Bob Copper used to tell a funny story against himself. When he and his brothers once sang a folk song in a Sussex pub during a game of darts, they were met with the angry cry: “Shut that bloody dirgy old noise up”.
Copper, who died in 2004, was born 100 years ago (January 6 1915) and is rightly hailed as one of the key figures in 20th-century English folk music. His centenary is being celebrated on January 24 at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance & Song Society, in a day of events and talks that culminate in a concert featuring, among others, The Copper Family, Martin Carthy, Maddy Prior, Oak, Spiro, Nancy Wallace, Jon Boden, Fay Hield, Neil McSweeney and Jim Causley.
The famous singing family of Rottingdean, East Sussex, are revered for their work collecting English folksongs. Bob Copper’s earliest musical memories were of sitting around the fire singing with his father, Jim, and his grandfather James Copper, who was born in 1845. An essay on the songs of James Copper and Thomas Copper, Bob’s great-uncle, was presented at the inaugural meeting of the English Folk Song Society in 1899.
Maddy Prior, who is best known as the lead vocalist of Steeleye Span, believes it is a good time to be paying tribute to Copper. She told the Telegraph: “Folk music is very strong at the moment and there are an enormous number of young players who have grown up in the traditions and found our music at a young age at festivals. They are more skilful than some of my generation and they care about the past and people such as The Copper Family. Folk music never goes away, it just goes round in an ellipse, swings out to be totally unfashionable and then moves back in. But people like Bob Copper always remain important. I remember seeing him and his family in concert once at the Royal Albert Hall and he was such a nice guy. He was important for his writing, too, about farming and the English countryside. And Cecil Sharp House is a good place for the concert because it has become a much more vital and energetic place in recent years.”
Prior, who sees a link between the enthusiasm of the early folk musicologists and the talented young folk musicians of today, such as Hannah James and Nancy Kerr, still teaches (“in a barn with under-floor heating”) and retains the same curiosity for learning that was a hallmark of the Coppers. “I’ve been studying vocal technique at a college in Denmark recently,” says the 67-year-old, “and it’s been very helpful in making me realise what I’m doing.”
Bob Copper was supportive of the young MacColl, who in turn revered Copper’s 1971 book A Song for Every Season.
The Coppers have run through seven generations of singers, including Bob’s six grandchildren, who now appear as The Young Coppers and will be singing the family repertoire alongside Prior.
Talking about his own love of folk music, Bob Copper said simply that “we sang the songs because we loved them”. He recalled that he and his cousin Ron used to go mushrooming and rabbitting, adding: “We used to walk over the hills and belt out our songs and nobody could say anything about that then. We’d sing like buggery and no-one would hear. Only the old skylarks and they didn’t seem to mind. They could join in. We used to keep them going.”
It should be a great evening, celebrating the very best of real English music and idiosyncrasy.
A celebration of Bob Copper and the Copper Family, Saturday January 24, Cecil Sharp House, London. All profits for the event will be donated to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.