The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #47034   Message #699662
Posted By: DMcG
28-Apr-02 - 03:16 AM
Thread Name: Copper Family Article
Subject: Copper Family Article
There is a fairly long article about the Copper family in Saturtay's Guardian (UK) at this link following on from the Topic box set of recordings. It doesn't say anything that Copperphiles will not know already, but it's good to see such a large article outside a specialist publication.

The article ends with this quotation from Bob. Perhaps it should go onto the "What is a folk song?" thread. "It's your song, if you accept it," he says. "It's like a tenancy. You live in it, and you can adapt it and decorate it, and put wallpaper in, as long as you don't structurally alter anything. Then you hand it back in good sound order, and pass it on."

On the downside, there is a copy of a letter in the same edition:
To describe "the Copper Family, a folk singing troupe fronted by an 87-year-old" as a "bizarre support act" (Freaks of Nature, G2, April 25) belittles this family's small but significant contribution to England's traditional folksong.
Maggie O'Hanlon

I didn't see the April 25th article, but at least the newpaper had the good grace to print the criticism.


I can't tell how long the article will be available online, so I'll copy-paste it here. Click for the April 25 article, which isn't quite so relevant to us.
-Joe Offer-

Whisky and corduroys

On a boozy night in 1898, Tom and James Copper met for a sing-song - and English folk music was born. Now their offspring are taking it around the world. By Tim Cumming

Saturday April 27, 2002
The Guardian


The Copper family of Rottingdean in Sussex have been aptly described as the backbone of the English musical tradition. An inspiration to the 1960s generation of folk revivalists such as the Watersons, their unique style of harmony singing is celebrated around the world. In America, they have achieved near-cult status, and many of their songs have become central to the modern folk repertoire. It's no exaggeration to say that the Copper family song book remains one of the last living links to a rural tradition that stood virtually unchanged for centuries.

Parish records for the Copper family in Rottingdean date back to 1593, five years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. For generations, the Coppers were farm-workers, ploughmen, shepherds. And singers. As 87-year-old family patriarch Bob Copper explains: "I remember my grandfather singing Shepherd of the Downs, and he remembered his grandfather singing it. Now I sing it with my grandchildren, and that's seven successive generations - at least."

It is a busy time for the Coppers. In July, they embark on a singing tour of America's east coast. In February last year they were presented with a Good Tradition award by long-time fans Billy Bragg and Shirley Collins at the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards, and last November Topic Records released Come Write Me Down, a 28-song compilation of recordings from the early 1950s and 1960s, featuring the classic line-up of Bob Copper and his brother Ron, and their fathers Jim and John. Bob recently completed a volume of memoirs to add to his earlier books such as the classic A Song for Every Season, and a new recording of songs featuring Bob, his children and grandchildren is soon to be released on the family's own Coppersongs label.

An extraordinarily youthful octogenarian, Bob Copper keeps in touch with fans and performers over the world. A few weeks ago, Peggy Seeger visited to complete a radio programme he recorded at Christmas with 82-year-old folk artist Pete Seeger in New York. The family's songs have circled the globe, yet their roots remain very much at home. And it is very much down to the family and the home, rather than outside influences or folk revivalists, that their unique historical legacy exists at all.

"I remember when I was small," he says, "my grandfather, Brasser Copper, would wake me up and give me a song before I went to bed. His idea of a lullaby was Admiral Benbow ['O Benbow lost his legs, by chainshot, by chainshot']. He'd pick me up on his corduroy knee and his great bass voice did used to frighten me." His grandfather and great uncle Tom were renowned local singers, a reputation inherited by his father Jim and uncle John, and the young Bob soon joined them.

Singing, he remembers, was as natural to them as breathing. Song accompanied them through the day, and punctuated every occasion. At Christmas gatherings, when the family home was crammed with upward of 30 people spanning three generations, their Victorian Wall of Sound even reached the ears of the gentry in the big houses around the green, where Edward Burne-Jones and Rudyard Kipling had homes. Not that the gentry were overly impressed. A memoir by Burne-Jones's granddaughter depicts the village singers on their Christmas rounds, "blackmailing the inhabitants by the horrid noise they made" and remembering how "the back drawing-room windows had to be opened wide to let out the smell of unwashed corduroys". A metaphor for English class and culture if ever there was one.

