In my house, Anne Briggs is the aural equivalent of Marmite. Which, in itself, is unusual because mostly, even though the three of us currently living here have differing tastes in music with some overlap, mostly we’re not inclined to get too uppity about each others’ tastes that don’t tally with our own.
Well, that’s mainly true. The current Mrs Middlerabbit’s periodic fixations with songs can periodically get a bit much. Last summer, Oh, Sweet Nuthin’ by The Velvet Underground was hammered a bit excessively for everyone’s liking. I was a big fan of it, myself. Our daughter was quite happy with it, but then when Mrs Middlerabbit decided she was into it and it got played about ten times a day for a couple of months, it was a bit much.
That’s Mrs M, though. There was some Christina & The Queens record that I initially didn’t really think anything about that she grossly overplayed to the extent that I couldn’t fucking stand it, too. Still that’s her. It’s not like I’ve not been obsessed with single songs, myself, although I tend to do that on headphones. Like when I was obsessed with John the Baptist by John & Beverley Martin and listened to it about twenty times on repeat, but that was on headphones, on a walk, so I like to think that, even if I’m as mad as she is, at least I’m aware of it and make a point of not inflicting it on anyone else.
Anyway, Anne Briggs is different because nobody could accuse anyone of overplaying her first album in our house at least. Mind you, as it’s Mrs Middlerabbit who cannot abide her, maybe that’s why…
On the other hand, our daughter and I are very big fans of Anne Briggs, which is a bit surprising – to me, at least. It’s not surprising that I like Anne Briggs because I like Folk music – well, some of it. Middlerabbit jr, though? Not so much. She wouldn’t entertain The Pentangle or Dav(e)y Graham, so why Anne Briggs? Mrs Middlerabbit isn’t generally a fan of folk music at all, but I caught her enjoying Hares On The Mountain by Shirley Collins and Dav(e)y Graham when I put it on in her car last week. Mind you, they both quite like Donovan, even though Middlerabbit jr expressed surprise when she eventually saw a photograph of him because she was under the impression he was a black man.
The reason, I suspect, why Middlerabbit jr likes Anne Briggs is because she quite often comes into the back room of our house where my record player (Mr Twirly, cheers) is to listen to records with me and have a chat. It’s nice to get other people into records you like, especially your kids, and one way of doing that is to tell them stories as they’re playing, so they’re got something else in their brains to connect the sounds with.
Anyway, one winter, several years ago, I was playing Anne Briggs’ first album in the back room, Middlerabbit jr joined me, and we started talking about Anne Briggs and the songs she was singing. I know it would have been winter because I only listen to Anne Briggs records in winter because that’s what she sounds like: winter. To me, anyway. To be honest, folk music in general sounds better in winter if you ask me. And it’s not just Folk music that is season specific for me.
I know reggae and ska are generally associated with sunshine and summer, but for me the reggae and ska I like best, which is mainly Trojan ska from the mid-sixties to early-seventies, sounds best in winter too. Baroque and Roll music works best in Autumn. The Beatles work all year round, but especially in late spring and summer. The Rolling Stones music that I like (the Brian Jones period, basically) is summer music. I know, I’m daft, but you’ve got to have some joy in your life, haven’t you? Especially when all you hear is Oh, Sweet Nuthin’ ten times a day for three months…
Anyway, what I told Middlerabbit jr was about how Anne Briggs currently lives on an island that only has about twelve people living on it. And Anne Briggs lives on the other side of the island. I fucking love that. And, as it turns out, so did Middlerabbit jr, who periodically complains that she is me, but female. And, naturally, it’s all my fault. Oh, to be an absent father and free from blame, eh? I’ve inflicted all sorts of lunacy on her over the years. She feels ambivalent about it.
Diversion: How I Inflicted The Avant Garde on Middlerabbit Jr and Inadvertently Alienated Her From Her Peers, To Her (Initial) Chagrin And (Lasting) Delight.
When she was a little kid, we’d quite often watch films together, which is what my old man did with me. Well, sort of. He was the one who took me to the pictures, where I generally wept because that’s what kids’ films were for when I was a kid. She didn’t spend afternoons and mornings weeping at the cinema though, because the world had changed by the time she was born and it’s all about fetishising positivity these days. Not that I showed her Watership Down or anything. I’m not a monster.
