Article MT152

Bob Copper

A 1970 interview with Vic Smith

In 1970, Tina and I were running the folk club at the Lewes Arms in Lewes.  Our policy then, as now, was to include as many traditional performers as we could in our programme, both from outside our area and from within Sussex.  The Copper Family became regular supporters of the club and one occasion - I believe it was a birthday party night that we held for Scan Tester - Bob approached us and said that he was going to start a folk club at the Central Club in Peacehaven and would we become involved in helping to get it off the ground; would we compere the evenings, book the guests, etc, as they had no experience of doing these things?  Of course, we were delighted to be asked and agreed.  However, we felt that we did not know enough about the family and we asked if we could come and record an interview so that we could get some background.  (This was before Bob's first book was published and details of the family were not as well known as they are now)  It was a fortuitous time to record him as he had just written his first book and had all the information fresh in his mind.

In retrospect, I feel that Bob welcomed this interview as a sort of 'dry run' for all the media interviews that would start in earnest when the book came out the following year.  I had occasion to interview Bob many times over the years, but there was something special about this first time; listening to the tape again after 35 years, it sounds full of freshness and enthusiasm.

So on 30th November 1970, in the company of Chris Duff, who used to write articles on folk music in the Mid-Sussex Times, we met Bob in the bar of the Central Club.  To get things started, I asked:

Have you always lived in Rottingdean and Peacehaven?

Well, we did take a pub in a place called Cheriton, between Winchester and Petersfield.  Cheriton.  From here you go on the Petersfield to Winchester road [A 272], you go on the Winchester road, Bramdean, you go through West Meon Hut.  It's lovely up there and then you come to place called Cheriton.  Well, you go through New Cheriton on that road, and then if you turn up where the buses go, up into the old village, it's really lovely.  That's where the River Itchen rises just there and comes down through the watercress beds.  Yes, I took a pub down there; I had more energy than sense.  I put a manager in here [The Central Club in Peacehaven] and tried to run them both; not very successfully, of course.  The manager here went on the booze. [Bob laughs] but there you are.

A Copper Family chain of pubs!

Yea, I was going to clean up!  I was going to corner the market! [much laughter]  The next Tubby Edlin [old Brighton pub company] but it didn't come off.  I should stick to folk singing, I think.

Didn't you do some recordings, some collecting down there?  Was that just for yourself or for the BBC?

Well now, this was the recordings I was doing.  They started to build up a very big library of folk music of the British Isles.  It was instigated by a chap called Brian George [senior BBC producer] who died last year, unfortunately.  This was the second big collecting phase.  It followed up the initial one from the 1880s and 1890s by various people including Mrs Kate Lee, of course.  She came down to Rottingdean.  This was the second one; going round with tape recorders, and just at the right time.  It was triggered off to a great extent - this would come better from somebody else, but it's absolutely true - through Brian George hearing of us, that's my dad and I doing songs on Country Magazine.  He decided.  He said, "Well.  If one family know all those songs, it's worth sending collectors out while it's not too late to get in what we can of them."

But we're jigging around all over the bloody place, aren't we?  Let's start right back at the beginning and we can come through.  And we can miss out things as we go along!  The family have been in Rottingdean - this is the sort of thing that you want to know, isn't it? - The family have been in Rottingdean as farm workers for many, many years.  The earliest reference in the parish register is 1593 when Edward Coper, one 'p', was married to someone called Cecily Baldy (?)  Well, then it comes down and there's spasmodic entries down to 1745.  From 1745 down to my kids and Ron's kids, there's an unbroken line, so we can be called Rottingdeaners!  It's widely held in Sussex that you can't be a true local unless you have got at least three generations in the same place.  You can't be a Rottingdeaner or a Ryer or whatever place it is unless not only your father, but your grandfather was born there.  Or on the distaff side as well.  But, I think we can claim to be Rottingdeaners, anyway.  I don't know how many generations it is unless you count up.

Rottingdean is, of course, and very much always has been a farming village, not fishing, although it is on the coast.  You read sometimes ... you hear it described as a fishing village.  There were always a half a dozen or a small number of what we called longshoremen with little old boats, with lobster pots, seine nets, a little bit of fishing used to go on, but it's on a lee shore, after all.  You have got to have tiny boats to get up and down the beach; you got no shelter.  You couldn't run an industry or anything like an industry.  It was very much a farming community.  Before my time, I can tell you from records kept by my grandfather who was farm bailiff before my father was bailiff, I can tell you the size of the farm.  It was a 3000 acre farm, a thousand of which was arable, under the plough, Which is a big farm, 3000 acres, 2000 of that was turf run, sheep grazing up on the hills.  Because this, after all, was right in the middle of the South Downs sheep country.  John Ellman of Glynde, over at the back of Lewes, he started developing the Southdown breed in the back end of the 18th century.  And it went on from there.  By the 1890s/1900s it really developed into a big thing.  Between Eastbourne and Steyning, I read somewhere, there were 250,000 - a quarter of a million head of sheep, along on that bit of turf and it was really highly concentrated.  And Rottingdean, of course, was right in the middle of that and it was primarily a sheep farm.  They did a bit of general farming as all farms did.  There were a certain number of cows, but only about 30 to 40 milking cows and so on, and so many pigs and so on, but it was primarily a sheep farm.

