Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Old Songs

This year will mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Bob Copper, the most well-known member of the Copper Family of Rottingdean. The family’s earliest mention in the parish records dates from the 1590s, although they were probably living and working in the area as farm labourers, carters, shepherds and publicans much earlier.

The Coppers’ tradition of unaccompanied singing of traditional Sussex songs may stretch back just as far, but it was in the late 19th century when James ‘Brasser’ Copper, and his brother Thomas, were discovered singing their rural repetoire by Kate Lee of the Folk Song Society. James wrote down the songs that he knew for the society but continued to pass them down orally to his children, Jim and John. In 1936, Jim recorded dozens of songs in a handwritten book that he dedicated and passed on to his son, Bob.

The songs – whether created or collected - are filled with the richness of local life on the seaward side of the Downs, or draw on universal themes of the rural working class. The Seasons Round charts the ever-turning agricultural calendar:

Now harvest being over bad weather comes on,
We will send for the thresher to thresh out our corn.
His hand-staff he'll handle, his swingel he'll swing,
Till the very next harvest we'll all meet again.

Others tell of farmers and fishermen, lads and lovers, shepherds, soldiers and sailors. Claudy Banks, the first song that ‘Brasser’ transcribed for the Folk Song Society, is a ballad that tells the ageless tale of a returned sailor not recognised by the true love he left behind.

In the 1950s, the Coppers came to wider public attention with Jim and John regularly giving high-profile performances with their respective sons, Bob and Ron. Recorded and broadcast by the BBC, they attracted the attention of the American field collector of folk music, Alan Lomax, who had moved to England after being named in the United States as a communist sympathiser. Jim and John both died in the mid-fifties and when the Folk Song Society’s successor, the English Folk Dance and Song Society, released the LP Traditional Songs From Rottingdean in 1963, the Coppers’ place in the emerging English folk renaissance was firmly established.

In the 1970s, Bob further cemented the Coppers’ reputation with a trilogy of books documenting the family’s vocal tradition, the first of which, A Song For Every Season, won the Robert Pitman Literary Prize of 1971. After brother Ron’s death in the late seventies, Bob heralded a new dawn by broadening family involvement to include his children, John and Jill. The definitive modern collection of their recorded songs, Come Write Me Down, was released in 2001 and by the time of Bob’s death in 2004, at the age of 89, the performing family had swelled to include John and Jill’s respective children. The Copper Family still perform regularly, and carry with them to every gig Jim’s handwritten songbook from 1936.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sea Power

When the Devil’s Chimney, a 200ft high chalk tower that was part of the Beachy Head cliffs, collapsed into the sea in April 2001, there were several theories as to the cause: the rough seas that had been battering the rock-face throughout the preceding winter; driving rain that had penetrated the chalk and then frozen and expanded, causing the cliff to crack; a curse that had existed since Aleister Crowley, the fin de siecle occultist, had climbed the tower in 1894.

Discounting the third theory, the Environment Agency was certain that climate change was responsible for the first two. Increasingly stormy winters had accounted for the collapse of an even larger section of Beachy Head two years earlier, and the sudden disappearance of the Devil’s Chimney was part of an emerging pattern. But since those events at the turn of the century, coastal erosion at Beachy Head has been within expected limits for an undefended rock formation. However, at other points of the East Sussex shore, it has been a different story.

Slightly to the west at Birling Gap - a dip in the high coastline - several cottages on the low cliffs have been lost to gradual erosion in recent decades, and the turn of this year brought a more dramatic alteration to the cliff-face. The powerful swelling sea that buffeted the south coast at New Year, claimed a 3-metre section of chalk, making the cliff edges unstable and closing the already precarious steps down to the beach. Much more spectacularly, at Rock-a-Nore to the east of Hastings, the sandstone cliffs suffered a dramatic collapse after days of heavy seas pounding their base. The remarkable day-time rock fall was captured on film by eyewitnesses.

The effect of the continuing winds, whipping up the power of the sea, is that the craggy East Sussex coastline has become a treacherous place and coastal paths have had to be closed, limiting access to cliff and shore in many places. Perhaps walking the more sedate coastal plain of West Sussex is the way forward for the rest of this wild winter.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Get By

In the bleak midwinter, this will make your heart soar and get you through the longest month. Listen to it here.

“It’s raining and the wind is ruthless,
I’m old and cold and tired and useless;
And toothless.
But I’ll get by,
With a little bit of you,
Alcohol, tobacco, caffeine,
Ephedrine and orange juice…”

The Wave Pictures will be playing the Green Door Store in Brighton on 8th February, and the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on 20th June. Stanley Brinks and The Wave Pictures will be playing The Prince Albert in Brighton on 2nd March.