18th January 2021
This feature first appeared in issue 20 of The Southern Rag (the original title of fRoots) in April 1984
A quick potted history. The Copper family have worked in and around Rottingdean, Sussex, for centuries. In 1897, Mrs Kate Lee collected the songs from James “Brasser” Copper and his younger brother Tom that would inspire the formation of the English Folk Song Society. In 1936,Brasser’s son Jim wrote the words of the family songs into a book. In 1950, Jim heard one of their songs sung on the radio. Persuaded by his son Bob, he wrote in and as a result the Copper family were re-discovered, the rich Sussex harmonies of Jim, Bob, Jim’s brother John and son Ron filling the airwaves.
All of this, and the way of life that went with the songs, has been documented in Bob’s books published by Heinemann in the ’70s. Now another generation of Coppers are out singing regularly again – this time it’s Bob, his son John and daughter Jill, and their spouses Lynn and Jon (Dudley) – and they’re a joy to hear. What’s more, on the first Thursday of each month they host the Coppersongs club at the Central Club, Peacehaven (John Copper having succeeded Bob as landlord), and it’s the best, most hospitable gig we know of. Ian Anderson and Maggie Holland returned a week after one of those sessions to talk with Bob and John Copper about the family, the songs, the singing, and more.
As a result of the great blossoming of the folk revival in the ’50s and ’60s, you must have been the first generations of the family to be on stage singing to an audience, as opposed to singing with people in a room. How did you find that?
B.C. It was a terrific experience for us. We were very nervous at one time, and we sang much quicker than usual. We did quite a bit of radio broadcasting in the ’50s for programmes that weren’t just folk music – all manner of things like drama. They used to say “a bit faster, a bit faster, get it moving.” I think we’re getting it back onto the ground again, which is a good thing to do.
My earliest memories were of it very, very slow, because you’re singing entirely for your own enjoyment. Nobody’s listening, everybody is singing. But then, of course, when we started – my father and I particularly, and Uncle John and Ron – we did television at Ally Pally for Lomax and so on, and I let my father have his head. He was the boss, and he even started changing the words of the songs where they didn’t make sense – we’d always sung them by rote. For instance, in Claudy Banks, there’s a verse we’re putting back in now, “Like some roaring king of honour, fought in the wars of Troy” – which I think is a marvellous line. But it went “If Johnny he was here this night, he’d keep me from all harm, but he’s cruising the wide ocean, in tempest and in storm.” And then he’s in the field of battle, so when we were doing the broadcasts, the old man said “Well, bugger, he can’t be in two places at once, we’ve got to make our minds up. They not bloody daft out there, you know!” That was his attitude. And he said we couldn’t sing “’twas on one summer’s morning, all in the month of May”, as we always used to sing, and then “this dark and rainy night.” “That was a pretty quick day”, he’d say, “We’d better sing ‘it was on one summer’s evening’.” He was quite meticulous about it.
But he had a good reason for doing everything, and that proves the point that we all felt rather conscious that people were listening. We hadn’t been used to that. We used to say “jerk ’em along a bit”, because we’d used to drag them out like anything, nearly always repeat the last two lines of those like Spencer [The Rover] and Claudy [Banks] and Come Write Me Down as a kind of chorus every time, go over the bugger again and savour the harmonies, a bit slower.
And you’ve said before that when you used to go out performing, the audiences expected the same dozen or so Coppers’ greatest hits.
J.C. Well now we leave that sort of thing much more to chance, if we have a booking. We sing much more what we would like to sing, some of the songs in the repertoire which, if you’re not careful, get pushed to the side and neglected. I’ll spring a song on him that he hasn’t even thought of for five years – but they’re all in there somewhere with Dad, it’s like riding a bike! It’s nice to have that spontaneity, then there’s that freshness in it that you lose very quickly if you’re singing the same songs night after night.
B.C. If you’re professional musicians and performers, you can make it sound fresh every time, but not bums like us. We just sing mostly because we like the songs, we’re not clever enough to make it professional. It’s like those long players we did for Bill Leader. He came down in the afternoon after closing time, about half past three, and we had to open the club again at six. We just rattled them off.
J.C. We recorded 82 tracks in 4 sessions like that, with 12 re-takes. We were appalled – I thought it was a bit too extreme at the time, but maybe he did have a good idea. I don’t know. I’ve never heard ’em right through. It’s like looking in the mirror – it’s bloody awful, but you can’t do anything about it!
