First published in fRoots magazine, January 2015 (issue 379-80)

Rolling With Bob

This January marks the centenary of one of the greats of English folk music, the late Bob Copper. Jo Breeze looks back over a full life.

Bob Copper was born in 1915 in Rottingdean in Sussex, the son of Jim Copper and the grandson of James ‘Brasser’ Copper. The Coppers are a long-established Rottingdean family; indeed, local parish records show Coppers in the area at least as far back as 1593. 

Some of Bob’s earliest memories were of sitting singing with his father and grand­father, and it’s possible the family song traditions stretch back just as far behind him. As Bob himself said, “I remember my grandfather singing Shepherd Of The Downs, and he remembered his grand­father singing it. Now I sing it with my grandchildren, and that’s seven successive generations – at least.”

The Copper family repertoire has spread across the world, for many people forming the backbone of the English song repertoire. When Bob visited America in his later years, he was amazed by how audiences joined in the songs with even more vigour than audiences in the UK.

He received an MBE in 2004, just four days before he died. He left an extraordinary legacy of books and poetry, artwork, song collecting, broadcasts, local history, but of course, above all, his singing.

Indeed, there seems no danger now of the family singing tradition falling behind. Shirley Collins, a close friend of his, remembers the family singing together at a gathering in 2010 to celebrate the unveiling of a blue plaque in their honour, and describes watching Bob’s great-grandchildren as their parents sang: “One of the toddlers was beating her arm gently against the baby in time to what they were singing, and then she stopped. But the baby grabbed her hand and pulled it back. It was a heartstopping moment; thinking god, this is going to continue, this is in their blood.”

The Copper family tradition is near-unique; certainly the combination – the repertoire, harmonising, and unbroken oral transmission – is unparalleled. But in many ways it was Bob’s own love and stewardship that led the music safely through the changes that broke many other family traditions.

The rediscovery (or perhaps more like a re-rediscovery) of the family repertoire by the rest of the world in the 1950s came via a BBC broadcast, partly as a result of a meeting decades earlier. In 1897, Kate Lee (one of the founding members of the Folk Song Society) noted down songs from Brasser and his brother Tom – in exchange for a bottle of scotch, of course. One wonders how any folk song collecting would ever have got done if it weren’t for the long-standing association of drinking and singing, meaning that a drink for a song seems a reasonable exchange rate. 

The event mostly passed out of family memory, but in the intervening years their songs were discovering new admirers in London. Decades later, Jim Copper was surprised to hear one of their own songs on the radio, and distinctly unimpressed by the treatment they’d given it. Contacting the BBC after the broadcast resulted in the Coppers being invited to perform on the BBC’s Country Magazine, in August 1950. It soon led to more performances (including at the Royal Albert Hall) and ultimately to Bob’s employment as a roving song collector for the BBC. 

He wrote beautifully about the singers he met and songs he discovered in Songs And Southern Breezes [reprinted since this article was originally published], sounding the warning “Go out while there is yet time and seek the one or two men and women of the old school who still remain, and if you meet them treat them well, for they represent the last slender link with those far-off days upon which we look so warmly… Fill the old man’s pipe with tobacco and his glass with beer and spend an hour listening to his songs or stories for his memory, coupled with that of the old men he listened to when he was young, can span a century and a half.”

James McDonald works with the Song Collectors’ Collective, and finds that the group is still finding plenty of examples worth collecting, but calls to action like Bob’s serve a crucial purpose. “Making people think that the world is going to end is a great way to motivate them into action,” he says. “The one key thing to getting people active is passion, and that’s the one thing that’s really lacking now – there’s loads of interest, loads of skills, loads of knowledge, but not enough passion for people to do what people like Bob Copper and Alan Lomax did.”

Bob’s passion for the traditions and history shines through his writing, but it was far from a defining characteristic of his early years. As a young man Bob left the area where his family had lived for generations, and served in the army – in the Life Guards, part of the Household Cavalry. Serving as a peacetime soldier in 1930s London proved immense fun; he wrote evocatively about it – smoky nightclubs, charming women, soldiers sneaking in and out of the barrack-room – though the best stories apparently remain unprintable. But ultimately he missed rural life, and wrote of “watching a couple of men working in a trench to mend a burst water-pipe, and thinking how long it had been since my boots had been muddy. That is what I missed most of all: the sight, the smell and the feel of good, moist earth… this world was not for me.”