Apart from taking me to deliberately upsetting children’s films – the only ones being made when I was a kid, really, so I don’t blame him – my old man had what you might call a laissez-faire attitude to age certificates for films. Meaning, he never batted an eyelid about letting me watch anything, even when I was little. Maybe it was because the films meant for kids were all far more likely to have psychologically scarred me than whatever ‘X’ certificate films he’d taped late at night that he happily let me watch with him. So it was that I saw Midnight Cowboy, Apocalypse Now, Catch-22, MASH, Straw Dogs, The Omega Man, Get Carter, Dirty Harry, Harold & Maud, The Devils, The Godfather, and plenty more that I’ve forgotten when I wasn’t yet ten years old. I can honestly say that I don’t think any of them affected me. Certainly not to the extent that Kes or The Water Babies did, and they were aimed at me. Kes was a “U”and it’s a PG now. Strange business.
Anyway, I was a bit lax with that sort of thing, although I probably wouldn’t have shown her quite a lot of the stuff I saw when I was little. The point is, what I showed her were cartoons, mainly, and there were things like La Planète Sauvage because she’d enjoyed Yellow Submarine, and because she’d enjoyed that one too, I started showing her Eastern European cartoons that I’d enjoyed on BBC2 when I was a kid. Johnny Corncob (János vitéz) and Son of The White Mare (Fehérlófia), both of which are Hungarian, and pretty out there. I drew the line at filth though. I quite enjoy Belladonna of Sadness and Arabian Nights, but they’re just mucky, so I’m not watching those with her.
She dug all of that, and more besides, too. She went through a phase of being a bit obsessed with Public Information Films of the 1970s and 80s, which was handy because I was too. I suppose I probably introduced her to those too. Things like The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water and Apaches. She was into all that, too. And that was great, like she says.
The only problem, as she now tells me, is that nobody else of her age had any fucking idea what she was on about when she mentioned Johnny Corncob or La Planète Sauvage to her mates because their parents were too busy showing them The Little Mermaid, or something. She saw that, too, I’m not a monster, so I keep saying…
Oh, speaking of which, we discovered Studio Ghibli films together by going to see Ponyo, which was advertised as being a Japanese take on The Little Mermaid, and we were mesmerised by that. As it happened, I had seen Grave of The Fireflies when I was a bit younger, but that’s a miserable film and so I didn’t tell her about that until she was older. I found that quite upsetting but she was apparently unmoved by it. Anyway, we watched all the Ghibli films together too and, again, while we really enjoyed them, her mates have never heard of those either.
She feels quite ambivalent about it, I suppose. At the time, she enjoyed watching them, but you also want to talk about these things with your mates instead of just your dad, and she couldn’t. On the other hand, now that she’s all we-are-weird, she’s delighted that her childhood involved watching a load of weirdo eastern European animation from the 1960s and 70s. Swings and roundabouts, innit?
End of Diversion.
Anyway, Middlerabbit jr thought the idea of living on the other side of an island with a population of about twelve people was outstanding, and that’s the sort of hook that you need when you’re playing people records, isn’t it? A good story or two to go with the sounds. Maaaan.
I don’t know that much about Anne Briggs, although more than most people, I suppose, because she’s not exactly publicity hungry. Bits and pieces, I guess. I’ve read the odd article and interview, but most of what I believe about Anne Briggs comes from her first album which, if she’d written it all herself, might make more sense. As it is, most of the songs on it are traditional.
My perspective on Anne Briggs is that she’s been lied to and treated badly by men in her life. I think she probably has abandonment issues and living by herself on the deserted side of an island that only has 12 people living on the other side may largely be due to her lack of trust in people. Especially men. However, more on that when I get to writing about the songs I’m going to pick out to write about, further down the page.
I first came across her in the documentary Travelling For A Living, which features Hull family folk combo of the 1960s, The Watersons, who lived down Louis Street, at the corner of Spring Bank and Princes Ave, about half a mile out of town, on the way to Pearson Park. I got a copy of that, not really because I was into The Watersons because I wasn’t especially, but because a lot of it was footage of Hull in the mid sixties, about five years or so before I was born, and things didn’t change that much between then and the late 80s, really. So, it was a bit of nostalgia for me. Anyhow, Anne Briggs is in that film, and she was bonny and arsey – an irresistible combination for the likes of me, I can’t remember if there was much of her singing in Travelling For A Living, but either way, I thought I’d keep my eyes peeled for a record of hers and see how it grabbed me.
And it did. It grabbed me. I like it a lot or, more specifically, I like a few of the songs on it enormously, and others not at all. If Anne Briggs has a pop music equivalent, it’s John Lennon’s Primal Therapy record: John Lennon and Plastic Ono Band, from 1970, the year before this, largely traditional, folk music album.
