For the latter part of 2006, I became immersed with the scant body of work made by British folksinger Anne Briggs. Part of it was due to my fascination with her former beau and musical soulmate, the finger-picking leviathan Bert Jansch, whose oft-exquisite The Black Swan was in constant rotation as I prepared to see the legend perform in the States for the first time in over a decade. Good luck seeing Anne Briggs sing again, much less release a new album. Pregnant with child, she abandoned recording sessions in 1973 and has barely haunted a microphone since. There are only two occasions I know of: playing with Bert Jansch on a BBC documentary in the early 90’s, and lending her voice to a curious idyllictronica record by State River Widening in 2004 that seems to have fallen off the face of the earth in three years’ time.
Colin Harper is the only writer I know of to have tracked her down, and in his estimation, she is the Robert Johnson figure of UK folk music. Not sure quite how to unpack that, but if there’s any one figure I think of when it comes to Briggs, it’s the Virgin Mary. Not that Anne Briggs was anything of the sort—the old British folk songs she rendered in the early 60s often involve imprudent dalliances with misleading lads (her most famous was a fuck and run).
In early 1965, she and Jansch (already broken up but still bound by music) woodshedded songs at an alarming rate. As she divulged to Harper:
Bert would come around…during the day when there was nothing else to do and we’d work together for our own personal interest on traditional songs, with his dramatic guitar playing. We discovered that they could really gel together. Once he started elaborating on what I’d come up with I had to move fast to keep up, so it really brought my guitar playing along. He’d write a verse, I’d write a verse…It was a very creative period but it only went on for a very short time…there was a lot of stuff that just drifted away—if it wasn’t together by the end of the afternoon, forget about it.
Perhaps the British folk equivalent of the basement tapes, these songs were her most evocative, the ones that find refuge in the throats of those singers that have followed in her wake, be they Jansch, Maddie Pryor, Sandy Denny, Linda Thompson, or whoever else. And all seem to take place beside a body of water.
“Blackwater Side,” an old ballad detailing that centuries-old NSA hook-up mentioned above was recast by Jansch and Briggs, then soon pilfered by Led Zeppelin. “Drawing water from the well, and spilling over on the grass” she intones at the start of “Go Your Way,” a song that Jansch would make popular soon after. And then there’s “Wishing Well,” a haunting meditation from her swansong, The Times Has Come (the forthcoming CD edition (on the Water imprint) of this has liner notes by yours truly). Thinking of Anne leaning over that body of water, it seems to hint at some visitation, or else a vision of how to bring the ancient past of folk wholly into the present. Making ripples in that dark deep well of the unconscious, Anne Briggs draws forth and elicits a sort of Immaculate Conception.
[buy stuff here]