Anne Briggs: Still Going Her Way

“..The singing struck a chord within me and I immediately felt: That’s my music, that’s what I should be singing!

I didn’t know it was called folk music…

…I just heard it and it was mine.”

Anne Briggs’ musical journeys through the Atlantic Isles in the 1960’s and ‘70’s are recalled in only a clutch of raw, visceral, profoundly human recordings – the scant legacy of a woman who, through her attitude and actions, challenged the orthodoxies and insularity of the urban folk scene in England.

Today aged 73 and living in the Scottish Highlands, she continues to embody this forthright, “me against the world” spirit; she has consistently opted out of the accepted norms and pressure to conform imposed on her, in particular by the music industry, which sought to repackage her as a more digestible commodity.

For Anne lived through her music as she saw fit, and was her own authority: she remained true to herself throughout, challenging the constraints and compulsions of record labels, managers and “consumer expectation”, in favour of a free-spirited existence through music, participating in an eclectic range of grassroots collaborations. She formed deep-rooted bonds with musicians across Ireland, England and Scotland, the most enduring of which included Scottish folk-blues guitarist Bert Jansch and the Irish folk musician Johnny Moynihan. Her music explored the interstices between folk and blues, absorbing songs and influences from Ireland, England and the Scottish folk-blues milieu, that came together in the independent club scene of the 1960’s.

Right from the outset she stood out from the rest of the folk scene. Rebellious, epicurean and driven by a sense of adventure, in her late ‘teens Anne Briggs was already a powerful, absorbing performer. Alone and unaccompanied in tight-knit venues, the audience hushed under the spell of her unaffected, lilting voice and raw, visceral stage presence, she ignited an enthusiasm for the music in her listeners, transmitting a sense that they too could get up and perform. Seeing her onstage shortly after arriving in London in the mid-1960’s, Irish folk singer Christy Moore described her performance as a “huge turn-on” – she made everything make sense…

There is Life Outside London

Brought up by an aunt and uncle in rural Nottinghamshire, England, she left home at 17 and was already performing in pubs and clubs around Nottingham as a teenager when she was spotted by folk luminary Ewan MacColl, who was looking for artists to participate in the Centre 42 cultural project  he was involved in. Centre 42 was an initiative backed by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which aimed to promote grassroots cultural activities around Britain. It was co-ordinated by MacColl, alongside other British folk scene figures with links to the labour movement such as A.L. Lloyd. From 1962 Briggs was touring Britain as part of the Centre 42 roster, bringing her into contact with musicians and artists of all descriptions the length and breadth of Britain.

The Centre 42 initiative aimed to transcend a certain London-centric cultural outlook and connect localized music scenes around the country, integrating capital and periphery. It was such efforts, alongside those of provincial promoters and artists, that enabled the development of venues for grassroots musicians as well as folk labels and record stores in cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol as well as Briggs’ native Nottingham.

Briggs was recorded live in 1963 at the Edinburgh Folk Festival performing an unaccompanied version of She Moved Through The Fair”. Stripped to its bare essence, this raw, visceral rendition of the ethereal Irish folk song stands out for its sincerity and unaffected emotional potency.

Beautifully recorded by Bill Leader and released on the LP Edinburgh Folk Festival, Volume 1, Briggs’ natural presence and untrained, emotive charge are all evident in the performance – the understated, sensual power that had inspired Christy Moore would also later trigger the creative drive of leading folk artists like Sandy Denny, June Tabor and Linda Thompson.

Briggs had already appeared on vinyl that year, contributing two songs to the A.L. Lloyd-produced compilation The Iron Muse, released by the Topic label. A solo release, The Hazards of Love EP also emerged in1963, containing four recordings of the unaccompanied Anne Briggs that highlighted her ability to reinvigorate traditional ballads with verve and urgency for a contemporary audience.

Proto-Punk Attitude!

Although initially in the orbit of Ewan MacColl and the Centre 42 scene, it was soon time for Anne Briggs to go her own way. Despite the domineering presence of MacColl on the folk circuit, she remained a free spirit, rejecting what appeared a closeted, moralistic and formulaic approach to folk music that MacColl and other luminaries sought to impose on folk artists. Anne Briggs possessed what could be described as a proto-punk attitude, disregarding conventions and asserting her right as a female performer to “do whatever the blokes do”. She challenged the behavioural boundaries imposed on women in both music and broader society and by doing so opened up new avenues of possibility for female artists on the folk scene. For Briggs the music came from within and didn’t require the approval of the “Central Committee”. By the mid-1960’s she had set out on her own and turned her back on the orthodoxies (and authoritarianism) inherent in Ewan MacColl’s inner circle.

