It is rare that Bob Copper's birthday coincides with club night in Lewes at the club run by Vic and Tina Smith, The Royal Oak. But this year was different.
Rather like our own dear Queen, Bob Copper normally (at least since he reached 80 years) enjoys two birthdays, a 'Folk' birthday and a 'real' birthday. This year the two coincided. Accompanied by the massed bands of the family, his children and grandchildren, Bob was met by an audience of over 150 well-wishers in a room designed to hold about half that number. The atmosphere was simply full of fun and love as people jostled to try and actually observe the tonsils of our hero. Friends old and new sang or said their greetings - including Shirley Collins, who brought a tear to every eye, not only by delivering a memorable and heartfelt appreciation, but by proving (as if it were necessary) in song, that here was the Queen of English folk music returning to take up her crown once more. As I said, memorable and moving. The point was not lost on the audience, who rose to cheer and yet ponder how deprived our younger audiences have been of hearing such a talent.
Reintroduced by Vic Smith, who was valiantly battling against a failing voice and the dreaded 'flu, The Copper Family gathered around the Patriarch in numbers (both at the bar and in the clubroom) and performed all the favourites that would enable the audience to join in. And sing! That audience sung its heart out. Their support for the younger generation of Coppers was impressive: they clearly saw, as do the rest of the older family members, that here is the future - a fact so gratifying to Bob that it was plain to see it written all over his beaming face.
The evening was divided into 'three halves', the second of which caused a minor sensation when, joined by 'the well known publisher of a popular folk/world music journal' and the 'well known wearer of the Fez and able assistant to one William Bragg', Peg Leg Barbeque Bob Copper slipped easily into his other persona ... that of country bluesman and King of the Cuckmere Delta. What a treat! If only Peter Bellamy had been there: of all the folkies, he knew best of Bob's 60 year love affair with The Blues. 'Divin' Duck Blues' and 'Goin' down to Brownsville' were fantastically accompanied and hauntingly sung by this impromptu trio, and the look on Andrew Cronshaw's face said it all - this one's filed in the 'never to be forgotten' section of the memory banks. Modestly, Bob concluded this set with: " I've always said it takes a black man to really sing the blues ... and tonight I've proved it." Somehow I don't think his friend, the bluesman Jerry Ricks, would necessarily agree: anyway we eagerly await his version of Spencer the Rover!
By this time in the evening your correspondent admits to being a little 'tired and emotional' but more was yet to come. Previously John Copper had made two important announcements. One was that Bob was, on 27th January, to receive an honorary degree from Sussex University in recognition of both his contribution to the traditional music of his native home and for his writing. The other was that on 22nd January, Bob's first grandson, Jill's boy Mark, was to be married to Meriem - the first of the grandchildren to embark on this risky venture.
The third 'half' started with the aforementioned Meriem delivering a powerful a cappella version of 'Je ne regrette rien' - knockout, but then she's a sort of female Swiss/French Bob Davenport and quite used to singing in English pubs! From then on in it was various combinations of Coppers, and a spine tingling version of 'The Bold Princess Royal' from Bob, culminating with the ubiquitous 'O Good Ale'. Long past parliament time the audience fell out into the quiet streets of Lewes pinching themselves to see if it really had all happened.
The family continued their personal celebrations long into the small hours, and our octogenarian star was despatched to his bed at 3.45am in order that younger members of the Family could get some sleep!
As they say, it doesn't get any better than this.
Many thanks to Vic and Tina Smith, of The Royal Oak, Lewes, for the photos:
Top: John, Bob and Jill with some of the grandchildren behind them, all singing.
Middle: John, Bob and Jill right at the end of a song, quite a happy one.
Bottom: John, Bob, Jill and Jon in full song.
And finally - Vic Smith with Bob Copper.
This page last updated on 3 January, 2006