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.

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