Uncle John, as I said, he was head shepherd by that time.  My father, he left school when he was eleven and he was a shepherd's boy.  That was his first job.  He then went on through all the different farm jobs, until eventually he became bailiff.

And we must mention about the songs somewhere .  The thing is that, as far as we can go back, my grandfather's father, that's my great-grandfather, he was called 'Honest John', Copper.  There's other Johns; plenty in the family.  Well, I don't know if that was sarcasm or a compliment.  He was always known in the village, apparently, as 'Honest John'.  Of course, I don't remember him.  He was renowned, celebrated locally for singing the songs.  And then along came his oldest son, James, who was known as 'Brasser' which was an good turn of old Sussex wit!  'Brasser' for Copper.  I remember him very well as an old man.  He was a marvellous man; he had a very strong deep voice, a bit like Ron's.  He was on the Ron side; a very deep heavy voice that used to rattle around the old cottage.  Apparently, when he used to dance me on his old knee and sing to me, apparently.  I don't remember this, but he used to put me in tears, with the sound of this - so heavy.  I used to say, "Mum, why does Gramby shout so?  He frightens me!"

But he was a grand old stick, a really good bloke.  He had done very well, because he taught himself to read and write and he did all the wages and the acreage sheets and the sending off and the ordering on the farm; forage and all the different crops on the farm.  He became, well, no mean scholar, well, obviously to be a bailiff on a farm of that sort, he had to be a good bloke, because the owner of the farm, and he was the owner, by the way, in those days, of all the land, was a Mr William Brown who was a JP and one thing and another.  He was the truest form of gentleman farmer.  He didn't soil his hands or give it any thought, he left it all to his bailiff.  He was the farm manager, I mean everything; disease of animals, but he was very well respected, old 'Brasser' and even now, the people that remember him, quite a lot of people.  Well, I remember him, but I mean older people and people who had worked for him and so on, they had nothing but good to say about him.  They said "Old 'Brasser'?  Good old stick.  Always kept a good table and if you went up there with a message to the cottage, there was always a beer for you."  That sort of thing.  He lived well.  His wage in the 1890s; he got a cottage and 18 shillings a week.  But there was always a bottle of Scotch up on the sideboard and beer in the cupboard under the stairs.  We used to call it the beer cupboard even when I was a boy, though there wasn't any beer in it then.  Only a bottle or two.  He used to have a cigar in a meerschaum and amber holder.  He'd go down the street in some carriage and they'd all touch their caps to him.  It was just as well to keep in with a man like that.  You see, the farm employed a high percentage of the employable males of the village.  I've got a farm wages sheet here - sixty odd men and boys were permanently employed all the way through the year.  There were casuals, of course, at hay time and harvest, and the wages for those men and boys was something under £35, I think it was £34 something, so that gives you some idea.  And the key men had cottages as well, the main carters and whatever, real regular men.  The labourers didn't always have.  But, Grandad, he was well set up.  He was well respected in the village and could stand his corner in the land and in the local pub - one of the local five pubs, I should say.  He was on a par with the local businessmen.  And he got 18 bob a week.  It seems fantastic.

He also used to sing these songs with his younger brother, Tom, who had been a carter on the farm, but saved up his money, obviously used his head a bit and he took the Black Horse, which is still in the High Street there now.

So you're not the first generation of Copper publicans?

No.  It's like a disease, isn't it?  So Tom took the Black Horse, He was my grandfather's younger brother.  Now, those two are the first to really come alive to me as the singers of the songs and they sung in harmony, definitely.  We can go back on one song - we've got some sort of evidence about that.  Shepherd of the Downs - I shall show you it presently, Grandad wrote out the words of these songs.  I've got photostats of the originals.  And at the bottom of Shepherd of the Downs, he puts "My grandfathers used to sing this song."  And as it's a plural - grandfathers - and it's very definitely in two parts, The Shepherd of the Downs, I think it's fairly safe to say that my great-great-grandfathers used to sing the song in harmony.  I think that there is pretty fair evidence without too much to assume.

But the rest of this stuff, I suppose most people know.  Actually, of course, I'm going through what I've written in the book and you'll find it when the book comes out.

Can you tell us something about the book?

Of course.  Well, I'd written it down, the whole story from beginning to end, I've written down, primarily for Jon and Jill and their kids.  John hasn't got any - I don't think [laughs] - but at least I've got three grandsons; Jill's got three lovely boys.  And time is going on.  I'm getting older and you never know.  Well, you never know when you are going to get run over with the number of bloody cars on the road.  You never know.  I thought, there's so much that I've got in my head that I don't want to lose.  I think it would be a terrible shame if it were lost - to my family, this is my prime reason, Vic, things Dad told me and things granddad told me.  I've noted down all sorts of things from Dad and all the funny stories and the funny circumstances.  All sorts of funny little anecdotes.  And I've jotted it all down and I thought, I'll get it all up together so that it is coherent and I can't expect the kids to wade all through it, because it is all scribble and a lot of it is in my head anyway.  So I decided, about three years ago, that I really write it down so that it was all there.

