Anne Briggs - "Sandman's Song" (The Time Has Come)
English folk singer Anne Briggs made her name with unaccompanied renditions of age-old melodies. Originally released in the 1960s on Topic, subsequently compiled on A Collection in the ‘90s and recently reissued on double album by Bo’Weavil as The Complete Topic Recordings, these acapella recordings reveal Briggs as perhaps the most important revivalist singer of her generation. After hooking up with A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl’s Centre 42 touring directive in 1962, Briggs quickly became one of the central figures of England’s burgeoning new folk music movement, shacking up for a time with Bert Jansch, performing in clubs throughout Britain, and periodically detaching from everything to head off into the country and lead the nomad’s life.
Folk aficionados rightly venerate Briggs for her freewheeling, humane approach to descanting melody. She has an innate grasp of both content and context and her delivery is unmatched, possessing grace more affecting for its almost artless roundedness, which nonetheless also admits to idiosyncrasy. Her voice is ‘jagged [and] intense,’ as Karl Dallas would have it, and yet completely at ease with itself: The Wire’s Ed Baxter once hailed her ‘directness and honesty.’ The acapellas recorded on Complete Topic Recordings are still considered Briggs’s most potent and historically relevant interventions, but The Time Has Come and Sing A Song For You in many ways make for more culturally interesting documents.
CBS originally released The Time Has Come in 1971; it has been reissued before, though this current edition, with liner notes from Andy Beta, is preferable. Documenting a clutch of Briggs’s own songs, it reveals Briggs as a fine songwriter within her tradition, transcending some of the starch of folk’s earnestness through humility, warmth and joie de vivre. The opening “Sandman’s Song” unfolds a fable in ruminative fashion, with Briggs weaving through finger-picked chords as though she’s chasing logic to its end and marshalling its forces on the rebound. There are several short instrumental pieces for bouzouki which break up the album’s overarching melancholy, one of which is a ‘piece of chase music’ for her pet dog, Clea. Yet the strongest cuts drip with pensive sadness: “The Time Has Come” and “Wishing Well,” the latter a co-write with Bert Jansch, weave an everyday profundity out of leaving and loss. Lal Knight’s (nee Waterson’s) “Fine Horseman” closes with a chilly, remorseful poise that’s particularly potent given the innocent, ingénue enthusiasm of earlier songs like “Fire And Wine” and “Ride, Ride.”
Sing A Song For You’s provenance is less clear-cut. Recorded in 1973 with violinist Barry Dransfield and folk-rock group Ragged Robin, mere weeks before the birth of Briggs’s second child, the album’s release was abandoned after Briggs refused to submit to a second photo shoot for the front cover. She took off to North West Scotland, and the project lay inert until Fledg’ling finally released the recordings on CD in 1996. Well, praise be for that - though it’s an unpopular position to take, this is my favorite Briggs recording, at least in part due to its sense of play. Rehearsed in one day, recorded the next, the joy that permeates Sing A Song For You bespeaks the pleasures of song-bound improvisation. In their liner comments, Lal and Norma Waterson praise Briggs’s ‘real freedom, with the element of risk absolutely central,’ at once high praise from two of folk’s greatest vocalists and an observation that hits at the heart of the matter.
By swinging between either side, positioning herself as a revivalist yet taking up with the ‘scruffy,’ likely lads in Ragged Robin, underlings performing in folk-rock’s prime, Briggs collapses folk dogmatics. There are gorgeously unadorned renditions of “Sovay,” “The Bonambuie” and “Bird In The Bush” on this album, along with gentle, reflective acoustic melancholia on “I Thought I Saw You Again” and “Travelling’s Easy,” but the best performances, like the title song and “Summer’s In,” show group, vocalist and violinist swaying in consort. And while Briggs’s voice occasionally falters on the rowdy “Summer’s In” – perhaps the source of her discomfort with her signing on this record – the performance is most affecting due to the improvised nakedness of the setting.
Indeed, both The Time Has Come and Sing A Song For You are so powerful because they’re essentially recombinant records, documents of a questing, free spirit. From self-penned acoustic songs to traditional-cum-modernist folk-rock, from rambling, energetic bouzouki instrumentals to austere acapella, topped with a voice that stilled the air, for a period of ten years, Briggs had it all. The Waterson sisters say it best, though, when they hail Briggs’s firebrand spirit, ‘her way of decorating a melody utterly original while sounding, at the same time, traditional - which is, of course, the essence of the thing.’