Anne Briggs 1971
This was the first Anne Briggs record I found – in the Folk bin at Golden Oldies, where I’d bought my Beatles albums years previously. Tony, the owner, gave me the eyebrow when I handed it over because, I expect, I’d mainly been buying psychedelic records from him.
“What?” I asked him.
“Oh, nothing,” he said, implying something.
“No, go on,” I said, “Spit it out. Don’t fret, I’m still going to buy it even if you think I won’t like it.”
This was pre-internet days, remember, before you could find everything that had ever been recorded and give it a listen before you decided if you liked it enough to buy it.
“Well,” he said, not looking at me because he was too busy inspecting the vinyl for non existent marks on it, “It’s not the sort of thing you normally come in here for, you know.”
“Isn’t it?” I asked, laying on the bewilderment a bit thick. “I’ve bought Pentangle and Bert Jansch records off you. What’s the difference?”
And I had. I’d bought two or three Pentangle and Bert Jansch records there fairly recently, because I’d read an interview with Johnny Marr in which he’d gone on at length about Billy Duffy out of The Cult playing him Pentangle’s Train Song and turning him onto Folk music, even though he was dubious about Folk music. And, naturally, if it was good enough for Johnny Marr, it was good enough for me. I don’t like The Cult, Billy Duffy’s band at all, but I looked up to Johnny Marr as a sort of guru, even though I’d never met him, and that worked out about fifty-fifty. Well, no probably a bit better than that. If I’d had any sense and decided to just pay attention to what he had to say about music and playing the guitar, I’d have done better. It wasn’t his fault that I’d decided to dump Jayne based on reading about how decided to leave The Smiths. That was pretty stupid, but I expect I’d have blown it in some other equally stupid – or possibly even more stupid – way.
“Mmm,” Tony said, “Well, Pentangle’s one thing and Anne Briggs is another kettle of fish altogether. We’ll call it eight pound fifty.”
I handed over the money.
“Can I bring it back and get my money back if I don’t like it?”
So I was a bit dubious about it, because I thought it’d just be like Pentangle and Bert Jansch and here was Tony telling me that it wouldn’t be, and nobody, not even Johnny Marr had suggested it’d be any good anyway. Walking home, I started thinking about The Watersons, singing unaccompanied in pubs and how I hadn’t really liked it, and Anne Briggs was their mate, so she’d probably be just the same. And then I started thinking about what a dickhead I was for buying a record by a woman just because she looked a bit arsey in a living room on Louis Street and wondered if I’d ever learn.
Back home at my flat on Pearson Avenue, sprawled on the settee in the bay window, half watching whatever lunatics were pissing about on Pearson Park in the mist, I tentatively cocked an ear towards Anne Briggs and looked at the sleeve as I slurped my tea and braced myself.
It’s basically a brown album. Shades of brown, anyway. The back cover was the same as the front cover, except in negative, still in shades of brown, but with sleeve notes.
“Getting Anne Briggs in ago a recording studio is like enticing a wild bird into a cage,” it began. Hmm. Sounds a bit wank, doesn’t it? “Nor is she best at ease when she’s trapped there. Walls don’t suit her as well as woods…” Jesus, it wasn’t as if the universe wasn’t trying to put me off, was it? Nobody was giving me the hard sell, if it was crap, I wouldn’t be surprised. “…and she’s more suited to stravaging than to settling.” I didn’t even know what “stravaging” meant. It means wandering aimlessly, which would have perked me up a bit, because that’s my thing too, but it wasn’t in the dictionary I had at Pearson Avenue, so it didn’t. Anyway, side 1, track 1 had started up and it sounded alright to me.
And I realised that I had nothing to worry about because it was beautiful straight away. The guitar playing wasn’t anything like Bert Jansch or John Renbourn from Pentangle – it was far gentler and, well, more frail, I suppose. The singing too, was nothing like Jacqui McShee, the girl singer in their band.
I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve been struggling to put into words what Anne Briggs’ voice sounds like. It’s not powerful, but nor is it weak. There’s vulnerability there, but she also sounds like she knows what she’s doing. I don’t mean she’s sliding around the notes and showing off because she doesn’t. There’s a bit of wobble here and there, but she’s singing about a lad who took advantage of her naivety and then buggered off, and that’s what she sounds like – I appreciate it sounds poncey, but she inhabits the character of the song and even though she didn’t write it as such, it sounds like someone who can sing, telling you a story about something that happened to her, implying she’s sort of learned her lesson, but she also wouldn’t be surprised if exactly the same thing happened to her again. And she’s sad about it. Sad in the way that she allowed herself to have a lad tell her a load of crap to get her into bed and she bought it, like a sucker. It’s a voice of experience. A lived in voice without sounding theatrical or trained. It’s a cliche, but she sounds real. Like a real person, to whom real things happened and she knows she ought to have known better, but she didn’t. And probably still doesn’t. A voice of fallibilities.