The family's first exposure outside their immediate circle was in 1898, when folk-song collector Kate Lee invited the two brothers James and Tom Copper into the kitchens of Sir Frank Carson's house, put a bottle of whisky, a jug of water and two glasses on the table, and asked them to stay and sing until the bottle was empty.

She wrote down the words and music to about 50 songs, and returned to London, where she founded the English Folk Song Society. Both James and Tom were made honorary members - an honour they promptly forgot - and more than half a century would pass before the Coppers encountered a new generation of collectors, this time armed with tape recorders instead of sheet music. And it is from this era that the recordings on Come Write Me Down emerge. Released 50 years after they were made, these extraordinary songs breathe life into a tradition that stretches back to the Napoleonic Wars and beyond. They are the aural equivalent of remote viewing on to a vanished world.

As Bob Copper emphasises, the past was not so distant for his father's generation. "These people saw the very back end of a long period where things hadn't changed. They worked with bullocks and horses, and worked the same lands and did the same amount of work in a day as a Saxon would, in laines [fields] named by Saxons."

Many are farming songs, filled with details of hard and constant work, yet suffused with the roseate glow of a mythic Old England that predates the National Trust. There are seafaring ballads, aching laments and songs of farewell, drinking songs alongside more ancient ballads - the sinister spell of Babes in the Wood, for instance, cast from its Elizabethan origin, with its opening lines of impending doom: "O, don't you remember, a long time ago, those two little babies, their names I don't know?" Bob Copper says: "The greatest value of the songs is in their social historical value, learning a bit about the work that was done, and the people who did it." For others, it is the sheer poetry of their words and harmonies that thrills, the tidal weight of the bassline carrying every song, singing back to life a thousand years of history.

This old, even ancient culture came to an abrupt end with the first world war, and the farm sales of the 1920s. Men like Jim Copper, a foreman to more than 60 farm-workers, had to resort to paper rounds and odd jobs to bring in money. Building work succeeded farm labour, and, for all but the Copper family, the old songs became forgotten relics of a bygone era. Cut off from the seasonal round of farm work, and with the advent of radio and records, the old singers and their songs fell silent, at least in public.

By his early 20s, Bob remembers, if he and his cousin Ron felt like singing the old songs, they'd head out early on Sunday mornings, "over the hills when there was no one about, and we'd rattle up Sportsman Arise, and no one to criticise it, because no one was interested. They didn't want to hear it. I'd go to the Black Horse and sing a few songs, but it was a peculiarity, a bit quaint even then." In 1936, his father Jim wrote out 47 of the songs in a determined effort to preserve them, at least within the family. Bob still has the book, well-thumbed and well-preserved. But for a while, even he felt cut off from the songs. It was only during the second world war that he realised just how important, personally and culturally, they really were. "We sang them because we loved them. There was no sense of duty about it, just pure love."

Then, in 1950, Jim Copper heard one of their songs performed on the radio, and wrote to the BBC saying how he and his family still sang this and many other old songs. Before the end of the week the producer, Francis Collinson, was in their front room frantically writing down the words and music to some 40 "undiscovered" songs on whatever bits of paper he could find, hardly believing his luck in stumbling upon this wellspring of English traditional music.

Their first recording was of the hauntingly beautiful Claudy Banks in August 1950, broadcast live from the garden of the Eight Bells pub in Levington to an audience of more than 13 million listeners. The following year there was The Life of James Copper, with Jim's photo on the cover of the Radio Times. The influence these broadcasts had was far-reaching, and places the family at the heart of the English folk revival.

"Brian George was chief of programme operations," Bob explains. "Being an Irishman, he knew the tradition was alive in his country, but he thought it was dead as a dodo over here - as it was." Amazed by the existence of this native English singing tradition, he decided there must be others, and sent collectors such as Seamus Ennis and Peter Kennedy around the country, and Bob Copper too, who made numerous field trips around Sussex and Hampshire. "In the 1950s we were just in time to find people who remembered the songs being sung in the ordinary course of events."

Jim died in 1954, two years after his brother John. Half a century on, the songs his father passed down to him remain living, organic entities, not specimens to be kept behind glass. His aim is to sing them as he remembered them being sung when he was a child. "It's your song, if you accept it," he says. "It's like a tenancy. You live in it, and you can adapt it and decorate it, and put wallpaper in, as long as you don't structurally alter anything. Then you hand it back in good sound order, and pass it on."

· Come Write Me Down is released on Topic Records



More about the Copper family
Topic Records