But right back to your original question – my father’s generation were the old traditional singers who never sang in front of an audience at all when they first started. They were suddenly thrust into a world of concerts, folk platforms, etc. But don’t forget that happened a whole generation ago – it was over 30 years ago that Dad was performing in the Royal Albert Hall. I was absolutely brought up with it, and I have to almost contrive a singaround situation or a family sing-song. It’s something you have to organise, whereas in Dad’s younger days, these sort of things happened naturally. So even for Dad, it’s a long time ago to remember.
B.C. Of course, it was gradual. And being behind a bar is a great help; you’re in the public eye. It’s very akin to show business, quite honestly, and more so in a club than a pub, probably.
J.C. That recalls an anecdote there. I get Dad to give me a bit of help behind the bar and do a bit of cleaning, and it runs in the family. When Dad was my age, at exactly the same bar, he used to get Jim as an old man to come over from Rottingdean and give a hand. The day finally came when he said “Would you mind doing a bit of bar work?”, early one Saturday evening. There were only two or three customers to deal with; but Jim had never done that before. After it was all over, Dad said “How did you get on with the customers then?”. He said “Oh, no bloody trouble at all, boy. I got on with the shelves. I never took no notice of them and they never took no notice of me.”
B.C. But the old man, when we were doing the radio programme The Life Of James Copper, we’d done the recordings and they were coming down to do some photographs for Radio Times. Dad turned up, and he had quite a nice appearance, white hair and a nice tweed suit, you could take him anywhere – he turned up this morning in his old corduroy weskit, a funny old cap, his old stick and a neckerchief. Joan, my wife, said “What’s the matter with the old man? I think he’s flipped.” She was horrified, and I was a bit. But I said to her later; “Who got his picture on the front of Radio Times, the cunning old bugger?!”
Do you ever play up to it, put on your old clothes?
J.C. No, never (laughs). If anything, we go the other way. We turn up in best suits because it’s an occasion. Just to say “if you think we’re rustics, we’ll go the other way”.
Peter Bellamy once said we look like a convention of country solicitors! Dad turned round to him and said “It’s better than looking like Mr. Kentucky Fried Chicken, isn’t it?”. Poor old Pete!
B.C. But any pub singer had an extrovert streak, the ones I’ve recorded; my father for a start, Enos White, Turp Brown, they wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
Were any stories passed down in the family abut the way your grandfather was collected from at the turn of the century, and the lady who did it?
B.C. They’d forgotten all about it. It was after we’d startd broadcasting and working with the BBC, through Dad’s letter that I’d made him write to them. Frank Collinson, who did all the music for Country Magazine, came down and told Dad “I’ve found out that your father and his brother were made honorary founder members of the English Folk Song Society in 1897. There was a lady called Mrs Kate Lee who collected them in Rottingdean.” And then the old man said “Well, I remember that very well, now you mention it.” But it hadn’t been handed down in the family at all. Don’t think that Ron and me as kids were brought up thinking our grandfathers were this or that. We existed! Then Dad said “Oh yes, I remember my old dad and uncle Tom going to old Teddy Carson’s house” – that was Sir Edward Carson – “and there was some woman up there that put a bottle of scotch on the table, a decanter of water and two glasses, and she wouldn’t let ’em go until they’d finished the scotch.” But we never knew that until after the BBC reminded him.
Alcohol does seem to have had a good effect on the Copper Family!
J.C. Oh yes, joking aside, it has been a congealing force in the whole family. We couldn’t do it on tea, you know! We’ve doe some afternoon jobs on tea and found it hard to be enthusiastic about them! You don’t have to get tight, but a couple of drinks takes the edge off, you relax into it.
B.C. We used to say “every song a drink”; didn’t mean to say a full drink, a top-up from the jug.
J.C. The songs were primarily sung in the tap room. And there has nearly always been a Copper licensee. My great grandfather Brasser’s brother had the Black Horse.
B.C. And Ron and I married into pubs, so John was born into it, poor chap!
How much has the way in which the family used to sing – at home and in the pub – affected the type of songs which found their way into the repertoire and stayed, or got left out. There aren’t a lot of murder ballads, for instance.