I appreciate that’s not the greatest sort of recommendation that you could give to a singer in a lot of ways, but it’s what being human is all about, isn’t it? And Anne Briggs’ voice is that. Human. I know everybody’s voice is human, except on some Kraftwerk and Daft Punk records, but as clear and bell like as it is, it’s not like Mariah Carey’s or someone’s. It’s not that it’s rough around the edges, but when I hear Mariah Carey singing, I don’t really believe her. I know she can sing dead high and can probably hold her breath for ten minutes or something, and I bet Anne Briggs can’t do either of those things, but I get the impression that Mariah Carey is like those psychopaths you read about who watch people crying at their relatives’ deaths and then go home and practise pulling their faces into expressions of grief, based on what other people look like when they’re upset because they don’t have it in them to just express it because they’re psychopaths without any empathy. I don’t mean Mariah Carey is a really a psychopath. I mean, she might be, I don’t know, but when Anne Briggs sings a song of regret, I believe her straightaway.
Blackwaterside itself, the song, is Traditional. I don’t know where she found it, probably in Cecil Sharpe house, where all the English folk songs were gathered. She taught it to Bert Jansch, her boyfriend, whose version of it I’d not actually heard at that point, but his is good too.
Bert takes it a bit faster than Anne does – and he doesn’t change the genders which was normal for folk singers except for Shirley Collins, who did whatever she wanted, and good on her – and while Anne Briggs’ guitar accompaniment is gentle and more obviously cyclical, which probably is what gave me the impression, along with the singing, that even though she should have learned her lesson the hard way, she probably hadn’t. Bert, as is his style, sounds spikier and angrier at having advantage taken, well his guitar does. His singing’s good, but he doesn’t have the soul, I suppose, in his voice, the sound of experience and weariness about himself that Anne Briggs has. It’s a great version, it’s a much more popular version, but Anne’s is the one for me.
Noted copycat and non-credit giving guitar player, Jimmy Page was impressed by Bert Jansch’s version and ripped him off totally on Black Mountain Side, which isn’t a straight copy, but it’s not hard to spot where he got it from and, frankly, while it’s the sort of thing that sixth form boys who don’t wash their hair enough and who can only communicate with girls by being mean to them would have creamed themselves about, I can’t be doing with it at all. It’s clever and all that, but I just don’t give a shit about it. It’s guitar wank. The sort of thing that guitar players think non-guitar players are going to be impressed by, and some of them probably are. Some non-guitar players probably are too, I suppose, but it’s not for me.
It’s, “Look at me, I can play the guitar“, whereas Anne Briggs’ is “Look at me, I never fucking learn, do I?“
I like a great sounding guitar as much as the next person, I like listening to a guitar player who makes me feel something and, while Anne Briggs isn’t a tenth the guitar player that Jimmy Page is technically, her version moves me and Jimmy Page’s just doesn’t. He’s showing off for the sake of showing off. She’s baring her soul.
Mind you, I don’t like Led Zeppelin either, and believe you me, I’ve tried. I like a couple of their songs, I suppose, but mainly it’s just too bombastic and all about goblins and hobbits and shit like that. And Robert Plant sounds like he’s got his goolies stuck in his zip. I bet it was good fun being in Led Zeppelin in a lot of ways, but I don’t understand why anyone would want to actually listen to it. My loss, I’m sure.
2. The Snow It Melts The Soonest
Anyway, back to Pearson Avenue. Blackwaterside had settled me nicely. Better than that, actually because Anne Briggs’ voice had floored me, really. Without any histrionics or any fancy arsed poncing about, so I wasn’t too worried.
Then this. The Watersons sang unaccompanied on Travelling For A Living, and I wasn’t in love it, really. I might not want to listen to Jimmy Page noodling away for the sake of it for twenty minutes at a stretch, but it was a bit close to I was a coal miner in New-castle, finger in the ear, beardy, arran sweater, pipe smoking, real ale shit for my liking. And this was obviously going to be a cappella, too. Another album with one song on it that I liked to add to the pile, eh?
