The Copper family of the coastal village of Rottingdean1, Sussex, UK have lived and worked in the same place for over 400 years as shepherds, general farm workers, carters and publicans. They can trace their ancestry back to parish records in 1593 and may well have roots there that go back considerably longer. One part of the local churchyard contains so many family graves that it is referred to as 'Coppers' Corner'.
An Historical note
The family are remarkable for their history of traditional singing, which they can trace back for at least 200 years (six generations). Most people thinking of traditional folk singing picture unaccompanied solo singers, whereas the Coppers have a history of singing in harmony. When in 1898, Mrs Kate Lee, a folk song collector from London, went to Rottingdean and noted down some of their songs2, it led to the formation of the Folk Song Society (which later became the English Folk Dance and Song Society).
The pater familias of the family is now Bob Copper, now in his late 80s. He remembers singing with his father, Jim 'Honest John' Copper, and his grandfather, James 'Brasser' Copper, who sang with his brother Tom and could in his turn remember his grandfather George Copper (born in 1794) singing.
Some of Brasser and Tom's songs had already been noted down Mrs Lee and Brasser himself wrote out the words of about 30 of his songs in 1922. Jim, Brasser's son and Bob's father wrote down many more songs in 1936 and these make up the Coppers' repertoire. The songs are sung from the book, which is put away after each singing session. Songs are pitched with a tuning fork, which comes as a surprise to many people.
The Coppers were well known for singing at harvest suppers, plowing matches, or any village celebration.
Orally transmitted polyphonic music may be a rarity, however it is clearly part of the folk tradition. It is not clear, however, whether there was any early history of primitive folk polyphony. It is perfectly possible that the rural harmonies may have evolved from church harmonies or glee clubs which were once common in our villages3.
None of the Coppers were able to read music, however their harmonizing has been arrived at by trial and error and is not haphazard. They have generally been sung in two-part harmony and some harmonies have been passed down from father to son by rote, while others have been worked out by the individual singer. The style is very individual and really has to be heard to be understood. Aspects like the tone of voice, slides, scoops and hovers are difficult to present in written form. Their repertoire contained different styles and methods of harmonisation with some for instance sung in an old style similar to shape-note singers and a few in revivalist hymn harmonies.
Bob Copper's grandfather James used to sing treble with his brother Tom singing bass. James's two oldest sons, John and Jim sang treble and bass respectively. Bob Copper sang with his cousin Ron (John's son), singing treble and bass respectively.
The Coppers' Influence on the Development of Folk Music
In 1950, Jim and his son Bob sang on BBC Radio, which let them be heard by a national audience for the first time. This was followed by many more broadcasts. Bob is a collector as well as a source of traditional folk music.
The Copper family's influence on the development of the folk tradition in the UK can hardly be overestimated. They are one of the inspirational sources of the folk revival which started in the 1950s and which continues to the present day. In February 2001, Bob Copper was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for his contribution to preserve his musical roots. In January of the previous year, aged 85, he was awarded an honorary masters degree for his services to country life.
Revivalist folk singers such as the late Peter Bellamy, Shirley Collins, Louis Killen and Frankie Armstrong count the Copper family as one of their influences.
The Copper Family Today
Bob Copper is still singing (he says, 'People who saw me or bought records from the 1950s are amazed I'm still alive!'). His son John, daughter Jill and her husband Jon Dudley sing with him and occasionally Bob's grandchildren sing as well. Above all, he wants singing to be fun for them as it was for him.
Recordings and Publications
Over the years, the Copper family have made a number of recordings and published several books. Among these are the following:
A song for every season contains four generations of the family repertoire, and i available from Leader DEAB 404. When this was published as a book, it won the 1971 Robert Pitman Literary Prize.
Come Write Me Down has recordings from the '50s and '60s by Bob and Ron Copper and their respective fathers Jim and John.
Coppersongs 1, 2 and 3.
Songs and Southern Breezes: Country Folk and Country Ways, Heinemann, London, 1973.
- Early to Rise, 1976, republished Javelin 1988.