Anglo-Irish Hybrid

By 1965, Briggs had taken flight from English folk scene to Ireland, embarking on a relationship with Johnny Moynihan (founder of the group Sweeney’s Men). Briggs and Moynihan lived an itinerant life moving around Ireland in a camper van, performing in pubs, busking on the streets and compiling songs that had long been consigned to the margins of daily life. This fruitful four-year period alongside Moynihan produced an Anglo-Irish fusion evident in her later recorded output, honed by countless spontaneous performances across Ireland, forging bonds with Travellers and itinerant musicians ,who together shared a cultural and musical dialogue that transcended boundaries and emphasized commonalities. In particular, Briggs’ unaffected, hybrid sound incorporated aspects of the Irish sean-nós vocal tradition into English-language folk pieces – all of these influences coloured the recordings Briggs issued between 1971-1973, the period Briggs resumed her “formal” music career.

1971’s eponymous Anne Briggs LP featured two self-composed songs plus traditional material that she had performed on the road in Ireland. The sparse, haunting Briggs original “You Go Your Way” – an aching, tender ballad with mesmerising guitar lines – is a moment of plaintive musical beauty that echoed the melancholy and loss of her 1963 interpretation of “She Moved Through The Fair”.

The album’s opener, “Blackwater Side” was a minimalist version of a traditional Irish ballad that Briggs had taught to companion and confidant Bert Jansch back in Edinburgh (which he released in 1966) and which was later adapted by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin (another Briggs admirer), as “Black Mountain Side”. The debut album is, in Anne’s own words, a work of “absolute sincerity”,which had languished in obscurity for many years until it was reissued in 2007. Briggs’ debut LP was quickly followed in a matter of months by The Time Has Come, a beautifully performed album, more technically elaborate in terms of production and, on first listen, more accessible to a wider audience, that contained an exquisite, lilting version of a John Moynihan original: “Standing On The Shore”.

“There is No Authority But Yourself”

Briggs’ “unreliability”, and supposed volatile nature, have been frequently cited as besmirching her “professional trajectory”. She would frequently cancel performances at the last minute, or decide to take off on another journey someplace – all of which did not fit with tour schedules, fan expectations and the imposed discipline of the recording studio. However, it was precisely at the point Briggs’ music could have gained a broader following that she abandoned her career, disowning some of her later recording altogether. By 1973 Briggs was beginning to feel an increasing aversion to the technical aspects of the music industry as well as growing unease at the demands placed on her as a performer by management and record label officials.

Her alienation from her own music, caused by the constricted environment of the studio, contributed to her blocking the release of her third LP Sing A Song For You in 1973 and the definitive collapse of the already fraught relationship with her record label. The album did not surface for some 23 years. As a result, she retreated entirely from music and moved to the Hebrides, concentrating her efforts on raising her children and working locally as a market trader.

Anne Briggs returned to the stage in 1991 for a small number of live performances and participated in recordings for the “Acoustic Routes” project in 1992 , which featured a moving duet with Bert Jansch on guitar, performing “Go Your Way” together – the warmth and significance of their common bond had not been lost despite the years and is evident in this beautiful performance of Briggs’ 1971 composition.

Anne Briggs opted for a life free of compulsion, free of bullying managers and the cold commercialism of “unit shifting” which had nullified her desire to make music. She consistently displayed the courage of her convictions and a resolve to remain true to herself, thus challenging narrow conceptions of perceived “failure” and “success”. Her music was expressed (and belonged) in the everyday social environment of the Atlantic Isles and embraced living, human tradition – she refused to accept its reduction to a commodity, to be consumed and regulated. She unearthed songs that had long lain forgotten through her interaction with the marginalised across Ireland, picking up influences, songs, and sounds that form another invaluable strand of an eclectic, grassroots music culture.

Listen to Anne Briggs: it’s as if she’s singing in the same room as you, inviting you to join in, to express your true self, to go your way.

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