Well, no, as it goes. Not at all. Even though it probably should have been, it wasn’t. It’s about winter turning to spring, and autumn to winter. I like to try to work out what songs mean for myself and, in the case of some of the ones on Shirley Collins’ & Dav(e)y Graham’s Folk Roots, New Routes album, my interpretations don’t always tally with the general consensus. I’m not saying I’m right and everybody else is wrong, I’m probably the one who’s wrong – I usually am.
I’m a bit stymied here though, because of lines like, “The snow it melts the soonest when the wind begins to sing.” Does it? I don’t know. You’d have thought not, really, wouldn’t you, because the wind makes it colder, and snow melts when it gets warmer. Maybe it does though. Then there’s, “The corn it ripens fastest when the frost is setting in,” Again, does it? It doesn’t sound sound right to me, but my knowledge of horticulture is bordering on non-existent. No, actually, non-existent is exactly what it is. I don’t even know when corn gets planted. I’ve looked it up, according to the infallible internet (nb: sarcasm) you should plant corn in late spring, and harvest it in late September-November, so maybe that’s what it means, you know, you might start getting a bit of frost around the time when you should be harvesting corn. I don’t know, in short. I thought it might be one of those songs a bit like Scarborough Fair or Nottamun Town that are full of imagery that doesn’t work. to be honest, even if I’m wrong about it being one of those songs with nonsensical things being described in it, I like to think that it is because the way the lyrics are constructed in each verse is that the title line comes first, then another line about something happening in the changes of the seasons, then finally a line about a young man who tells the singer that he’s not really interested in her, but she’s not convinced. and says he’ll be back.
And each verse is, more or less, a variation on that. Maybe it’s a song of resilience, a song of unshakeable self-confidence, in which case its position, following Blackwaterside’s tale of naivety and abandonment by a smooth talking Irish lad suggests that the impression you get after that, that she’ll never learn and keep getting hurt , was about right, and maybe it’s misplaced confidence that leads to heartbreak.
Either way, it’s simultaneously the polar opposite of Blackwaterside and exactly the same thing. The Irish lad in Blackwaterside tells her that he’ll stick around, and she believes him, but he doesn’t. The unnamed second person in The Snow It Melts The Soonest tells her that he won’t stick around, and she doesn’t believe him. Whether he does or not, we don’t get to find out. In Anne Briggs’ version, unaccompanied as it is, I get the impression that he’s going to bugger off and leave her alone, like she is now, without any musical accompaniment at all..
I mentioned at the start that I got my daughter into Anne Briggs by telling her about her self-isolation on that island where twelve people live, and she doesn’t even live on that side of it, and maybe these songs show us why. She keeps getting hurt by blokes. Even though she’s singing traditional songs and she didn’t write them herself, she picked them herself, and she presumably picked them because they resonated with her. And that’d make sense, wouldn’t it?
Being, as it is, a traditional song, other folky people have sung it. I looked it up and, not really being anyone’s idea of a dyed-in-the-wool folkie, I’d never heard of most of the people who’ve sung it. the only other version I know is by Pentangle.
As you’d expect from jazz-folk musicians, the instrumentation is a lot more sophisticated, bearing in mind Anne Briggs’ version doesn’t have any instrumentation at all. In addition to Bert Jansch’s guitar, which is more restrained than it often is, John Renbourn plays the sitar and the recorder on it, although not at the same time presumably. The genders are switched as Bert sings it, not Jacqui McShee, and from the male perspective – maybe just because it’s not Anne Briggs’ voice of vulnerable, fallible humanity – it sounds much cockier.
Maybe it’s the positioning of it, following Blackwaterside, that leaves the impression that she’s just not very good at working out what sort of bloke is going to stick around and getting hurt by picking flighty men is something that’s going to keep happening. Maybe it’s her voice. whatever it is, it’s strange to get a totally different message from exactly the same words, gender swapping apart.
Maybe that’s folk music, I don’t know. Like I mentioned in the first post about Tolerable folk music when I wrote about how Bert Jansch sounds unhinged at the impossible things happening in Nottamun Town, but Shirley Collins sounds like she’s not surprised in the slightest, despite singing the same words.
3. Willy O Winsbury
This is the one that the current Mrs Middlerabbit really hates, and I don’t know what her fucking problem is, because I love it. I love the first two songs on this album, but this one’s my favourite.
Another traditional song, it’s about a King’s daughter.
