Anne Briggs – 1963

Now this is where the shift begins. I’ve always wanted to delineate the kind of transformation that England’s folk music went through from its early folk phase to its sorta modern iteration. There’s something utterly fascinating about a bunch of those groups and a lot of that sound. How do I start? well, I think I’ll start with some kind of voice that signalled some kind of change. Recorded in 1971, but really first heard in early 1963, Anne Brigg’s “Blackwater Side” was a monumental song in English folk history. Its a traditional song, but one transformed so differently, for its time, that it made music once focused just on instrumental flourishes spin towards viewing vocals as more than an afterthought. Anne, was born in Nottinghamshire, England in 1944, but had to be raised by her aunt and uncle due to the loss of both of her parent’s care, was never one to care much about home. From a young age she would escape to Scotland and spend time around pubs taking in the folk revival sound of that time. Around that time in the late 50’s she met a young guitarist Bert Jansch. Often mistaken for siblings, they would hang out and practice together some older songs, some they would make famous like the track of the day and Reynardine, and some newer songs of their own making like “Wishing Well”. Anne was self taught and Bert had picked it up by looking at others play. Together they have this deep love for older forgotten traditional music, but little knowledge of how it actually sounded. On stage, Anne would prefer to sing acapella with as little accompaniment as possible. By highlighting her own idiosyncratic vocal phrasing, she somehow turned the tide of folk away from proper to experimental. Its a vocal style that would form a influential bedrock other vocalists would use to transform the music of the Isles somewhere different.

Anne Briggs self-titled album cover, 1971.

That’s the reason this song works so beautifully. After years of disillusionment derived from the failure of her first recording, an EP called The Hazards of Love, a sojourn getting married to an abusive husband, and finally divorcing around 1968, then becoming a bit of a wild woman getting drunk and partying too hard, sometime around 1971 she was rediscovered by The Pentangle’s manager. Signed to the Topic label she was again allowed to have another go at stardom. Anne instead chose to record some songs she never had the chance to that first go. Listening to “Blackwater Side” you can sense Anne’s reasoning for choosing it as her starting point again. The song itself which talks about a lover who enjoys her company, then leaves her, only to come back and ask for her time again. Anne doesn’t ignore the promise he made her that he wasn’t going to leave, and accepts to wed him only if “And when the sky does fall and the seas will run dry” signifying a turning point in her life. By the blackwater side she captures a new spirit that needed to get rid of that baggage some of the old still carried. Its a gorgeous song and one that will inform a lot of this new English folk music that would start from that point onwards, and by that point I mean in 1963 when everyone first heard this shocking song by a young girl who at that moment didn’t quite know exactly what it meant. 

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Listen to Blackwater Side at Grooveshark.

here’s a great snippet of an older Anne Briggs rejoining with Bert Jansch to play the gorgeous Annie-penned “Go Your Own Way”…

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or the other beauty, from Bert’s own Birthday Blues album, “Wishing Well”.