B.C. We’re a happy family, and we come from a very happy part of the country. Going back to my grandfather’s generation and even before that, I’m sure, going back to the late 16th century, the farm at Rottingdean was run by different generations of a Quaker family. Even the farmer when I was a boy, who’d taken over about 1890, he kept up the same tradition. They looked after their men wonderfully well, they never stood anybody off in the winter, they made jobs for them to keep them on and fully paid. In the Luddite times, threshing machines being busted and all that sort of thing, I think you’ll find Captain Swing went through Sussex to the north of here – he couldn’t go south, of course, ’cause he’d have been in the bloody sea! – but our little pocket down here, nobody wanted to know. They were happy people. My mother, who was a Londoner who came down to service at a big house; if old Billy Brown (who was very much a gentleman farmer) come to the back door to ask Dad to do something, and Dad would be all “Yes, Mr Brown, Sir”, mum would say “Why do you kow-tow to him so much? We don’t owe him nothing.” Don’t you worry about that”, he’d say, “the guv’nor looks after us very well. Rain or shine, winter or summer, he looks after us, we don’t go short of nothing. The Lord above knows where we’d be without ’im.” That was the attitude, and it went for a happy village, generally speaking. I suppose that is reflected in the songs.
J.C. There was no great oppression going on, that was the thing. The older I get, the more I realise that at the time, before the turn of the century, nearly any country village had a tremendous amount of oppression going on; people were being manipulated all the time. We seem to have escaped it, and people can’t understand why we’ve got this extraordinary attitude that our songs reflect – very tolerant of the landed gentry and everything which went with that. There are lots of other places in Sussex like it as well.
B.C. At the same time in Dorset and East Anglia, for instance, they had terrible times. Farm workers were really impoverished and lived on a turnip out of the fields.
The picture painted by Flora Thompson was virtually simultaneous with your grandfather, but what a difference in lifestyle! And not very much singing.
B.C. Yes, exactly. You’ve got to feel pretty well to sing.
I got the impression from her books that the reasons why there weren’t many musical instruments around was that they were so poor they’d had to sell any they had. Now if Rottingdean was better off, were instruments more common?
B.C. The only instrument there was in the village in the agricultural community was old Stevie Barrow’s, an old shepherd. I remember him quite well, getting on for 70 or 80. He had a concertina – I never heard him play it, though I’ve seen it in an exhibition – but apparently he used to accompany his singing. The song that came from him, via Dad, was Lord Thomas – lovely song. He was a show-off, if ever there was one – little short bloke with a white patriarchal beard when I remember him, with a moleskin cap. Jump over a five-bar gate on his 70th birthday, that sort of thing, and went up on a five shilling trip in an Avro bi-plane on his 80th birthday! Stevie Barrow would do that sort of thing.
There doesn’t seem to be much reference in your writings to the women in the family singing. Didn’t they sing, or was it only when the men weren’t around?
B.C. Well, leave my wife Joan out of it, she wan’t interested in the slightest, not a bit! But my mother and Ron’s mum, they used to join in, very much so. And, my aunt Lil, dad’s older sister, she was like a female Brasser – she had a deep, contralto voice, just like Brasser with a wig on! We’d never heard Clara Butt, but she sounded like we imagined Clara Butt did. She sang all the harmonies on the traditional songs. She was always at the family Christmasses, though she lived up in London. With Jill and Lynn, it’s lovely to see the women coming back into it again. I’m sure my sister joined in too, but she went off and got a bit posh.
Jill’s husband, Jon Dudley, is a good asset to the family singing now, too.
B.C. Oh yes, that’s lovely, he’s a good singer and his heart’s right in it.
J.C. Jill and I both struck lucky, we both found people who had a natural love for singing. Not the Copper family repertoire, they’d never heard of us. John had been a bit of a folkie but he’d never heard of us lot!
You must hear lots of new songs to you, especially when you’ve been collecting, but I gather you don’t bring them into that repertoire at all.
B.C. Well there are so many other people singing them now, they’re not in danger of going.
J.C. But any traditional repertoire, if it’s alive, has got to be added to as it goes along. The same must apply to the Copper family; there have got to be other songs brought into the fold. But only maybe one or two in a generation! We’re not pumping more material in, but you can’t help picking some up.
B.C. To me, the thrill of a song is that it came from some old chap who could neither read nor write, and it was something he treasured and kept in his mind. I treasure all our songs because our family has done that. Jim and Brasser and people before him. And I’ve said so many times that we can’t sing, but we know some bloody good songs in the family. We’ve got every excuse to sing a song if it’s a Copper song, but if it’s something outside, you’ve got to make a damn good job of it, and I don’t think we’re capable of that.
So you get a picture from the family, not something to do with the words of the song?
J.C. The words don’t form a picture to me, none of them. The big buzz I get is that sometimes when I’m singing with dad and John, suddenly Ron’s with us again and it’s an old Christmas down in Rottingdean. It’s like being in a time machine.
That’s very different, then to people who have been attracted to folk songs by the words. Do none of the words ever conjure up things from the stories they tell?
J.C. Only when you first learn them.
