Briggs was born in Toton, Beeston, Nottinghamshire, on 29 September 1944. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was young. Her father, Albert, was severely injured in World War II and she was raised by her Aunt Hilda and Uncle Bill in Toton, who also brought up Hilda's youngest sister, Beryl, and their own daughter Betty. In 1959 she cycled with a friend to Edinburgh. They stayed overnight with Archie Fisher, who was at that time prominent in the revival of folk music in Scotland, and through him she met Bert Jansch, who had just begun to compose his own songs. Jansch and Briggs had an instant rapport and were an influence on each other for several years, dating for part of the time.
In 1962, the Trades Union Congress passed Resolution 42, a resolution to develop cultural activities outside London. To implement this resolution, playwright Arnold Wesker was appointed as the leader, with Ewan MacColl and A. L. "Bert" Lloyd heavily involved, and Charles Parker on production. Calling themselves Centre 42, they organised a tour around the Britain, hoping to involve local talent at each stop.
At Nottingham, MacColl heard Briggs singing "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme" and "She Moves Through the Fair" and promptly invited her to perform on stage that night. She became a full member of the tour and recorded the same two songs on an album recorded live in Edinburgh later that year. Briggs decided to leave home, just four weeks short of her eighteenth birthday. Centre 42 gave her an administrative job in their offices, liaising with theatres and galleries. She soon acquired the contacts she needed to pursue her own musical career.
Briggs visited the main British folk clubs which were then becoming well known: The Troubadour (London), The Scots Hoose and various Irish music venues. At this time, the emphasis at such venues was on instrumental folk music, and singing was regarded as merely a pause between tunes. A young Christy Moore heard her and was inspired to give more emphasis, in his own music, to singing rather than playing jigs.
Briggs and Jansch lived together in a squat in Earl's Court before moving together to a house in Somali Road, London, where John Renbourn lived, and The Young Tradition also lived for a time. Jansch and Briggs had some resemblance to each other and were often mistaken for brother and sister. It was Briggs who taught Jansch the traditional song "Blackwaterside" which he recorded on his Jack Orion album in 1966.
Briggs began her recording career by contributing two songs to a thematic album, The Iron Muse, released by Topic Records in 1963. MacColl and Bert Lloyd sang on the tracks, and Ray Fisher made a brief appearance singing along with Briggs. An EP The Hazards of Love was recorded in 1963. It was an early inspiration for both June Tabor and Maddy Prior.
At about this time, Briggs entered a relationship with a Scotsman known as "Gary the archer," who proved to be violently abusive. She was rescued from this relationship by Hamish Henderson, who accidentally bumped into her and invited her to join Louis Killen, Dave Swarbrick and Frankie Armstrong for a recording project. This resulted in the album called The Bird in The Bush.
While touring England, The Dubliners met Briggs and thought she would be the perfect musical partner for Johnny Moynihan, a folk singer they knew in Dublin. In 1965 they accompanied her to Ireland and for the next four years she spent her summers there, travelling by horse-drawn cart and singing in pub sessions. During the winter months she earned money by touring English folk clubs. Her time in Ireland introduced her to the solo Sean-nós singing heard in the songs of Irish folk artists, and this was an influence on her later singing style, when blended with the elements of traditional English music which she had already taken up.
Briggs was notoriously wild at this time. There are many stories from this period about her, such as pushing Moynihan and Andy Irvine out of a hay loft and, on another occasion, jumping into the sea at Malin Head, Donegal to chase seals. In an episode of Folk Britannia (a documentary history of UK folk music aired in 2006) Richard Thompson recalled that he only ever encountered Briggs twice and on both occasions she was drunk and unconscious. It is often speculated that it was Briggs who inspired Thompson's song 'Beeswing', the chorus of which reads:
She was a rare thing
Fine as a beeswing
So fine a breath of wind might blow her away
She was a lost child
She was running wild
She said as long as there's no price on love I'll stay
And you wouldn't want me any other way
Her attendance at bookings was so erratic that it was said she turned up only five times between mid-1963 and early 1965.