Then Pete Bellamy, yes Pete, he came down about a year ago and we were talking about other country books, by the chap over in Suffolk and so on and so on [almost certainly Bob means George Ewart Evans, whose writing he greatly admired].  I told him what I had done and he said, "Can I have a look at it?"  I said, "Of course you can."  So he took it away and then he said, "This is absolutely marvellous.  May I put it through to Fabers?"  I said, "Do what you like with it, as long as you don't tear it up!"  And he said, "I think we might get this published."  And I told him he could have the 10%; he could be my agent.  I said, "I've never put it up for publication before, I never thought about it.  Far enough, I shall be thrilled to bits if it is published."  Anyway, it went to Fabers and it came back about last January.

Then I was working on the exhibition.  I was putting all my farming stuff into the Rottingdean exhibition down there and in connection with that I met, for the first time, a person that I had known for years and years.  She was the daughter of Enid Bagnold, the author of The Chalk Garden, National Velvet and all those things.  Well, as well as being Enid Bagnold, the writer, she was the widow of Sir Roderick Jones.  She is Lady Roderick Jones.  She is also the chief shareholder in Heinemann the publisher.  I met for the first time, her daughter, whom I'd known in the village for years in our respective pigeon holes; I was in the farm cottage and she was in Sir Roderick Jones's house.  She was Laurian Jones and I was just the village 'erk'.  But it was rather pleasant; we started chatting and we found that we had a lot in common.  We felt as though we had known each other for years; loving the country and whatever and this cropped up again.  Maybe, by design, I don't know, but knowing that her mum was Heinemanns, you see.  But she said, "Well.  This sounds right for publication."  And I said, "Well.  I don't want to involve you."  She said, "Well, it sounds interesting and I would like to read it."  This is Laurian who is now Comtesse Pierre d'Harcourt or something.  She's married into some Champagne people.  That's the sort of level we're on! [laughter]  I want to get you up out of all this, [waving his hand around at the Central Club] I want to get you on the right style.  But she is very, very sweet.  But she said, "It sounds as though I would be very interested to read it."  She had this thing.  It had come back from Fabers; I told her that it had come back from Fabers.  And then I kept on having notes coming through the door.  She takes her kids through to Seaford to go to school every day.  Almost at the end of every chapter, there would be a note coming through the door.  "Marvellous .  Fabers must be mad .  " something, something, something.  "I particularly like this ." and so on.  She read it, she fell in love with it.  She was busy.  She had a lot to do with her children, but she said, "May I put this through to Heinemanns?"  I said, "May you?  Not half!"  And Heinemanns whipped it up straight away

To be fair, when it came back, I put a bit of work into it, not much, I had some afterthoughts, some additional thoughts.  And I put my two pennyworth in.  And when it came back, Pete said, "Well, I don't know."  I said, "Leave it with me."  I put about a year's work into it, which took it up to about the next February and we can see.  We can show it to somebody else, but this other thing cropped up.  I did put one or two extra things in.

It's going to be called A Song For Every Season and it will be published but it is not coming out until September 1971.  They are going to withhold it.  They were going to do it in May, but then they have decided; they had a meeting fairly recently, end of October, and they have re-assessed it on a much bigger printing number.  It is delayed for all the best of reasons.  They are going to do a much bigger printing number on the first edition and they are putting it on better paper and whatever.  And having decided that, they will withhold it until September and issue it for the Christmas market.

It sounds as though it would be the sort of book that people would want to buy and keep rather than get out of the library.

Well, that is the thing.  The book is the background of the songs and the men that sang them.

In addition to that, of course, quite a lot of it, about 10,000 words, maybe a bit more, are actually Dad's.  [long pause for a good swig of beer] Oh!  That was so nice, it's quite put me out of mind of what I was saying.  Oh yes, my dad.  Yes, I got him to write things down - the jobs he used to do, working with the bullocks, the names of the bullocks you worked with, any funny little stories, and so on and so on.  Thrashing with a flail, how much you were expected to do in a day.  How much you got paid.  Any funny little stories.  It was very successful.  He did awfully well.  And I've incorporated that in, you see.  And I've gone through, having done a bit about the family over three generations.  And then I've gone through the twelve months of the year.  As a sub-title to each month, I've got a verse from one of the songs.  The jobs for the month.  That's where the title, A Song For Every Season comes from.  Also there's bits of the songs in the text where it's apt.  And at the back there's 47 of the songs.  They've decided on 47 because they want to keep it .  There's things like You Seamen Bold that didn't have much to do with farming and it's reasonable.  I'm quite pleased that there are 47; it's fair.  Words and music in the back of the book, so therefore, if you are going through the book and you see a quote from a verse, either as a sub-title or in the text, you just look at a footnote and you say that's from ... er, Two Young Brethren so then if you want to see the rest of the song and the tune, you go to the back of the book.