The king’s been away for a long time because he’s been held captive in Spain, which sounds a bit like King Richard The Lionheart in the Robin Hood story, except he was captive in Vienna, not Spain. Richard was supposedly more enamoured by one of his male servants, who, so I was told, hung around his prison window, singing to him for the duration of the sentence, but maybe that’s not true, I don’t know.
Anyway, he comes back and grills his daughter about if she’s still a virgin, or what, seeing as she’s looking a bit on the wan side. She initially tells him, of course she’s still a virgin. Anyway, the king doesn’t believe her and tells her to take her clothes off so he can tell by the shape of her if she’s a virgin or not. Presumably – and I’m no expert – it means that if she’s got a baby bump, or maybe it doesn’t. Woman lore, eh? Like I’d know.
Well, seeing as it’s the king who’s asking, I suppose, she takes her clothes off and, “Her apron was low and her haunches were round,” which I take to mean that she’s pregnant and starting to show a bit. Meaning, she’s not a virgin because she’s pregnant and the king wants to know who she’s been fadoodling with.
Naturally, it’s the titular Willy O’ Winsbury, and the king’s not happy about it, threatening to have him executed. The king wants to have a look at this fellow who’s seduced his daughter and put her up t’stick, as they delightfully call it in Yorkshire.
The king’s expecting to meet some slimy twat who’s ingratiated himself into his daughter’s affection in some nefarious way, but that’s not how it goes because Willy O’ Winsbury’s that good looking that even the king’s shocked (maybe it is Richard The Lionheart, who knows?), and he changes his mind about executing him, and even gives him a load of land to live on with his daughter, once they’re married, of course.
However, Good Looking Willy doesn’t even want the king’s land because he’s got plenty of his own, thanks, and Willy suggests he gives it to his daughter.
And that, basically, is that. I suppose, in a way, it’s a story with a twist, but not really because something slightly out of the ordinary had to happen or it’d just be a grizly story about a king’s daughter who had it off with someone beneath her station and then her dad had his head chopped off. As far as twists go, it’s an odd one alright. You know, the king finds her daughter’s boyfriend so attractive, he doesn’t kill him.
Maybe it’s my 21st century outlook that’s been so numbed through ludicrous scandals that, apparently, nobody really blinks an eye at that leaves me a bit underwhelmed by the story, if not the song itself. Maybe, if it was written now, there’d be another verse in which the king and Willy O’ Winsbury embark on an affair behind the wife/daughter’s back and she catches them at it and runs off with a Labrador called Stuart or something.
Having briefly considered that, I think the original works fine by itself.
And Anne Briggs’ version works beautifully because her tone is so perfect for the song. You hear people saying that singers should be able to sing the phone book and make it sound meaningful, but I think that’s a stretch. I think it’s fair enough that it’s better if the singer has some idea what the song’s about, and can sing it sympathetically, as the best singers do, but the phone book has no intrinsic meaning and what you’re asking a singer to do is to make up happy and sad bits and slot them in seamlessly, which sounds a bit optimistic to me.
The thing is, in contrast to the opening two songs on the album, Willy O’ Winsbury is a happy song, a song of tension followed by relief, lyrically, at least. The sort of thing that only really works in songs, as opposed to books and poems. What Anne Briggs brings to it is a simultaneous yearning – for resolution, presumably – and relief, which is some going. I’m not a great singer by any stretch of the imagination, but even some decent singers sound fairly robotic about what they’re singing about or, if they don’t, sound continually excited, which is no better, really. Anne Briggs, for all that she’s a strange sort of person is, as far as I can gather, primarily a sympathetic creature.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? She wrote some songs but is mainly an interpreter of traditional folk music of the British isles and, in order to do that effectively, you need to be able to get to the heart of the matter, but also in the headspace of the character singing.
In Willy O’ Winsbury, it’s a third person narrative (with quoted speech), but presumably still an interested party – an observer who was pleased about everything that went on, even if the end result was briefly in doubt.
Blackwaterside and The Snow It Melts The Soonest are both first person narratives, which are more straightforward, even though Anne doesn’t make it that easy on herself as the first one is predominantly full of self-recrimination, even though it’s a harsh perspective, and the second one is, possibly, the opposite of the character in the first.
Whichever way you choose to look at it, it’s a strange choice of songs to follow one another, or perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps what Anne is telling us is that whether you’re an optimist, like the narrator or TSIMTS, or a pessimist, like the narrator of Blackwaterside, it really makes no difference because if you put your hopes and dreams in the hands of someone else, it’s going to lead to problems.