In 1966, Moynihan and Irvine formed Sweeney's Men and Briggs joined them on tours and learned to play the bouzouki, at that time a rare instrument in the British Isles. She wrote "Living by the Water", which was to appear on her 1971 album, accompanying herself on the instrument.
The folk-rock impresario Jo Lustig signed up Pentangle in 1968 and a couple of years later took on Briggs. Briggs performed along with the folk-rock group COB (Clive's Original Band) at the Royal Festival Hall in 1971.
In the same year, she recorded an album, Anne Briggs, which was released by Topic. It consisted mostly of Briggs singing traditional unaccompanied songs, but Moynihan plays bouzouki on one track. Later that same year, a second album, The Time Has Come, was released on CBS which finds Briggs moving away from the mainly a cappella style of her previous recordings, instead opting to flesh out the songs (mostly written by Briggs) with acoustic guitar. The album includes Moynihan's song, "Standing on the Shore", previously recorded by Sweeney's Men. The BBC broadcast a film of the Watersons in 1966, "Travelling for a Living", in which Briggs made a brief appearance. Lal Waterson joined Briggs as a vocalist on the album. Sales of The Time has Come were poor and it was dropped from CBS's catalogue, finally being re-issued in 1996. Briggs is said to have disliked the sound of her recorded voice, particularly on this album.
Early in 1973 she recorded a third solo album Sing a Song For You with instrumental support from "Ragged Robin", a folk-rock band led by Steve Ashley. She was pregnant at the time with her second child. It was to be her final studio recording. By the time it was issued, Briggs was living in the Hebrides. Fledgling Records re-issued it in 1996, when it was acclaimed by folk music aficionados as a lost gem.
When Bert Lloyd died in 1990, Briggs was persuaded to sing in a memorial concert. Despite coaxing from some of the brightest names in British folk music, she refused to return to the studio. There was a TV documentary about Jansch in 1993. Briggs took part in this and sang "Go Your Way My Love" as a duet with Jansch for the show. The recording later reappeared in the soundtrack "Acoustic Routes" (1993) on Demon Records. There are several anecdotes and photographs of Anne Briggs in the book "Dazzling Stranger" by Colin Harper (2001), and one complete chapter about her in "Irish folk, trad and blues" by C. Harper and T. Hodgett (Cherry Red Books, 2004).
Jansch described her as "one of the most underrated singers". He recorded Briggs' songs (including "Go your way, my love" and "Wishing well") on four of his albums. She was also his source for several of the traditional songs which he recorded, including "Blackwaterside". Jansch's instrumental accompaniment to this song was later copied and adapted by Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, who recorded it as "Black Mountain Side".
Jansch and John Renbourn play "The Time Has Come" on their duo record before eventually recording it with the rest of Pentangle on the "Sweet Child" release. One song, "Mosaic Patterns" (which she herself has never recorded) was recorded by blues singer, Dorris Henderson. Sandy Denny wrote a song in tribute to Briggs, called "The Pond and the Stream" on Fotheringay (1970).
The melody line from Briggs' version of 'Willie O Winsbury' was used by Fairport Convention as the basis for the song 'Farewell, Farewell', from the 1969 album Liege and Lief.
Briggs has been cited as a favourite of Eliza Carthy, Kate Rusby and lead singer of Altan, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. Charlotte Greig and the Scottish band James Yorkston and the Athletes have said Briggs was an influence on them. David Tibet of Current 93 also recently mentioned her in an interview.
The 2009 The Decemberists album, The Hazards of Love, was inspired by Briggs's album of the same name.
In 2009 Topic Records included in their 70th anniversary boxed set Three Score and Ten Blackwater Side from her eponymous album as track four of the second CD in the set.The Hazards of Love (1964)
Anne Briggs (1971)
The Time Has Come (1971)
Classic Anne Briggs (1990)
Sing A Song For You (1997) Recorded 1973
A Collection (Topic Records, 1999)
Bert Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, Anne Briggs et al.The Iron Muse (1963)
Bert Lloyd, Anne Briggs and Frankie ArmstrongThe Bird in the Bush (Traditional Erotic Songs) (1966)
TV documentary soundtrack"Acoustic Routes" (1993)