But then, of course, it's grown beyond that, you may or may not know that Bill Leader is doing four long-players, you see, and now, with the book coming up, he is working with Heinemanns so that they will coincide the four long-players and the book.  The long players will come out first of all in one dollop in a box, to start with; not many individual sales, of course.  I mean four is a hell of a lot and they will be pricey, well fairly pricey.  It will be confined to universities, libraries, institutions, folk clubs and then having exhausted that, they will stick them in separate sleeves and sell them individually, perhaps a year later.  But initially they will all be coming out together, the four long-players and the book.  The dollop of records and the book will have the same title, A Song For Every Season, and Heinemann's art man is going to design the covers for both.  They won't be exactly the same, but there will be a direct tie-up between the two.

What about the titles for the records?

Individually?  Well, the box will be called A Song For Every Season but individually; the first one is Tater Beer Night - these will be the four main occasions during the year when the songs would be sung, yea, keeping the theme.  Tater Beer Night was about April, Easter time-ish, they had a Saturday afternoon off from the farm and special bit of land had already been ploughed and set aside for spuds that year, it would vary from year to year, of course.  [Another pint is brought up for Bob] Cheers, Robin, jolly good luck!  And then the farmer would let them have the use of the horses and ploughs and of course the carts to take up the seed spuds to plough them in, you see?  That was 'Spud-Planting Saturday'.  It was a sort of occasion.  And in the evening, it was Tater Beer Night and they used to go down the Black Horse and then as they went in - great Uncle Tom was there at the time - he'd have an enamel bowl on the counter and as every man went in, he put a penny in the bowl for every rod of ground that he had planted with spuds that afternoon.  Every man had eight rods and the boys had four rods.  Almost invariably if a boy was working regularly on the farm, his father was working there anyway - following on, you see?  So in that way a man with, say, two sons working on the farm would have eight rods for himself and four for each of the boys.  So between them they would have to put one and fourpence in the kitty.  That was to start the beer jugs going around.  And of course, it didn't take long - the beer was 'fo'pence a quart' - yea, tuppence a pint.  Then, one particular time, there was a local chemist and a local school master, who had been Dad's school master.  They were particularly interested in the songs.  They used to go down to the tap room of the pub where they wouldn't go normally.  They'd go of a purpose to hear the songs.  They used to get some whisky going around and that was wonderful.  Well, that was called Tater Beer Night.

The next one is called Black Ram.  That was another occasion.  About June, sheep-shearing time.  Around this way, as I've said, it was thickly populated with sheep and they used to form a crew of shearers.  They picked good men, hard workers, good shearers with - I always look at that wall now [Bob points out the pair of old hand shears displayed on the wall amongst all the other agricultural hand tools]  I had them behind the bar at one time and someone said one night, "You are going to lose those."  And they are Grandad's old original shears in their 'pooch' as he called it, their pouch.  And they used to form a sheep-shearing crew to go around.  And there was a captain in charge and a lieutenant, second-in-command, and the captain had two bands around his hat then the lieutenant had one - or stars of whatever it was.  Two stars and one star.  Around this way it was bands.  In particular, the one from Rottingdean and this area was called the 'Brookside Shearers'.  And they used to do from Rottingdean, along to Newhaven, because there was nothing here at all, nothing [in other words, before there was any development at all at Peacehaven]  Then they would go all up the west side of the river [the Ouse] to Kingston, to Newmarket, Falmer and always end up at Rottingdean because that was the biggest farm.  That was their itinery.  They used to sleep rough, sleep in the barns.  They used to start off in their first night to make arrangements of where they were going and what they were going to do and that was called 'White Ram Night'.  They'd agree on a pub for headquarters.  Usually it was the Red, White & Blue in Lewes.  It's no longer a pub.  It was until fairly recently.  I've had a drink there.  Is it Friars Walk?  Anyway, it's a green tiled place.  It was a horrible pub.  The worst of Victoriana, but they liked it.  They must have liked the landlady or her daughter or something.  Well, that was their headquarters.  Well, they used to start off on the first night, before the shearing actually started, on the Saturday before they started on the Monday morning.  That was called 'White Ram'.  That was more or less just business.  There was plenty of beer, there always was.  Then they used to arrange where they were going.  The captain would read out which farms they were going to.  How many in each flock, "Well, we'll get through that in two days." And so on and so on.

Then they had a list of fines.  They used to ...  If you leave a patch of wool as big as a half-crown on a sheep, you were fined sixpence.  And if it were bigger, it would be a shilling.  If you let your sheep go in the barn, that would cost you sixpence.  If you called a man a fool, sixpence; if you called him anything worse, a shilling.  And they all agreed on this because this all went into the kitty for Black Ram which was the last ... which was the Saturday after the completion.  They used to meet on the following Saturday, pay out the wages due and the fines used to go into the kitty over the counter against food, salt beef, they used to have a very good do, cooked beef and bacon and goodness knows what.  That was Black Ram.  That was a really good night, a real humdinger and, in fact, the strong beer they used to drink was called Black Ram very strong, stronger than Old, like a very strong barley wine.  That was called Black Ram and that was a real humdinger.  That was a pretty beefy affair.  So that was the second one, Black Ram.

