The Copper Family of Rottingdean

Come Write Me Down

Topic TSCD534

Because of the release dates of previous records, this is the first time I've had the pleasure of reviewing anything by members of the Copper family in MT.  But, to digress immediately, I would first like to say that - when I last heard them, at the Gordon Hall memorial concert in Horsham last year - the present-day line-up were absolutely stunning!  Whether this had anything to do with the emotions of the night (affecting me or them) I can't say, but I don't think I have ever enjoyed hearing them quite so much.  Bob, at 85, is still unquestionably among the best male, solo, English traditional singers of the generation I've been privileged to hear in the flesh ... that night he was just breathtaking.  The Family - augmented in this instance by four or five of the current generation of youngsters - seemed as completely unselfconscious and at ease with the large and public situation as did earlier Family groupings in the Central Club, Peacehaven, back in the sixties.  Perhaps the revelation of the night was when John and Jon sang together.  They were so good that it almost brought tears to my eyes - silly old sentimentalist that I am.  They certainly don't have the voices of Bob and Ron - but when did that ever matter?  To quote from Ronald Blythe's Akenfield: "Twenty men and boys scythed the corn and sang as they went."  "What was the song, Davie?"  "Never mind the song - it was the singing that counted."   And it did!

Cover pictureThe CD under review here, though, presents the music of half a century earlier, as recorded from Bob, his father Jim, uncle John and cousin Ron.  It is supported by the most comprehensive and informative booklet (actually, two booklets) I think I've ever seen accompanying a record of English traditional singing.  One of the reasons I spend most of my life these days editing, writing and publishing this magazine - not to mention the substantial booklets I insist accompany our CDs - relates to my realisations about my (our?) experience of traditional song and music in the early decades of the 'second revival'.  After having listened to this stuff for around two-thirds of my life, I have become aware that I never properly understood or enjoyed most of it, back then.

At the time when I was lucky enough to hear singers like Harry Cox, Phoebe Smith, Bob Hart, Cyril Poacher, Walter Pardon, Jack Smith, George Belton, George Spicer in the flesh, I just didn't have enough knowledge/background/understanding to properly appreciate what they were doing.  I hadn't grown up within a singing tradition and I didn't 'study' their techniques in any academic way - I was too busy having fun!  What I knew was the folk club/festival 'tradition', so I inevitably listened to these old people through the 'filter' of that experience.

When I became interested in dance music, it was all a lot easier because I had hardly any previous revival experience before encountering the traditional players, and to play along with them required moving into their social settings.  Also, even revivalist dance music like mine was still a completely functional music, and thus very similar in its requirements to that of the 'old boys' ... rather the reverse of the young singer at folk club/festival situation!

It took a while, but I gradually began to see that my almost instinctual understanding of the older players was not mirrored by any similar understanding of the older singers.  Indeed, it wasn't until my dance playing became less frequent in the '90s and I began singing again - songs I'd known for 30 years - that I started to understand, and appreciate, what these old country singers had been doing.  Having to write reviews in MT - and most particularly, having to write so many of the Voice of the People reviews - went a considerable way to completing my education.  And now, having been properly educated, I know, not just how wonderful some of our English traditional singers were, but I also have an inkling as to why!  Which is why I spend so much of my life on this magazine, and why I insist on the most substantial booklets I can manage to accompany our CDs ... because I want to help you enjoy them as much as I do!  Which is why I often spend more time reviewing the booklet than the CD with re-releases of historic material of this sort.

The booklet provided here will go a long way towards helping you understand the Copper family - and sheds considerable light on the social situations which affected a good proportion of other southern English singers, too.  I mentioned two booklets; both sit, one atop the other, in the maxi-size jewel case, and the second one (36 pages) contains the full texts of the 28 songs, each followed by a note on the song and the whole preceded by an introduction covering broadsides, the collectors, other local singers and the art of song referencing.  It is all by Steve Roud, and is first class.

The first booklet contains 60 pages - my assumption is that technical production considerations precluded the combination of the two booklets into one.  If not, I'm not sure that separating the songs from the contextual essays in the first booklet was that good an idea - though some readers may prefer it.  It does throw up one practical difficulty, though - of which, more later.  The 60 pages are shared between The Coppers' Story by Reg Hall (24pp.) and a Commentary by Vic Gammon (36pp.).

The Coppers' Story consists of an introductory section, numerous explanatory passages and a fairly substantial conclusion by Reg Hall, interspersed with often lengthy direct quotations from his conversations with Bob Copper.  This is Reg Hall at his very best - he knows the questions to ask, and how to organise the results into an interesting and coherent whole.  For anyone of my generation, who has often heard Bob talk and has read his books, there isn't a great deal here which is new - although the part dealing with the period when these recordings were made, the collectors and other institutional representatives involved is extremely interesting, and may be new to many people.  The point is that Reg has brought together most of the salient material into a compact and immensely readable and useful piece of writing.  This is excellent.