The other thing, of course, is that what both songs have in common is that the girl believes she’s being lied to in both of them. Certainly in Blackwaterside, and possibly in TSIMTS.
In Willy O’ Winsbury, the king’s daughter lies to the king about being a virgin, and the king strongly suggests he’s going to sort Willy out. Which he doesn’t.
Moral of the first three songs? You can’t believe what men tell you. But it’d be nice if you could…
4. Go Your Way
Three traditional songs open the album, and already we’ve got a pretty good idea about Anne Briggs’ mindset. Truth and honesty are the prime theme. People say things they don’t mean, and all of it hurts. The opening couple of songs show the stress and pain inherent in relationships.
Drawing water from the well
Spilling over on the grass.
Walking homeward, my heart is filled with pain.
Woe is me
Go your way, my love,
Bearing in mind that this is Anne Briggs whose interest in creature comforts is, at best, fairly limited, there is always the possibility that when she sings about drawing water from a well, she’s being literal. However, I choose to think of this as being largely metaphorical. You know, water’s essential to life, and she’s spilling it on the grass as she walks home. I don’t think she means “water” literally, I think she’s talking about love again, and the effort she puts into maintaining it being wasted because her lover will do whatever he wants anyway. Her influence is minimal, and her interest is maximal.
And as I wander through the trees
I’m picking up the windy leaves,
Thinking where you may be sleeping now.
I wanna die.
Go your way, my love,
Similar story to the first verse, really. Leaves are going to fall from the trees, you can’t do anything about that. And yet, Anne Briggs is picking them up off the floor. A futile gesture. Her lover’s buggered off and she’s thinking about where he might be, and it makes her wish for death. Pretty grim.
As I sit mending your clothes
That you will never ever wear,
Looking daily for you I do prepare
But woe is me.
Go your way, my love,
More futility. But I fucking love this verse. It’s mundane, it’s full of futile endeavour and the narrator knows it’s futile, and she still does it. Why? What else is there? She’s darning his clothes and she’s making sure she’s ready for when her lover comes back. But he won’t, as she well knows.
Is there war in some far land
And have you gone to lend your hand?
And do you lie broken and dying now?
I wanna die.
Go your way, my love,
Not the best line in the song, but it does at least give us a bit of an inkling about her lover. After all, we know nothing of him up to this point, only of the girl who’s been left behind. A bit like the people Morrissey was singing about in The Smiths’ London. (“But did you see jealousy in the eyes of the ones who had to stay behind“). He’s the sort of person who might join the army to go off and fight injustice somewhere.
Nice one, he’s got principles, perhaps. But only for general concepts like countries and right and wrong. In terms of humanity, the individuals whose lives he could affect, he doesn’t seem to care at all. And all Anne Briggs does is care.
It’s self-pitying, yeah, of course it is. And it’s not a million miles away from the sentiments of The Only Living Boy In New York, the most Jewish song in the world, in that both songs are about a narrator being abandoned, feeling (mainly) sad about it and (ostensibly) giving your blessing to the person who’s just abandoned you.
The difference is that Paul Simon’s quite snide about it (“Half of the time we’re gone and we don’t know where and we don’t know where” cf “Here I am, the only living boy in New York, explicitly explaining the reality that we know exactly where Paul Simon is, it’s Art Garfunkel who’s “gone” and “we don’t know where“) and Anne Briggs isn’t being remotely snide about it, she’s resigned to it. What’s the point making someone stay with someone who they don’t want to stay with?
She’s right, of course, but how many people, when push comes to shove, would do as she’s done? Maybe it’s not even the right thing to do. I’ve lost girlfriends because I’ve “not fought for them to stay“, my perspective being, “If they’re going to leave you, they’re going to leave you”. Maybe that’s not the way to go, I don’t know. I can see both ways. On balance, I’m not a fan of being tested. You know, someone pissing you about to measure how interested you are in them. On the other hand, I’ve also been pretty lucky as far as women being reasonably interested has gone, so maybe I would say that. Maybe, if I’d been scratching around for a date I’d be more than happy to beg people not to leave me. Who knows? Desperation’s never a good look, is it?
I’m not going to write about Thorneymoor Woods because it’s a traditional song about being a poacher in Nottinghamshire in the 19th century and, frankly, I don’t love it.
5. The Cuckoo.
I’m not a massive fan of this version either. I prefer other versions, especially Pentangle’s. The reason I’m including it here is to emphasise the theme of lying, hurt and abandonment that runs through this album.