The third record is called Hollering PotHollering Pot was the completion of harvest and that comes on August or September.  By the way, on the records, we've put all the seasonal songs.  In Tater Beer we've put all the Spring songs and what have you, but we've made it up, you can't fill a whole LP with all ruddy Spring songs.  Love is always in season, of course.  And that's lovely.  So we've made it up with others, as would have been the case on the night.  I don't remember these things, you see, it was before my time, I got it from Dad and from my uncle John and the old people.  If we'd have been lucky enough to be old enough to get down there and go to Tater Beer night, well, you've ended up on the floor.  Most of them, nearly, did.  Let's be honest.

Well for Hollering Pot.  That was the 'Last Load' and the wagon was drawn by the four best horses out of the best four teams.  There were nine teams altogether, that'll give you some idea, thirty-six horses altogether, they picked out four horses and they went in tandem style and they were led by their carters with the carter boy up astride.  It was quite a ceremony.  All the harvest hands were east of Rottingdean.  They go along and down what we call Newhaven Road, down where the traffic lights are now and down into the village, there with the furls in the haimes.  I haven't got any here; they are too bloody expensive, if you can find them.  You used to go down to the crossroads, turn left, down on to the cliff top itself, roughly by the position of the old White Horse, which is roughly the same position as the new White Horse is now.  This would be some time in the late afternoon.  They'd time it a bit like that.  Then they'd give them a good old holler.  This is where the name, Hollering Pot came from.  Then Granddad would holler - and he could holler - and I won't, not in here, no, but I can't holler like that.  But what he used to holler out was, "We've ploughed, we've sowed, we've ripped [reaped], we've mowed and we've carried our last load and aren't overthrown.  Hip, Hip" and a big hooray would sing out and then three cheers would rattle round, you see, and out would come the landlord with trays of beer.  It was all in the ceremony, you see, and all round the company and lemonade for the kids, the nippers as well.  Well, they used to go up round and to all the pubs - there were five altogether.  They went to all the pubs and gave them a good old holler up.  And as they got further up the High Street, there were more and more people fell in behind, until they went up to Challenors, that was the farm house, which is opposite where the bowling green is now.  The farmer was there waiting and they give him a good old holler.  And then after a good old holler they would go across, hitch the horses off and then in Challenors' cart lodge there'd be a couple of big 'eighteens' of beer stollied up, lemonade for the boys and what have you and that was Hollering Pot.  It's not a harvest home, it was 'Last Load', That's another way of calling it; 'Last Load' or 'Hollering Pot'.  But I liked that; I chose it as the title.

So that's Tater Beer, Black Ram, Hollering Pot and the other one doesn't need much talking because it's just Turn of the Year which takes in Christmas, of course.  We've got Christmas songs.  I think we've only got one truly traditional Christmas carol, Shepherds Arise.  That's the oldest carol that Granddad knew.  But I think we've got another couple that are pretty old, but I rather fancy that they are the Sankey amp; Moody ones.  Good 'uns, they're beauts.  A lovely bass that you can lay back into.

Now, did we say about Mrs Kate Lee?  You've probably read all about in the Journals [of the Folk Song Society] She came down to the village - and I always get the dates wrong - about 1897, halfway through the '90s.  You can always look this up in the Journals, anyway.  She came down to the village and stayed at Sir Edwin Carson's house.  She heard about the two Mr Coppers, that was Granddad and Uncle Tom.  Now, she got them mixed up in her notes as you'll see.  Thomas and William; it wasn't.  it was Thomas and James for a start and she said that one was the landlord of the Plough.  Well, he wasn't.  Thomas was the landlord of the Black Horse.  She didn't do her homework properly.  But she went down to the pub, even, which was a pretty brave thing to do in those days because it was definitely a tap room, a labourers' pub.  Pubs were beer houses, even when I remember them, it was very different affairs from what they are now.  She met the two Mr Coppers and she arranged for them to go up to Sir Edwin Carson's house to spend the evening singing some songs for her.  Now, Dad remembers this going on and he said that she stuck a bottle of whisky on the middle of the table, a couple of cut glass decanters and some water.  She said, "Right, get stuck in!"  She didn't drink.  And they kept on.  They kept singing until they had finished the whisky.  And she sat down and was noting it down like mad.  Well, then, of course, she went back to London as you can read in the Folk Song Journal, she went back and it was largely as a result - this is held now and it's true, pretty well, that largely as a result of her enthusiasm for the Copper songs of Rottingdean in eighteen-ninety something, seven that the English Folk Song Society - no 'Dance' at that time - was formed in the following year, in 1898 or something.  Granddad and his brother were made honorary members, on the founder list of members.  And they are there as Thomas and William, I think.  They didn't know this, by the way.  Well, it wouldn't have meant anything to them.  But for their contribution of the songs, they were made honorary members.

