Billy Cooper of Hingham in Norfolk was one of the most well known and influential dulcimer players in England, from an area of East Anglia teeming with both players and makers of the instrument from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. The recording sessions which took place at the very end of his life in the early 1960s resulted in the seminal Record No 1 LP, which brought his music to a wider audience of musicians and enthusiasts, particularly as the limited edition LP was reissued in 1976 and then again as a CD in 20001, but he is also still proudly remembered by many in Hingham and the surrounding area, where recollections of the music making in a large number of country pubs are vivid and numerous.
William Frederick Cooper was from a large family of shopkeepers and shoemakers in Hingham. He was actually born in the East End of London on 15 December, 1883, but the family seems to have moved back to the Norfolk village not long after he was born. Billy grew up in Hingham, learning music from his father who was leader of Hingham and Watton Band. Billy Cooper senior (1860-1932) also played dulcimer and concertina and passed on his knowledge of both instruments to his son, and was the composer of the waltz Dulcie Belle, later recorded by both Billy Cooper and Billy Bennington.2
The first definite reference to Billy's musical activity is an old postcard of the Hingham Minstrels standing outside The Royal Oak before the First World War.3 The band comprised, left to right: Charlie Seaman with mandolin, Walter Baldwin (1888-1949) - one of Hingham's blacksmiths - on fiddle, Billy Cooper holding autoharp behind dulcimer, Jack Bunn (1886-1964) with dulcimer beaters and Bob Felton with bones. Although Jack Bunn played the dulcimer sometimes, it was more usual for him to play autoharp and Billy Cooper the dulcimer. The Hingham Minstrels played regularly for dances in the Lincoln Hall before and during the Second World War.
About the time the photograph was taken, Billy spent some time in Bury St Edmunds and joined the Suffolk Regiment in 1915. Music still featured strongly as he was in charge of the regimental fife-and-drum band, and there is a photograph of Corporal William Cooper playing the dulcimer in army uniform, along with banjo player Harry Ball.4 He also famously built a 'trench banjo' out of an old rifle stock and other odds and ends whilst in France.
After the war, Billy returned to the Hingham area and continued to play music regularly with Walter Baldwin, Jack Bunn, who later played guitar in preference to the autoharp, another fiddler Ernie Barber, and another dulcimer player, Billy Bennington (1900-1986), from Barford, who also was taught to play by Billy Cooper senior, and who became a very famous player in his own right. Billy's grandson Malcolm Keeler5 recalls: “Billy was an active musician around the Hingham area for much of the first part of the Twentieth Century, right up until his death in 1964. Before the Second World War he played dulcimer in a black and white minstrel band with Ernie Barber and Walter Baldwin on fiddles. During the War there were four of them, travelling in a cart pulled by a donkey and raising funds for the war effort - Spitfire funds. An Ernie (sic) Bunn also used to play with them sometimes. In Hingham, he used to play regularly in The George, The Oak, The Angel and The Eight Ringers, playing a song for a pint of beer. He could pick up a tune by ear, having heard it once. Daisy Girling would play the piano with him in these pubs. Their repertoire was generally popular song tunes. It was mostly in pubs that Billy did his playing; village hall appearances were much rarer.”
Billy Cooper's daughter Flora Sinnott remembered, “Dad used to go in the pub, Eight Ringers, every day; never missed, playing his dulcimer. Every day he used to go to The Ringers … all we knew about him was the dulcimer … Dad used to play at The Ringers with the landlady from The Ringers, Daisy Girling … and they used to play together. She used to play the piano; She was a very good pianist … That was his life. And I think he used to go to The Ringers every dinner time and night time, playing the dulcimer … Oh yeah, the pub used to be full; it was always men and women in there. Very popular pub that was, The Ringers … I don't think (Billy) ever had to buy a drink. I think they all used to buy him drinks, cause of his playing.” In cold weather the beer was warmed at the fire, as recalled by Flora's husband Paddy: “In the winter, through lots of years, they used to have a small saucepan in the fireplace, a bloomin' black dirty-looking old thing. In the winter they used to have; “Old” they called it. And, of course, they used to drink halves of “Old”; tip it into the old saucepan first and warm it. For a long time after he died, the old saucepan was still there.”