Like TSTMTS and Thorneymore Woods, it’s another a cappella song, which I’m not a big fan of. I like the odd one, but mainly I enjoy accompaniment.
“O, meeting is a pleasure and parting is a grief,
An unconstant lover is worse than a thief,“
So sings Anne in the first verse which is, more or less, a summary of most of the songs that have gone before on this record. And that’s what The Cuckoo is all about: the unreliability of lovers.
The cuckoo, the bird, is noted in Birds Britannica as, “…a symbol of sexual incontinence and infidelity” and, again, while Briggs didn’t write it, she might as well have. Love’s important to Briggs, but it brings pain.
“A thief can but rob you and take all you have,
An unconstant lover will bring you to the grave.“
After Go Your Way’s lines about wishing for death following abandonment, here we have a slight variation on that idea. Death might be preferable to abandonment in GYW and, in The Cuckoo, death’s almost an inevitable result of it.
Briggs also covers Reynardine, which I’ve written about at length here, although not Briggs’ version, which isn’t in the same league as Shirley Collins and Dav(e)y Graham’s, so I’m not going into it, but it does illustrate the relatively limited palette from which folk singers of the late sixties – early seventies (at least) were singing from. I suppose the sing-a-long nature of most folk clubs probably had something to do with this. The audiences expected to be able to join in with songs.
Young Tambling, another traditional song, is a step too close to finger in the ear, I was a coal miner in Newcastle, real ale and beards for me, although it mentions lying again, even though it’s a denial of a lie.
6. Living By The Water
Accompanying herself on something like a guitar, but not a guitar. A bouzouki, unless it’s played by Johnny Moynihan (who’s pictured shirtlessly next to Anne in the still picture on the YouTube link above), it predicts Briggs’ retirement to her island, alone.
The key line, “Because I keep no company, I’ll make no enemies” shows us the result of the abandonment and the lying men with whom she couldn’t cope. It’s a pretty, sweet song, another one of her self-written tunes, and it’s practically What Happened After Go Your Way. Like Lennon, Briggs mainly wrote about herself.
The last song on the album, yet another a cappella version of a traditional folk song is Ma Bonny Lad. Yet another song about a lover having buggered off to row on a ship. This time though, she does find out what’s happened to him: he’s dead and his grave is green, though not with grass. Presumably that means he’s been buried at sea – “Sky of blue, sea of green”, as Donovan wrote in The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Unless it means something else that I’ve not thought of, and we shouldn’t rule that out.
I think of myself as a big fan of this album but the reality is that, as is often the case, while I don’t like all of it by any stretch, what I do like, I really like. Yeah, alright, maybe it could be happily whittled down to an EP for the likes of philistines like me, but I’m sort of glad the rest of it’s there because it all provides colour.
It’s stark, in all senses of the word. There’s very little accompaniment, even on the songs that do have an instrument playing, there’s only ever one joining Anne’s yearning and, above all, human voice. Naturally, all singers of pop songs (practically) are humans, but very few of them sound like such a true representation of as Anne Briggs does.
She recorded another album (Time Has Come) which was released, and another that wasn’t released – not until quite recently, anyway. After that, she knocked it on the head because she couldn’t stand the sound of her voice on record. I know. Perhaps it was just too much, I can see where she’s coming from.
When I think of singers who don’t like the sounds of their own voices, the first one who comes to mind is John Lennon – who also suffered from abandonment issues due to his mother and father dumping him on his Aunt Mimi as a child – who was always getting George Martin to play around with the sounds so he could cope with it. But, like Anne Briggs, he was another wonderful, expressive singer whose voice resonates with so many of us because it’s all about feeling.
Lennon, let’s also not forget, left the music business behind him (although “only” for five years) and whose first solo album proper (John Lennon and Plastic Ono Band, also known as the Primal Scream album, due to the stark nature of the songs and his attendance at Janov’s Primal therapy – “Mama don’t go. Daddy come home“, from Mother, but also the song Isolation.
Lennon’s abandonment issues primarily related to his parents, as opposed to lovers and, in Yoko Ono, he found his replacement mother, even calling her that as a pet name. Anne Briggs’ mother died when she was very young, and her father’s wounds from WWII lead her to living with her aunt and uncle too.
John Lennon and Plastic Ono Band, the album, is similarly stark, although not quite to the extent that Anne Briggs is. And that, along with the lyrical themes present, their childhood experiences and their own eventual abandonment of the music industry all leads me to think of Anne Briggs as folk music’s own Plastic Ono Band.