Just to follow up on that, in 1957, which was a Diamond Jubilee of the Society, Ron and I were invited up to Cecil Sharp House and there was a very nice little concert there.  Percy Grainger and all sorts of people like that, but particularly Ralph Vaughan Williams, who died soon after that.  He was a very old man.  They had a very special cake with sixty candles on it and English Folk Song Society 1897-1957 or whatever.  Peter Kennedy took us across there with Douglas, his father, and there was some musical notation across the middle, and he said, "What do you think of that?"   I said, "It's a jolly nice cake."  Sixty candles and that sort of thing.  He said, "Never mind about that.  What do you think of that?"  pointing at the music, you see?  I said, "Well, it's very good!"  He said, "Don't you recognise it?"  I said, "Well..  It's music, isn't it?"  I couldn't read music.  Turn it upside down and it would be all the same to me.  And it was Claudy Banks which they hold to be the first song collected on behalf of the Society.  They have decided on that.  So we, Ron and I sung Claudy Banks and old Ralph Vaughan Williams cut the cake.  It was a great thrill.  I loved that.  An honour.  It was absolutely great.

Going back to the early days of your granddad; the books of Richard Jefferies and W H Hudson.  Were their books known to the Copper family?  Did they ever meet them?

No.  I read their books and loved them, they are on my shelves now.  No, nobody apart from Mrs Kate Lee came across the family.  They were discovered, if that is the right word, by Mrs Kate Lee, but nobody seemed interested from a farming point of view.

The records say that there was a Christmas Mummers Play in Rottingdean.

Oh definitely so!  Well, yes.  I've got the words of it that Dad wrote out.  It doesn't vary much from any of the others around here.  It's pretty much the same; Father Christmas, the Prince of Wales, Twin-Twan, the widow.  I'll get it for you later on.  It'll be in the book, old boy.  Oh definitely so! [laughter]  No, it won't actually.  We decided against it.  Now, it does appear, with slight variations all over the British Isles.  There's a funny little story goes with that.  Twin-Twan and Father Christmas ... for Dad was in it, of course, and Uncle Charlie.  You'll know about Uncle Charlie, because unfortunately he died when he was 28, rather tragically; twisted his insides throwing a ruddy cricket ball at the Police Sports.  He went in the Brighton Police.  That flail up there ... that was uncle Charlie's.  He twisted his gut throwing a cricket ball in a competition and he died as a result of it - 28; it was very sad.  He hadn't got any kids, but he was married.  I don't remember him.  This was before my time.  Yes, uncle Charlie, he was in the mummers.  Anyway, they'd been round and they used to go by appointment, of course, to the big houses.  Only by appointment, no rubbish!

They were going up the High Street one day, they'd been to one or two calls, and as Dad said, they had probably spent a bit too long at the punch-bowl at the previous one.  They were coming up the High Street making their way up to Hillside, which is at the upper end of the High Street; Colonel Phillips' house.  He was there with his party, waiting for them.  They were nattering away and they had got to what they call Reading Room corner, just above the Black Horse in the village high street.  Then Father Christmas and Black Jack..  No, it was Twin-Twan, they started arguing and Dad said, they started getting pretty heated and then, Dad said, didn't Father Christmas give ... it was Black Jack!  I'll have a look in a minute.  Didn't Father Christmas give him a swipe with his holly bush.  And Black Jack had got a broom and he came back with this, you see.  They had a real set-to like a couple of tom cats!  They eventually got them apart.  "Go on now, settle down!  Shake hands.  Off we go!"  And they got up to Hillside and, of course, the place was all dark, only about three oil lamps there were in those days, up there.  Then they knocked on the door and Father Christmas, it's his entry, you see.  He knocked at the door and he is supposed to go in and say "In comes I, old Father Christmas.  Am I welcome or am I not?"  Well, he went in and he was still a bit agitated and Dad said, he went up and his cotton wool beard was all up by the side and he had a bit of a nose bleed.  He stood there.  He wasn't composed; he looked bloody wild and he said, "In comes I, old Father Christmas.  Be I welcome or be I bain't?"  And he only had about two leaves left on his holly bush!  [much laughter].  This would have been during the week before Christmas.  Any day, by appointment.  People would say, "Come to us on the Thursday" and so on.  They'd have a collection and plenty of beer; a slice of cake and some beer.  But, I'll get that to show you.

Would they have just have done it off the cuff or would they have practiced it?

Oh, no.  They would have practiced it beforehand.  And, of course, they had the handbells which are hanging up there.  Not ringable at the moment.  When my book has sold its first million, I'll get them done!  No, I think it would be a 50 quid job to get them tuned and tongues put in them, and there's probably two missing, I think. [The restoration of the handbells eventually cost over £600]  But I shall have to get around to it one of these days when I can afford it.  They used to ring the handbells on different occasions.  They used to start practicing from the end of November.  They'd go down the Black Horse in the billiard room and start rattling up the bells and they'd practice the mummers play.