As well as Hingham Ringers, Billy Cooper played in many pubs locally after the Great War, often with Billy Bennington. Flora Sinnott again: “Oh yes, my Dad used to go to where Billy Bennington lived in the pub, The King's Head, (in Barford) and he used to come over there of an evening sometimes and play with Billy Bennington there. I was only a girl, but I used to go with him, I know … He lodged in The King's Head, because he worked at Wallace King's … and rather than come, he used to have a little old motorbike, some sort of two-stroke thing. Rather than come all the way home to Hingham, he lodged at Mrs Bennington's.” Billy Bennington later tended to play separately in his own circuit of pubs.
Fiddler Walter Baldwin was another regular musical companion, as Flora comments: “I know at one time Dad used to go out on the back of someone's motorbike. I believe they had a motorbike and sidecar and he used to take his dulcimer in the sidecar. Yes, I can remember it; that was a motorbike and sidecar; I believe it was Walter Baldwin who had it … Walter Baldwin and my Dad made out they were buskers and they used to go to Wells, and they lodged at Wells.6 They got ever so friendly with all them people in Wells and that's what they used to do. But of course they didn't really do it for money, but they made out they did.” A band consisting of Cooper, Baldwin and Jack Bunn played regularly in pubs such as Wicklewood Cherry Tree in the years after the Second World War, as former landlord Ted Pitcher remembered: “There'd be three; with Cooper, one play the guitar, another one play the fiddle! Billy Baldwin, Billy Cooper, and Bunn was the other bloke; I can't remember his Christian name. Bunn used to play the guitar … The three of them used to have a little band, y'know.”
After Walter Baldwin's early death in 1949, Billy seems to have continued the regular visits to Wells with Jack Bunn and Ernie Barber. Interestingly, Cyril Eagling of Shipdham, who used to play alto saxophone in local dance band The Rhythm Boys, doesn't remember Billy Cooper playing the dulcimer, although he certainly knew him. Instead, he recalls that Jack Bunn used to play the dulcimer after the Second World War: “Up at the fire station; he used to bring his dulcimer. I have actually played with him playing the dulcimer. Only in fun; not as a group. Course, he was a bit restricted to the tunes, because they all played by ear … but John Bunn could play; never used any music … John Bunn played the dulcimer after the war in pubs.”
Paddy Sinnott often acted as driver when Billy was playing on his own: “On a Boxing Day, for instance, for several years he used to say to me, “Can we go out tomorrow morning?” “Where would you like to go?” And he'd say, “I'd like to go to The Cherry Tree.” (At Wicklewood) So we used to go to The Cherry Tree and have a drink in there. Sometimes he'd bring his dulcimer and he'd have a tune in there. The place used to be packed; this used to be eleven o'clock in the morning; the place would be full.”
“Another place I took him several times to was Banham Cider House, and he knew I didn't like going there too much because, I don't know if they still do, but at that time they used to only sell cider and wine, you see, so I used to go in there and probably have a couple of halves of cider, or a glass of wine, or something. But this particular night, we got there and he reached his hand round the back of the seat and he pulled out a carrier bag, and there was some bottles of brown in there. He said, “I brought that for you!”
Although music played a huge part in Billy's life, to the point that he very often played in one pub at lunchtime and another in the evening, he didn't make a living out of it, having a greengrocer's business, which earned him the nickname 'Banana Billy'. Perhaps because of his devoting so much time to playing music, the business may have come second in Billy's priorities, as Cyril Eagling recalls: “He used to sell rotten vegetables in the village. They weren't very good. He had a pony and cart; used to come round on a Sunday afternoon, selling vegetables.” Billy seemed adept at trying out various ways of making money: “He also had a fish and chip van. When the fair came to here, which was twice a year, he had an old horse-drawn chip van. Just used to fry chips, of course. He was a bit of a lad for making money.”