In London his army colleagues ironically nicknamed him Bing after his crooning habits; he discovered jazz, and he gained a lifelong love of the blues which surfaced on the recent Prostrate With Dismal EP. It was only when he returned south that he reconnected with the family traditions – helped in part by the fascinated response of others. Barclay Wells, an older man whom Bob met while doing voluntary ambulance work, had made a lifelong study of the habits and ways of life of Sussex shepherds. He was so captivated by stories of the Copper family traditions that it helped Bob realise what a wealth of country lore he had at his fingertips. “From that time on,” he wrote, “I listened more attentively to my father’s anecdotes and sang with a new perception the songs my grandfather used to sing.”

Bob seems always to have been conscious that he was living through a period of immense social change: the early years of his life saw huge technological and social upheaval. In one of the family notebooks, Bob’s father Jim described the immediate impact of the war: “The army took a lot of our young men – five of them being carters – and eight of our best horses. They even took the hunter that I used to ride so instead of three or four hours in the saddle I had to walk over the farm. This started us on tractors and we had a very powerful Titan to replace our best horses and being short of men I had to drive it and do all the threshing, a good deal of the ploughing, and anything that came along.” The arrival of the tractor proved to be a huge agricultural shift, meaning that work was no longer limited by the physical capacity of what a living creature could accomplish – one of the most dramatic changes to the rural way of life for many generations.

But Bob was not immune to these changes. He could so easily have broken the chain; he could have left for London and never returned. Like so many other local families, the Copper repertoire could have ended there.

Instead, his awareness of the changes happening around him, and his formidable skills of observation, meant that he was able to recognise – when many wouldn’t – the value of his family traditions; not only as a treasured archive of the past, but also as a very real and living connection to his own much-loved family. “Other singers, we choose our repertoire,” says Shirley. “With Bob it was there all the time, part of his family.”

Bob’s son John Copper described the family’s attachment to the songs: “I’m more likely to think about the people I’m singing with and how we’re bonded, and the times I’ve sung with the old-timers when they were still alive. We remember uncle John, and Jim of course; they died in the early ’50s but we remember them, but more especially Bob. And Bob is immediately back to life as soon as we get together; he’s in the room with us, and his spirit is so strongly with us. I keep thinking of things that we did together, they way he was such fun to be with; we had such good times. And these characters come back to life when we sing the songs. That’s the emotional bond that we’ve got with our repertoire.”

A common theme from everyone who knew Bob is his kindness. A truly social animal, Bob made friends everywhere, and loved the camaraderie of the army just as he loved the community he was part of as publican or the singers who welcomed him into their homes on his collecting trips. “I never saw him lose his temper. Not in all the years I knew him. And I never heard him say a bad word about anyone; that’s so unusual” said John. His daughter Jill adds “He was like a magnet, he had such charisma. He was a good storyteller, he was a good listener; everybody felt happy in his company.”

John describes an occasion, later in life, when Bob visited the doctor. As a former coroner’s officer, Bob had spent a lot of time with doctors and understood their workload, so after an appointment which had strayed from pure consultation into more personal catching up, Bob stood up to leave and the doctor said “Do you know, Mr Copper, I always feel so much better after one of your visits.” “He actually said that,” said John, “and he meant it. And that sums up Bob.”

His eloquence and skill with words meant that same kindness and connection extended far beyond his immediate presence. He kept up letters back and forth with friends all over the world, and took care to reply to a letter the same day he received it (often writing it out first on whatever scrap paper was to hand, such as the back of 1930s Worthing police memos). His son-in-law, Jon Dudley, talking about Bob’s long-running correspondences, remembers that “People would write to him, and he’d write back to them, and then they’d write back and say thank you, then he’d write back and say thank you for saying thank you! He was an inveterate correspondent.” 

2015 marks the centenary of Bob’s birth, and will be commemorated on Saturday 24th January by a day of celebration at Cecil Sharp House. January also sees the reissue on Fledg’ling / Topic of Bob and Ron Copper’s classic album Traditional Songs From Rottingdean including Bob’s original detailed sleevenotes, and the republication of his award-winning book A Song For Every Season. Finally, the centenary will also be marked by the release of a special Bob Copper Ale by local Lewes brewer Harveys – particularly apt for a man who had such firm Sussex roots and spent years working as a publican. Raise a glass to a man described by Maddy Prior as “a parish historian of genius”, who had an indelible influence on the English song tradition, and who with immense love and knowledge shepherded his family’s traditions through a century of change.

O good ale, thou art my darling,
Thou art my joy both night and morning.