Now, we said that Mrs Kate Lee found Granddad and his brother, and I did jump ahead and say that we went to the Diamond Jubilee.  But going back again, the whole thing, as far as the Society was concerned was quite forgotten in the family.  They didn't know that they'd been made members of the Society.  They'd never heard of the Society as such.  Dad certainly didn't.  But, obviously, the main thing was, we kept the songs going - because we loved them.  Every Christmas was the big time.  It was one of the first things that I can remember when I was a little tiny kiddie.  Uncle John and Dad and Granddad and Uncle Tom in the very early days, still there, beside the fire, bass on one side, 'trebles' on the other.  Trebles?  Bugger, we can't even sing tenor.  So the lead on one side, the bass on the other.  And soon after Christmas tea, we'd sit around the fire.  "Well, we'd better make a start, hadn't we or we shan't get through them otherwise!"  Christmas night, we'd start off with carols, carols all the way through, until we'd exhausted them - lots of ordinary Christmas hymns up until about half past nine.  And on Christmas night, Granddad wouldn't like two things.  One was to do with songs.  He wouldn't like anything but carols and Christmas hymns until about half past nine.  Another thing - only beer.  No wine or spirits until after half past nine.  If you wanted something else, you had to wait until after half past nine.  There would be plenty of beer, There would be barrels and barrels of it out in the scullery.

At half past nine, "Well, that's fair enough.  We've given Christmas Day a fair old do.  Now we can crack off on something else; Warlike Seamen."  Then it used to go on and on, of course.  And about half past one, we'd do what Dad called ... we'd 'shut down for supper'.  We'd been asleep on the settee three or four times and they were still singing.  They'd also be playing cards; the women would.  And every song, a drink.  And pitching purely by guesswork, sometimes too high, sometimes too low.  Uncle John was the first 'pitcher' that I remember.  He used to ... [Bob tries out two or three notes] "Yea, that'll do."  Dad would start and the granddad would say, "No, bugger, that weren't where we had her last night!  No, no, no.  That's too bloody high!"

The one thing that's really changed .  I should think that we sing them, as nearly as is humanly possible, the same - with one definite and designed difference, which is the speed.  We sing them much quicker.  Oh Good Lord!  The point is that, I've said this before, the essence of folk music as we as a family knew it was that you were singing for your own enjoyment, for nobody else's.  They could talk if they wanted too, you weren't singing for them, you were singing to yourselves.  And you got a nice thing going with a good old bass run, you know and you'd drag it out.  And you'd usually repeat the last line anyway, so that you could do it again.  It was very, very much slower.  It would be tedious.  Let's face it.

It's a different pace of life.

It's a different pace of life.  It's so different, so by design, we had to - without gabbling, I hope - and we mustn't...  I'm always saying to John, "Now sing like John Copper, don't try and sing like the bloody Young Tradition."  Much as I love them, because they are slick, they are polished which we are not.  And John, quite involuntarily. you can't help it can you?  You come under these influences.  And obviously, you must respond, because you are human.  And so John is a generation below me, and we knocked off last night because they have not got a tape of Ye Gentlemen of High Renown.  Yesterday teatime.  The bloke who is doing the transcriptions hasn't got this, so we rattled it off for him and he started leathering it, old John.  Although I take the lead, he's pushing me along, trying to get it up .  It's a similar thing to the one that The Young Tradition do.  It's the same song with slight variations.  But you know it [Bob starts singing.]

Ye gentlemen of high renown, come listen unto me.
That's the thing.  And he was pushing me up.  Of course they'd done it [Bob hums the tune at a much faster pace].  All staccato and very much polished, musically far more interesting, but I said, "Whoa, boy!  Be like the bloody Coppers."

Much as I love some of the Scottish ballad singers, they are my first love, I find the slow pace that some of them sing at a bit much. 

Well, you can't expect them to.  Particularly if you think that Dad and I.  Well, it brings us back to the story, I suppose, which is quite a good thing to do.  We carried on singing the songs because we loved them.  Ron and I when we were kids, by the time our voice broke and he found out that he was a good bass and I was the lead.  Well, we used to go on darts matches and that sort of thing and sometime we would get in the back row and start.  Nobody wanted to hear the ruddy things.  They'd say, "Shut that bloody row up and let's have She's Coming Round the Mountain or something like that."  So it was ... well, the tradition she was dead.  Nobody wanted to hear .  Well, there was an active opposition more, never mind an acceptance.  They'd say, "Shut that bloody dirgy old noise up."  Ron and I, well we used to go mushrooming, rabbitting, things like that.  We used to walk over the hills and belt them out 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.

Well then, I suppose the next thing was about 1947, soon after I was here.  Dad used to come over, every Saturday night.  He'd come in between but he came every Saturday and gave me a hand behind the bar.  He said, "They sung one of our songs on the wireless, last Sunday.  Yea, a programme called Country Magazine."

