Go Your Way: Anne Briggs

James Yorkston introduces the folk heroine
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It's impossible to conceive of any real Outsider list which doesn't include Anne Briggs.

A female singer in a folk world dominated by masculine ideals, Anne Briggs stood out by combining incredible artistry with a genuine maverick streak. Continually refusing to play the game, the English singer fused her life and her art to create something which still inspires - more than forty years after she turned her back on the folk world for good.

No meagre talent himself, James Yorkston has long spoken of his appreciation for Briggs' work. Chatting to ClashMusic, we allowed him the space to introduce this special, mercurial artist.

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When I first moved to Edinburgh, I discovered the music libraries there pretty quickly. These were pre-internet days, and the opportunity to explore the reams of music on offer couldn't be ignored. The only interesting new music I could find in Fife was bought in by Peel and Kershaw - the music library in St Andrews seemed to rotate the same A-Ha, Abba & Bill Haley cassettes endlessly – but Edinburgh was somewhat different – it had more musical categories than St Andrews had cassettes - Opera, Folk, World Music, Pop, Jazz, Electronic, Soundtracks etc. So once or twice a week I'd cycle over to North Bridge, dismount and descend into the Central Library, handing back the cassettes and CDs I'd borrowed previously and retrieving more. What was I looking for? Anything really, but mostly electronic music from Detroit and traditional music from everywhere else. The UK and Ireland, but beyond - Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Bulgaria, Scandinavia. There were so many of these 'Best Ofs...' by musicians I'd never heard of, and I'd read through their liner notes, weeding out those with terrible twinkly Country 'n' Western shirts or 24 alto sax players, programmed drums or covers of 'Brown Eyed Gal'.

Anne Brigg's CD caught my attention because of the cover, a close up of a bonnie young thing looking bonnie, declaring 'Classic Anne Briggs'. Another best of by someone I'd never heard of, but the liner notes seemed to suggest she was singing almost entirely unaccompanied, which was and still is a style of singing I love. I booked it out, the usual doubts amusing my mind - Would it be covered in cheesy 80's reverb? Would it be hystrionic vocal gymnastics? Would it be crappy tourist shite? But when I got home, it was none of those things. From the off, I was intrigued. It dated from the mid '60's, mostly traditional songs, sang confidently and quiet, still, unadorned, beautiful and simple. Her songs were sang as one-to-one tales, cautions, jokes, there was none of the dramarama stage school stylings of some of the better known (to me) unaccompanied singers. She left the same space in her phrasings that I was just discovering in the guitar playing of the Malagasy D'Gary, another big influence on me. She gave the songs and their stories space to breathe.

I fell in love with that CD, all twenty songs on it. I soon discovered that it was almost her entire output – just two more albums made, both deleted and practically unavailable. When I discovered one of those other two records – ''The Time Has Come' in a local record shop – I was battered sideways by it's price tag - £100. A lot even now for a single vinyl LP, but back then it was over a week's wage for little old me. I managed to sweet talk the shop assistant into making me a cassette copy and contained within was a whole new set of songs to explore, this time mostly written by Anne herself and accompanied by bouzouki. And right at the end, a song written by Lal Waterson, which led me down another path of discovery altogether – the amazing music of Lal's. But Anne Briggs, and that first album in particular, has influenced me a huge amount. Even just the songs I've learned from her and sing far out weigh any other source for me – 'Lowlands Away', 'Fine Horseman', 'Doffing Mistress', 'The Snow It Melts The Soonest', 'Hills of Greenmoor', 'Martinmas Time', 'Sovay'...

I read somewhere that she gave up music after her third album, the more Folk Rock 'Sing-A-Song for You'. I read that her daughter never even knew she was a singer until she inadvertently came across one of her mother's CDs in a shop. A friend told me that she'd had started singing live again in the early 90's – around the time I'd first heard her music – but had received a miserly review in one of the Folk magazines and given it all up again. Who knows. I'm in touch with her a wee bit now, by email - I wouldn't say she's a pal, but I felt I should let her know how much her music had meant to me when I was given her email by chance by a mutual acquaintance. I'd love to hear her sing again, but that's just me, a fan. I guess she's got different ideas and different priorities. After all, I get asked to play at people's weddings quite a lot and I loathe the thought. We all live very different realities.

Anne Briggs - Go Your Way



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