Vic Gammon's Commentary starts with five pages on 'The Times: The Social, Political and Philosophical Background to the early Folk Song Movement'.  While this is very useful information, I have to confess I began to find it a bit tedious by around the fourth page.  Vic then moves to 'The Place: Rottingdean' and his account suddenly blooms - dozens of useful pieces of information and intriguing speculations tumble across the pages.  We discover the socio-political background in which the Coppers flourished and in which their songs survived, in the sort of detail which members of the community would have been only subconsciously aware of.  Indeed, we learn that some members of the community were actually mistaken in their view of it!  Sections on 'The People: Private residents and Tap-Room Singers' and 'Sustaining a Tradition' follow - and are equally compelling.  This is just superb stuff - one might argue that Vic's essay, on its own, is worth the purchase price.  The booklet ends with 15 pages of musicological exploration of 'The Music and Harmony of the Coppers' Songs'.  There is a great deal here of interest, even for someone as musically illiterate as me; though it didn't impress me quite so much as the middle part of Vic's contribution.

The two booklets are really wonderful - better than almost anything I've yet read on traditional English singing.  Messres Hall, Gammon, Roud and Topic are to be congratulated on a superb job.  I have two minor criticisms: the first is not even really a criticism, more a statement of wistful regret that, inevitably, there is very little information about, or comment from the late John, Jim or Ron Copper.  The second involves the practical difficulty I mentioned earlier.  The booklets provided with all the Topic CDs housed in maxi-size jewel cases (like the Voice of the People series) are, I feel, just a couple of millimetres too tall.  They do fit between the retaining lugs of the cases, but only just.  As a result, you often need to exercise a degree of care in getting the case shut.  But in the present instance, the two booklets need to be very carefully lined up with each other and with the case, in order to close the thing at all!  None of which is terribly important, I suppose.  On to the CD,

As already mentioned, the CD contains 28 songs; it has a running time of 71 minutes.  The songs are mostly from the cousins Bob and Ron: Spencer the Rover; Good Ale; Babes in the Wood; Two Young Brethren; The Month of May; The Birds in the Spring; Shepherd of the Downs; The Threshing Song; The Seasons Round; Sportsmen Arouse!; The Lark in the Morning; When Spring Comes in; Cupid's Garden; Dame Durden.  Bob and his father, Jim sing: Sweep! Chimney-sweep!; The Brisk and Bonny Lad; My Father Had an Acre of Land; Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy; The Brisk Young Ploughboy and The Claudy Banks.  There's a snatch of Jim talking and solos from him with: Thousands or More and General Wolfe, while Ron contributes The Honest Labourer and Hard Times of Old England solo.  And the full quartet sings: Come Write Me Down Ye Powers Above; The Banks of the Sweet Primroses and Warlike Seamen.

The recordings were made primarily by Peter Kennedy, and all the 16 tracks from his excellent limited-edition EFDSS LP 1002 are reproduced here.  Other recordings, made for the BBC by Brian George and Seamus Ennis, make up the remainder - but it's not made clear which, if any, of these have been previously released commercially.  There are 237 instances of Copper family songs in Steve Roud's Folksong Index (205 of which are sound recordings!), and it appears that one of the two Brian George tracks, The Threshing Song (The Threshing Machine) may be found on Rounder CD1741.  Beyond that, there are so many BBC recordings with the collector/recordist not noted, and different titles given to the same song, that it's impossible to tell what may have been released, or where.

The singing is, it almost goes without saying, mostly superb.  There are a few instances of a lack of cohesiveness in the ensemble singing, and the odd confusion over a word amongst them - but these never spoil the enjoyment.  play Sound ClipMoreover, the clarity and depth of these digital transfers is extremely good,play Sound Clip so that those of you who still treasure your old 1002 LP will almost certainly find this CD a great improvement.  Amongst the (presumably) unreleased material, the solos by Jim, Thousands or More (sound clip left) and General Wolfe (sound clip right), are an absolute delight - though it's a shock to hear the former without any harmonies!  Ron's solos are, for this listener at least, rather less convincing.  Am I alone in feeling that good harmony singers are not always particularly good soloists?

Bob comments at one point that he feels that the family tend to sing faster these days than was the case in the past.  I was quite taken aback by this - I had always felt that the reverse was the case, and that exposure to the 'folk scene' has infected them with the love of slow, over-drawn-out harmonies, particularly in choruses and refrains.  Be that as it may, I suspect you'll be as surprised as I was by the pace of some of these old recordings - they seem to be going at a hell of a clip in some songs!

One slight criticism of the CD, in production terms.  The between-track silences appear to be of a uniform 3 seconds duration.  I really feel that a listener needs rather longer than this to comfortably shut down his/her attention at the end of one song and prepare for the next one.

All in all, the CD is fully the equal of the excellent booklet: all the EFDSS tracks; 12 others possibly previously unavailable; the two wonderful solos from Jim ...  This is without any doubt a 'must have' record for anyone interested in traditional singing - not just English - and the booklet must stand as a benchmark for the rest of us to aspire to.  It, and all the other Topic traditional CDs are available from Musical Traditions Records - this one costs 13.50 inc p&p.

(Given that most readers will have heard many of these recordings, or ones very like them, before, I have decided not to include sound clips in this review, for the most part.  The RealAudio technology will not do justice to the sound quality of this CD - and nor will most people's PC speakers!  Thus I've only used clips of the two solo tracks from Jim Copper, which I suspect few will have heard before.)

Rod Stradling - 28.10.01

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