B.C. The songs are still, and have been for a long, long time, a terrific bond in the family. We’re a very friendly family and the songs have played a big part in that.
J.C. Jill’s got a teenage family and I’ve got an infant family and they’re just beginning to show an interest in it. We don’t ram it down their throats, as it wasn’t rammed down ours. The vibes the young family get off it is the fun we have when we get together and sing.
How do you feel about other people doing Copper songs? Are there any versions you’ve particularly liked?
J.C. I was very impressed by the Young Tradition, we all were. We thought “Christ, these people can sing”, all the interesting things they were doing with the harmonies.
B.C. And don’t forget, when Ron and I were young, the songs were very much in danger of being lost. I was making positive efforts to get someone to write them down. So these days, with lots of people singing them, even if they make a rotten job of it, the songs are living. Obviously we like to hear them well done, but the only thing I don’t like is if people take the mickey out of them. I get bloody wild then.
J.C. There’s this thing going on at the moment called the Kipper Family, isn’t there? It’s too early to make a judgement, but I’d very much like to meet those people. They did write to us off their own bat, but Peter Bellamy came down and went on and on about how marvellous and great they were, he enthused so much that he put me off!
I just hope that the songs continue to give as wide an audience of people happiness and pleasure. I’m sure that Jim and Brasser and Honest John, and all the others before them would agree with that sentiment. As long as they’re treated with a bit of respect, and sometimes appreciation is shown to the generations of this family responsible for carrying them into the modern day, then I’m perfectly happy for anyone to perform them, and the more they do, the better I like it.
I sometimes think that people ought to mention, just now and again, that it was through the work of Jim Copper, and his father, and Bob Copper as well, that these songs reached the modern day – I feel strongly about that. When the Steeleye Span crew did Hard Times [Of Old England], there was no recognition of the source. OK, it’s traditional, we don’t want bloody royalties or anything, but they ought to say.
On a closing note, you were talking the other night about how, because you sing these English traditional songs, people assume that’s all you’re interested in.
B.C. Yes, good Lord! I think really you just like music, don’t you? Now, I’m feeling my way into classical music, Haydn, Beethoven, whatever. But I remember back in the ‘30s, on the radio, the occasional programme of “field recordings”. I think some were by Lomax; I didn’t think I’d meet Alan one day. There were these negroes singing music I’d never heard before. Then I came across a record of Sleepy John Estes in a second-hand shop, about ‘32 or ’33 – Drop Down Mama and Married Woman Blues – I played it until it wore clean through. All my contemporaries just said “what’s that bloody row, then?” Ron would be absolutely puzzled at what I could see in it.
And then there were the Mills Brothers. Oh, absolutely! I was working in Holborn when they came over in the ’30s. They were at the Holborn Empire and I went every bloody night! It cost me one-and-six every night to go there. And before that when I was labouring on the sea defence and Louis Amstrong was over, about ’33, I packed up early and went up all by myself on the train and saw him there – I was about the only white face there. I loved that stuff. The Mills Brothers arrangements were wonderful – I was a real fan and knew every one of their records backwards.
And then Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson, and Crosby of course – I was right in early on Crosby.
Would you have ever included any of the songs in the family singarounds?
B.C. Well, I have the answer ready for you. My father used to hear my records being played on an old portable, and he incuded at least two in his songbook – That’s My Home, which was Armstrong, and Old Rocking Chair’s Got Me which was the Mills Brothers. He’d be out there in the woodshed singing “Ol’ rockin’ chair’s got me…” He sang it like Jim Copper! But when Frank Collinson went down to see them, he quickly turned over all those!
John, what music did you grow up listening to apart from the family songs?
J.C. I suppose I started on Bob Dylan, and Donovan as well. We’ve all got pretty wide tastes in music – I like Steely Dan, and you couldn’t get much further from traditional music than that. I’ve got a great love of blues – when I was about 10 dad bought an electric record player, which was a tremendous innovation in our family, and found there were lots of blues records coming out by then, in the ’50s. I remember getting hold of 3 EPs compiled by the late, lamented Alexis Korner called Kings Of The Blues.
Then later I got into much heavier stuff, right through to Hendrix. That was at a time when I was using dope and stuff, mixing with a pretty freewheeling crowd – on the road being a part-time hippie, sleeping rough when it suited you. I still listen to a lot of Hendrix now.
B.C. It’s amazing, really. The whole of western culture today is derived from negro music. You go to the superstore and you’ll near negro derivatives being played. Just a handful of negroes in a vast continent, a small proportion, and the lovely stuff has influenced the whole world.