American folkies of the early ‘60s earnestly researched songs by coal miners, mule drivers and chain gang laborers. Across the ocean, British folkies attacked their country’s tradition with similar doggedness, and discovered a wealth of songs about fucking: lovers tumble in the bushes; men trick maidens into bed and disappear. How topical for the love generation, particularly for someone like wild 17-year-old Anne Briggs. As a character in one of those ballads might have done, she ran away from her Nottinghamshire home in 1962 to join a caravan of traveling musicians. A skilled, painfully perfectionist musician as well as a party animal, Briggs befriended and inspired folk luminaries like Ewan MacColl, Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, and the Incredible String Band. She taught them folksongs and guested on their albums, while feeling so timorous about her own voice that she did not record a full-length of her own until her 1971 self-titled album on Topic Records, recently reissued on Water (CD) and 4 Men With Beards (LP).
On Anne Briggs, she sings in clear, precise tones, unaccompanied on all but a few songs. To an inattentive listener this could easily seem another wispy folk album, with fey traditional song titles like “The Cuckoo” or “Reynardine” representing the era’s typical wanton, escapist nostalgia for simpler times. That’s not this record, though: Briggs’ repertoire portrays desire and its frustration, abandonment and the sense of helplessness that comes when external forces separate couples. True, the Queen of Faeries makes an appearance in the long ballad “Young Tambling,” but the disturbing song also incorporates a rape and an attempted abortion. As one heeds the lyrics’ darkness and complications, one hears Briggs’ voice exploring the range of emotions they express. On the album’s heartbreaking opener, “Blackwater Side,” for instance, she ornaments certain lines to emphasize the combination of anger and total heartbreak in the song’s timeless stanzas: “That’s not the promise that you made to me / When you lay on my breast / I would have believed with your lying tongue / That the sun rose in the west.”
The album’s highlight, though, is not a well-selected folk tune but a Briggs original, “Go Your Way.” Over a simple finger-picked guitar, she addresses a lover who has left, never to return. Resigned, heartbroken, even a little angry at her abandonment, she goes about her daily routine. Small elements of the song make it eerily memorable: the grace notes at the end of the verse’s guitar part; Briggs’ plaintive delivery. It numbers among the few 20th century songs (like, say, Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil”) that has slipped easily into the folk canon – so malleable it stands up to covers and adaptations, so unique it remains affecting.
After 1971’s The Time Has Come and the recording of the inferior Sing a Song For You (which remained unreleased for years), Briggs went her way. Unable to handle her disappointment at the sound of her own recorded voice, she vanished completely into the countryside with her new children, who grew up unaware that their mother had ever sung professionally. Evading the big-hair-and-synths embarrassment that befell many of her former peers later in the decade, Briggs appeared, until her recent reemergence, only as a character in songs, an “Anne” who occasionally crops up in lyrics by Jansch, Sandy Denny, and Richard Thompson.