Obituary from "Living Tradition"
It's a very common tendency to bemoan the "passing of an era". Certainly, it's something that many traditional songs do, and indeed there exist veritable "genres of loss". One example would be that of the numerous laments for the passing of the horse and its replacement by the tractor. But such compositions are there for a reason. They're not mere sentimentality, not are they akin to the synthetic whine of the Country singer, cheaply tugging at the heart strings. They're there because they genuinely speak to people. So, when we say that the recent sad death of Bob Copper represents the end of an era, that's exactly what we mean.
The "era" in question, I suppose, is the beginning of the folksong revival in England (although as we'll see, Bob, because of the family from which he stemmed, represented much more than that alone). It's hard to imagine the southern Revival without him and his family; we talk of "southern", incidentally, because there was a contemporaneous northern version also, typically around industrial Tyneside with the likes of Louis Killen, The High Level Ranters and the great singing family, the Elliots of Birtley. The Coppers (then Bob, his cousin Ron (1912-1978) and Bob's children John and Jill) introduced something extraordinary with their unaccompanied solo and close harmony songs. There must have been many aspiring singers of the late Sixties who heard Bob's matchless rendering of The Banks Of The Sweet Primroses for instance and said to themselves "I'd like to be able to do that!" I myself was certainly one, but more to the point when it came to the public enjoyment stakes, so too were members of groups like the Watersons and The Young Tradition inspired by Bob and his family - with the delightful results that we now know.
To unaccustomed urban ears, Bob and his family's songs sounded new and wonderful. But in fact the very unfamiliarity and beauty of the material sprang from its antiquity. The Revival's new acolytes soon came to understand that in the Coppers they were hearing echoes of centuries past, for this is a family that can trace its roots back to the sixteenth century at least. Kipling refers to them in "Rewards and Fairies" for examples. From around Rottingdean, they had been famed locally as singers for two hundred years and for being guardians of a priceless tradition to boot. The Copper family's and other local songs were finally written down by Bob's father Jim (1882-1954) in 1936. The book, containing nearly fifty songs, was dedicated to Bob and has accompanied the family members as they have performed at various venues around the country ever since.
Jim Copper was the bailiff of a big estate and the young Bob would take his turn at various jobs about the place, such as bird-scaring. He learned the songs "at his father's knee" as the bailiff repaired an old rake or patched a sack. He came to love what he heard and expressed this love in some of his own writings, like the poem The Old Songs (1947). Amongst those who have performed this triumphant, defiant piece as a song is the late Peter Bellamy. Here are a couple of verses to give an idea of how Bob felt about his heritage:
Bob and the family didn't just burst into the limelight in the Sixties. They were already known (albeit in a modest way) beyond the bounds of Sussex. The radio presenter Francis Collison had heard of them through Bob in 1949 and had travelled to Peacehaven's Central Club (a social centre run by Bob and his wife Joan) to do some recordings. The singing of father and son was duly broadcast in 1951. From these small beginnings developed a fruitful relationship between Bob and the BBC. Certainly, Bob found music a more rewarding way of life than the other vocations he had tried such as being a soldier, a barber and a policeman; not the least of the problems with the last mentioned was being teased for being "P.C. Copper"! In 1953 and 1954 were broadcast the series of programmes on a Sunday morning called "As I Roved Out". These were done from the Central Club. At around this time as well, together with his uncle John, Ron and his father, Bob also performed at the Royal Festival Hall during the International Folk Festival there. He became an acknowledged writer, too, with books like "A Song For Every Season - A Hundred Years Of A Sussex Family" (which won the Robert Pitman Literary Prize in 1971) and "Early To Rise - A Sussex Boyhood". In Bob was to be found, according to Fred Woods in The Observer's Book of Folk Song in Britain, "at once an elegant writer, a passionate protector of his family's impressive repertoire and a tireless and enthralling remembrancer of times past".
Following Jim's death, Bob and Ron teamed up as a duo, with Bob's children John and Jill joining them. By the late Seventies, when Ron himself had died, the grandchildren went out on the gigs as well. Several albums were made in the Sixties and Seventies like "English Shepherd And Farming Songs", "Traditional Songs From Rottingdean", "Two Brethren", "Sweet Rose In June", "Twankydillo", the four-album "A Song For Every Season" and in 1988, "Coppersongs - A Living Tradition", with the EFDSS. On "Sweet Rose In June", Bob was alone, but various combinations of family members feature on the other recordings. The entire family, spouses included, can be heard singing Thousands Or More on "Coppersongs".
But Bob had his sorrows. Joan was ailing, and he effectively dropped out of the scene for a good while to care for her. She finally died in 1983. By then, his extraordinary contribution to traditional music at every level had been recognised through various honours and considerations, like the EFDSS' Gold Badge in 1978 and an honorary degree from Sussex University in 2000. His final acknowledgement was an MBE, awarded just four days before his death. Probably one of the last public memories we will have of him, though, was that absorbing and strangely touching January 2002 Radio 4 broadcast of his conversation with Pete Seeger in New York as the two old men talked of songs, and family traditions and living generally.
Looking back now, although we didn't realise it at the time, that broadcast was a fitting rounding off of everything. Now Bob's gone, and with such a lived life, it's tempting to say that we'll never see his likes again. But knowing what we do about him, I for one am perfectly happy to fall into that temptation - because no, I don't think we ever will...
Robert (Bob) James Copper, born January 6th 1915, died March 29th 2004. He is survived by his two children and six grandchildren.
This page last updated on 3 January, 2006