Billy's grandson Grenville Perkins remembers that between the ages of nine and thirteen he would stay regularly with his grandparents in their bungalow in the village, which was surrounded by a garden with flower and vegetable beds, fruit trees and chickens. On many an occasion he accompanied his grandfather on poaching expeditions, riding in a wooden box on the front of Billy's bike, legs dangling, with a 12 bore shotgun tied with twine to the crossbar, to Grenville's consternation, although Billy would reassure him: “Thass all right boy; that int loaded!”. Billy had a woodyard in Hingham and they would often go there first: Billy would chop kindling and Grenville would tie bundles together with bands made from bicycle inner tubes. They would then take these bundles to Turner's hardware shop and exchange them for cartridges, before setting off for Captain Denny's land between the church and the cemetery. Billy would shoot and Grenville would race out of the bicycle box to act as retriever. It seems that Billy had some sort of “gentleman's agreement” with the Captain, who would ignore the gunshots, in exchange for which a hare or brace of pheasants would be left regularly in a certain place. Grenville recalls being given a clip round the ear on one occasion for aiming at a woodpecker, Billy sternly telling him, “Only shoot what you eat.” After these expeditions, Grenville would often accompany his grandfather to The Ringers, and recalls on one occasion Billy bought him a half of Bullard's mild, before returning to the bar, only to turn round a few moments later to see Grenville swaying and clutching three darts, to be told, “Oi, boy; come and sit down! Don't you dare tell your Nanny, will you.”
Although he certainly played for dances as part of the Hingham Minstrels until about the end of the Second World War, much of Billy's music making seems to have taken place in pubs around the Hingham area and up on the coast at Wells. Bridget Giacomelli, one of Billy's granddaughters, remembers that a pub in Docking, in north west Norfolk, was also a regular place where he played music: “We used to go to Docking … there was a pub there … that was definitely one of the other haunts that I was dragged along to, sometimes, as a child! I'm sure when we went to Docking, Grandad used to play his dulcimer with other people on other instruments.” As well as the previously mentioned musical associates, he also played around the Dereham area with Alfred “Fiddler” Brown of Scarning.7 It would seem that much of his repertoire consisted of popular songs and tunes of the day, although he knew a great many country dance tunes and seems to have had the nickname 'The Hornpipe King' at one point. However, nobody in his family can recall him playing for step dancing. Billy's recorded solo repertoire from the early 1960s consists of a mixture of popular songs and country dance tunes.8
As well as the dulcimer, Billy also could play concertina, fiddle, one-string fiddle and accordion. Barbara Bradshaw, who lived in Hingham as a young girl, recalls: “Billy Cooper also played an accordion well. He used to entertain us children at his daughter's parties.” He could also be prevailed upon to sing on occasion, a favourite song being The Crabfish, as Flora and Paddy Sinnott remember: “Oh yes, what's the one he used to sing and play? The Crab was it? Oh yes, that was it, yes. A very rude song, wasn't it? Mum used to go, “William, shut up!”
Flora remembers Billy's television appearance in November 1959 vividly: “My Dad and Mum went to, I think it was Birmingham, to play on the television … I know we watched it on telly, because I remember so well, he made a slight mistake and he said, “Oh, blast it!” On the television, that was. If something went a little wrong, he'd say, “Oh, blast it!” Course, we all laughed about that! I remember that quite well: they paid for Mum and Dad to go to this lovely hotel. That was years ago.”
Billy Cooper's music became exposed to a much wider audience through the recordings of him playing in the early 1960s with Walter and Daisy Bulwer of Shipdham9, and Reg Hall, Russell Wortley and Mervyn Plunkett, which were released to great acclaim.10 To what extent he played with the Bulwers prior to that is uncertain. Mervyn Plunkett first visited the Bulwers in 1958 and it seems that it was Walter who first suggested he should visit Billy. Sam Steele made recordings of Billy playing with the Bulwers in 195911, where they certainly sound as if they were used to playing together. As Shipdham and Hingham are only six miles apart, it would seem unlikely for there to have been no contact at all between them prior to the late 1950s. Flora Sinnott recalls: “Oh yes, I did meet Daisy … she used to come and play on a Sunday afternoon. They used to have a, you, know, a little music session. She used to come over to ours, and that was when I lived down Norwich Road; she used to come over there and they used to play. Used to be Daisy, 'Miss Daisy' we used to call her … and there used to be someone who used to come down, the violinist. But they did use to play Sunday afternoons.” Flora couldn't recall when these musical occasions took place, but was sure that it was after the Second World War and that they didn't all know each other before the War.
