Other voices . . .

Music 1 byRichard Cook

When compact discs first arrived, and the prospect of limitless reissues of old music beckoned, I thought there would be many, many records too obscure for the new medium to bother with. Instead, almost every avenue of rock, pop, jazz, folk and whatever else has already been extensively trawled for likely rebinding in the new medium. It's hard to know whether one should be elated or wryly disappointed by the emergence of the tiny number of recordings by Anne Briggs as CD reissues. Her records, on vinyl, are impossibly rare and little-known. She is irrevocably locked in the past: a fresh, evergreen young voice that sounds like it belongs to long ago. She made some scattered tracks and an album for Topic in the 1960s, and a second LP for Columbia in 1971, The Time Has Come, which was reissued last year. Now that Topic has brought back all its tracks on Anne Briggs: a collection, everything she did is available again.

Briggs was a Nottinghamshire girl who seemed determined to live a folk singer's romantic life. It was just in time: had she been born a decade later, it would have been too late. She was 18 when she began recording in 1963. She ignored pop and rock'n'roll, and somehow found her way to the music of "the nameless people who were recorded in the field". She fell in with young men and women like Bert Jansch, Robin Williamson and Sandy Denny and lived a bristling, independent life, in London, Ireland, Scotland and wherever the wind seems to have taken her. Richard Thompson remembers that "the only two times I met Annie Briggs she was unconscious". In the end, she simply disappeared to Scotland in 1973 - although Colin Harper's excellent notes, which chronicle the whole world she walked through, show that she still has a fond and knowing recall of what she did. The Time Has Come is more like the standard folk-rock of the period, but the Topic recordings are bare, pure, spotless treatments of chilling old ballads and country tales. Briggs had a way of singing that seems untroubled by technique: you hardly hear her take a breath, or pause in the flow, even on something like "Young Tambling", which is a complex narrative that lasts over ten minutes. The fierceness of the words is mollified by the soft youthfulness of her voice.

In its way, it was a powerfully influential voice. June Tabor recalls hearing some early tracks and taking up singing herself. Yet it now seems like something as remote as the old men and women whose singing makes up much of Topic's venerable archive: Briggs did as she wished, and disappeared into the tradition itself. Maybe the same fate will one day attend Sheila Chandra, the Asian singer who also started very young: she was 16 when she had a chart success as part of Monsoon and their deathless hit "Ever So Lonely". Since then, she has created a calm and beatific kind of world music, centred around the idea of combining voice and drone. Like Briggs, she stands alone with her voice: her producer Steve Coe helps create the electric hums that surround her on many of the tracks on the new compilation Moonsung: a Real World retrospective (Virgin/Real World), but Chandra's music is a solitary matter. Not a private one, though: it is a welcoming sound, almost an invitation to partake in her meditative atmosphere. Where Briggs is ironclad by her graphic material, Chandra's often wordless musings live by their intuitive grace. Yet the last track on the record is the old English folksong "Blacksmith". Chandra suddenly sounds just like a singer of Briggs's school: sisters under the skin.

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie