show up to most gigs. The BBC had broadcast a film of The Watersons in 1966, Travelling for a Living, and Briggs appeared briefly. That same year, Moynihan and Andy Irvine formed Sweeney's Men and Briggs learned to play bouzouki for accompaniment. She was asked by Hamish Henderson, one of the primary instigators of the British Folk Revival, to contribute to The Bird in the Bush — Traditional Erotic Songs (1966 Topic Records). Released in July, it featured several performances by A.L. Lloyd, Briggs and Frankie Armstrong, as well as collaborative efforts. It proved to be her last work for several years.


Years later, A.L. Lloyd produced her long delayed full-length debut, Anne Briggs (1971 Topic Records). It featured eight traditional songs with two originals that proved she was more than just an exceptional interpreter, by virtue of the inclusion of two originals, “Go Your Way” and “Living by the Water.” Most of the songs are characteristically unaccompanied although there is occasional bouzouki and guitar. That June, Briggs returned to performing at the Royal Festival Hall where she appeared with COB (led by Clive Palmer) and Bert Jansch. After being approached by American music entrepreneur Jo Lustig (who’d signed Pentangle in 1968), she recorded The Time Has Come (1971 CBS) which moved from folk into singer-songwriter territory with its inclusion of more originals and guitar accompaniment.


In March 1973, she recorded a third solo album, Sing a Song for You (1995 Fledg'ling Records), accompanied by a folk-rock band, the Steve Ashley-led Ragged Robin. It was recorded in one day after one day of rehearsal and Briggs was unhappy with the results. It remained unreleased for more than twenty years afterward. By the time it was released, she had moved to the Hebrides and was gardening and raising her two children. At the 1990 memorial concert for Bert Lloyd, she briefly returned to the stage and in 1993, she sang a duet with Jansch for a documentary, Acoustic Routes, which was included on the soundtrack but has otherwise resisted pleas to perform.


Although her commercial impact was negligible, Anne Briggs was an immediate artistic inspiration for other musicians like Bert Jansch, Christy Moore, Dorris Henderson, Jimmy Page, June Tabor, Maddy Prior, Sandy Denny and The Watersons. With the rediscovery of her talents in later years, singers like Beth Orton, Charlotte Greig, Eliza Carthy, Isobel Campbell, Kate Rusby, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and The Decembrists have either cited her as an influence or otherwise referenced her work.

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