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A glimpse of Anne Briggs

Folk singers

It was my good fortune to see and hear the great folk singer Anne Briggs in her youthful prime, before she turned away from public performance, leaving only a handful of recordings and an indelible influence on the likes of Sandy Denny, June Tabor and Kate Rusby. A fine half-hour programme about her on BBC Radio 4 last week, titled The Voices of Annie Briggs, written and presented by Alan Hall, brought that precious memory springing back to life.

She would have been not yet 20 when I saw her at the Nottingham Folk Workshop, close to the old Lace Market (at a time when it still contained a few surviving lace manufacturers). That was where she had encountered Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger, who heard her sing one night in 1961 and took her off to join Centre 42, their travelling folk-arts festival. She was 17 then, so I must have heard her a year or two later on a return visit to her native city; by then she would have learnt “Blackwaterside” from A.L. Lloyd and hooked up with Bert Jansch, who became first her boyfriend and then her lifelong pal.

I don’t remember exactly what she sang that night in 1962 or ’63 — although I’m pretty sure her short set included “She Moved Through the Fair”  — but I do remember, very vividly, the impression she made: she looked like the girl you wanted to run away with, and she had a voice that you’d have followed anywhere.

But she resisted any attempt to turn her into a commodity, and her nature seems to have resisted stability on someone else’s terms. As she tells Hall in the radio programme: “You must remember that in the late ’50s, early ’60s, I think it was hoped that I might become a nurse, for instance, or a hairdresser, and that I’d marry and have children and become quietly domesticated. I’m a bit feral, perhaps.”

Hall interviewed her at her home in the west of Scotland, where she lives alongside nature and beside running water, which seem to provide all the music she needs. The last time she sang was when she put her infant grandson in a sling and took him for a walk by the river. “It seemed to soothe him,” she says.

* The photograph of Anne Briggs was taken by Brian Shuel in Hampstead, North London, in 1962.

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. I would be curious as to who shot that photo of A.B. in 1962…

    September 12, 2016
  2. Me too, Patrick. I can’t find a credit. As soon as I can, I’ll add it — and message you. I don’t like not crediting photographers.

    September 12, 2016
    • Thank you for giving credit where it is due. As a photographer myself, more accustomed to seeing my work anonymously appropriated through the wonders of electronic prestidigitization than being properly acknowledged – and let’s just write off that whole antiquated concept of remuneration – I do feel somewhat duty-bound to speak up for my professional colleagues, fellow shooters of those influential figures who seldom rise to the visibility level of celebrities, hopefully making my indignation when our names are omitted more righteous than self-righteous. I am grateful for your courtesy, Sir.

      September 14, 2016
  3. Peter Revell #

    Brian Sheul may have been the photographer. There’s a photo of AB with Louis Killen, in which she’s wearing something similar to the photo used.
    I believe that she was also the inspiration for Richard Thompson’s Beeswing – a song that captures the essence of her character

    September 12, 2016
    • You’re right on both counts. (1) Brian Shuel (2) Beeswing. Thanks for identifying the photographer.

      September 12, 2016
  4. A work colleague who knew that I was into music once asked me if I had heard of Anne Briggs. When I said I had, albeit mostly through stories such as the ‘Beeswing’ one, he seemed pleasantly surprised. Since I did not know him to have an interest in folk music, the surprise was mutual. It turned out that Anne Briggs was his cousin, but he had only just learned that she had ‘done a bit of singing’ when she was younger.

    September 13, 2016
  5. Colin Harper #

    The photo is cropped. In the full pic, further along the sofa that Anne’s leaning on, unaccompanied Geordie singer Bob Davenport is engrossed in reading something. Fellow singer Louis Killen is the third person in the room (feet visible). Our visual sense of the 1960s British folk world – for those of us who weren’t there – would be massively impoversished without Brian Shuel. He all but single-handedly chronicled it and his photos (and art-based designs) appear on numerous Transatlantic, Topic and Decca albums/EPs of the period.

    He stumbled into it circa 1961/62 (from memory) through an assignment to photograph some of the then-emerging folk clubs for a photo-news type magazine (the name of which escapes me). He’s a very humble man who captured a bit of history over 5 or 6 years that, seemingly, almost no one else with a camera (or a fraction of his talent) was looking at at the time. the tip of the iceberg of Brian’s 60s Brit folk work can be seen here: http://www.collectionspicturelibrary.co.uk/list.php?cat=Portraits&scat=Folk%20musicians

    September 14, 2016
  6. Chris C #

    Colin, who commented above, is too modest to mention the superb Anne Briggs profile he wrote for Mojo in 1998, and which you can find on Rock’s Back Pages. It prompted me to seek out and enjoy her recordings.

    September 19, 2016
    • Colin Harper #

      You’re very kind Chris. She’s a fascinating woman. On a tangent, I’ve only just discovered that her solo-trad-singing peer Frankie Armstrong toured with both Henry Cow and the Mike Westbrook band in 1978, all performing jointly. A CD EP from a bootleg recording emerged many years later. It sounds lind-boggling. Anyone here see any shows on the tour?

      September 19, 2016

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