I said, "Well.  I don't listen to it I'm always down here"  "I can't think which song it was, wait a minute. Oh yes, it was How Pleasant and Delightful."  I said, "What sort of job did they make of it?"

"Well," he said, "They didn't bloody well know it."  That was because it was slightly different, you see?  "Anyway," he said, "there was somebody tinkling away on the bloody joanna all the time.  They didn't know how to sing the bloody thing.  I've a good mind," he said, "to write to them and tell them what a terrible job they made of it."

"No, don't do that." I said, "Write to them and tell them how much you enjoyed it."

"I bloody didn't." he said.

"Never mind that.  Make out you did and say that's just one of the many songs that we still sing in Rottingdean, when we are in the family."  "They were sung at Christmas particularly."  So he wrote this off on the Sunday afternoon and posted it.  Tuesday morning, there was a telegram, he came up here at eight o'clock telling me he'd received a telegram earlier that morning from Francis Collinson, who was doing all the musical arrangements for Country Magazine.  And - arriving 12.30 at something, something.  He came down and he's a lovely bloke.  His wife is Grants Standfast Whisky, you know.  I remember old Ralph Whiteman saying... because this cropped up and we were having a whisky and Ralph said, "Well we must have a Standfast."

"Oh, why's that?"

"Didn't you know?  Mrs Collinson is Grant's Standfast Whisky.  I don't know why Frank goes to work at all."  "To help pay his wife's income tax!" I said. [laughter]

[Pause whilst arrangements for the next round are made.]

So Frank came down and he noted down thirty songs that first morning.  He was like a dog with two tales.  And he said, "Well.  I think that's enough."  And the old man said, "Well, I haven't finished yet!"  "No" he said, "Mr Copper, I can't do any more.  Let's go somewhere and have a drink."  So we went down to Ron's [The Queen Victoria in Rottingdean.] and we stayed there until turned closing time singing, of course.  Frank stayed on subsequent occasions, of course to get the rest of them.  I remember saying to him, we'd had some beer, we were all pretty tight.  "Great Pleasure, cherrio Bob"  And I said "Don't forget.."  This was just the beer talking.  "If they want to have a couple of blokes singing country songs the way they should be sung," I said, "don't forget to get my old dad and me."  "All right."  And we didn't think any more about it.  Well, about three or four months later, I had a telephone call and this chap says, "This is David Thompson, BBC.  I've been trying to find you."  I directed him how to find me and he came along in here one Saturday and he said, "Next Sunday we are doing a Country Magazine OB, outside broadcast from the Eight Bells at Jevington and I'd like your father and you to sing a couple of songs."

So I said, "Yea, that'll be all right."

And he said, "Can you come over on the Saturday to run through the songs and see how long they last."  So that was that.  Off he went.  So when I told Dad, oh dear! because he'd never even used a telephone, by the way.  And all the broadcasts were live, no recording.  And I said, "They want us to sing on the wireless next week."  "Eh?" he says.

"Only a couple of songs, Claudy Banks - we can do a couple of easy ones."

"What!  On the wireless?  What, you and me?  No, no, bugger.  I can't do that!  No, bugger.  No, Maud's coming down."  That was his auntie.

"Oh, no she isn't."

"No, bugger, Trooper.  We can't do that!"  I was 'trooper'; I'd been in the Life Guards.  "No, you go on your…"

I said, "I've signed all up."

"You can't do that.  Oh dear, oh dear!"

And then I said, "Have a drink.  Settle down a bit."

And then after a few beers he said, "I suppose we can, can't we?"

I said, "Well, it's no different from singing anywhere else, is it?  We've sung them up in pubs, in the 'Black 'Un' [Horse] and around."

And he says, "Yea, I suppose."  Anyway we did it.  Well, the reception was very good from the public.  They did say that it was very good to hear country songs from people who remembered the songs.  Well that was 1948, a long time ago.  Twenty odd years ago.

Before all the interest that there is again now.

Oh yes and again, this would come better coming from somebody else, but we had quite a bit of influence in this second revival.  It's pretty obvious.  It doesn't need to be said, really.  Because of the success, David Thompson, who had put us on - tap room singers, let's face it, on the radio in those days was ... you know.  He also put in ... we only did one song; we did Claudy Banks and the second one, Ye Seamen Bold he got Robert Erling (?) to sing.  He was a very good, lovely professional singer.  But he did pay off the compliment, because he had just got the sheet music that Frank had written out.  And he sang his interpretation with accompaniment, of course.  We sang it just the same as we do.  He said, "I've been fighting with this all the week" - he was a professional singer and a musician - "to think of the sort of treatment that I should give this."  This was afterwards, in the pub.  He said, "Well, now you sing Ye Seamen Bold which we did.  He said. "That's what it wants.  I've been trying to find which way to approach it.  And I'll never sing another Copper song as long as I live, because there's only one lot of people to sing it and that's you."

Vic Smith - 17.2.05

All new colour photos taken by, and old monochrome ones provided by, Vic Smith.

Article MT152

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