Bridget Giacomelli remembers that her grandfather tried to interest her in playing the dulcimer when she was a young girl: “He always used to cut me these little foil butterflies out, and he used to put these under the; y'know, you have like the wires going across and you have the hole, and underneath the hole … was like gold foily paper; he would put butterflies, make them a little bit girly. Three Blind Mice and The Bells Of St Mary's were as far as I got, but that was something to treasure, wasn't it?”
Later in life, whilst recuperating in Wayland Hospital, Malcolm Keeler remembers that Billy sneaked out for a few beers and that the nurses had to collect him from Great Ellingham Queen's Head. Billy's last public performance was at the British Legion old people's home, Halsey House in Cromer in November 1963, as recalled by Flora: “ He went, the last time he played the dulcimer was at, at that old, was it Halsey House. Cromer. And that was. He came home, and they gave him some brandy. That's where he was, Chelsea Pensioners, and that's where he played. And that's the last time he played.”
Billy died on 19 January, 1964, at the age of eighty one, as Flora Sinnott vividly remembers: “We had a wonderful experience though, with my Dad, when he died. Cause he'd been bed-ridden for, for several weeks anyhow. But he was a wonderful patient. He never grumbled once. And that was one Saturday, I remember so well; my brother was there, and he just come out into the kitchen and he said, “Dad want you all in,” just like that; “All in,” he said. So we went in, and, do you know, my Dad turned round and he said “Cheerio.” Kissed me first, then he kissed my sister, and then he shook hands with my brother, and then said, “Paddy and George” … he said, “All in!” And they all went in and said goodbye to him. We knew that was the finish, and that's how he died; and we all, you know; he said goodbye to us all.”
Chris Holderness - 16.7.07
2. For further detailed information about Billy Cooper's early life, see Reg Hall's booklet notes to English Country Music, as above.
3. The photographs are from the Rig-a-Jig-Jig archive, many provided by Billy's family. The colour photograph of Billy playing with Walter Bulwer was provided by Ray Keeler, and first came to light at the Traditional Music Trust's Dulcimer Day at Gressenhall, Norfolk on 16.07.05.
4. The photograph can be seen on the back sleeve of the Billy Bennington The Barford Angel LP - East Anglian Life EAL-1 - and in the booklet of the CD reissue: Veteran VT152CD.
5. The interviews with members of Billy Cooper's family, and other local people, were carried out by Des Miller, Alan Helsdon and myself between 2000 and 2006.
6. See Musical Traditions article MT196: Wells-next-the-Sea: Traditional music making in a Norfolk coastal town.
7. See Musical Traditions article MT 186: Alfred Brown: The life and times of Shipdham's other fiddler.
8. These recordings are on Veteran double cassette: I thought I was the Only One: Veteran VTVS07/08. Full details in discography below.
9. See Musical Traditions article MT185: Walter and Daisy Bulwer: Recollections of the Shipdham musicians by members of their community.
10. English Country Music: Topic TSCD607, as above.
11. Heel and Toe: Veteran VTCD150CD. Full details in discography below.
Boscastle Breakdown: Topic 12T240. Billy plays three solo performances, all of which are included on the CD Topic TSCD607.
I Thought I Was The Only One: Dulcimer Players From England: Veteran VTVS07/08. Double cassette. Billy has nine solo tracks and two with the Bulwers and Edna Wortley.
Heel And Toe: Veteran VTCD150CD. Three tracks with the Bulwers and Edna Wortley (two of which are also included on VTVS07/08) and one solo performance.