Bob and Ron Copper of the Copper Family were traditional, unaccompanied folk singers from Rottingdean, near Brighton.
The Copper family have been folk singers for generations. Aside from the Copper family there are almost no recorded examples of harmonic part-singing in English traditional folk song.
The Coppers came to the attention of Kate Lee, one of the founders of the Folk Song Society (later the English Folk Dance and Song Society), who knew she had found something special. James ‘Brasser’ Copper (1845-1924) and his brother Thomas (c.1847-c.1936) were made honorary members of the society, and in 1899 ‘Brasser’ wrote down the songs he knew.
‘Brasser’ had two sons, John (c.1879-1952) and Jim (1882-1954). In 1936, Jim wrote a further volume of songs. Jim had two children, Joyce (1910-?) and Bob (1915-2004). John’s son was Walter Ronald, known as Ron (c.1913-1979).
Together, Jim, John, Ron and Bob sang at numerous venues including the Royal Albert Hall, and received wider public attention followed the broadcast of a six-part television series Song Hunter, presented by Alan Lomax and featuring Jim, Bob and Ron. In 1963 the English Folk Dance and Song Society released an LP of their unaccompanied singing that has had a tremendous influence on the folk song revivals of Britain, Ireland and the United States. The album collected together a number of recordings of Bob and Ron Copper, made by the renowned folksong collector Peter Kennedy during the late 1950s.
Bob wrote several books about the family and its songs, beginning with the widely acclaimed A Song For Every Season in 1971.The accompanying 4-LP set (now a collector’s item) found Bob and Ron singing alongside Bob’s daughter Jill and son John.
The songs that generations of the Copper family learnt to sing whether at home, in the fields or in the pub at the end of the day have been passed down through the decades. According to Bob ‘many of the songs, through being the favourite of a particular singer, would become known as “his song” and no one else would dream of singing it unless the recognized singer was not in the present company. A singer’s repertoire, therefore, was like a little window into his character, for he accumulated his songs through natural selection”. Whether sweet, sad, gallant or gay they ‘would give some indication of the man himself’.
After Ron died in 1979, Jill’s husband Jon was introduced to the core line-up, and some of Bob’s grandchildren began to appear with the group. The six grandchildren now also appear independently as The Young Coppers, singing the same family repertoire. Bob Copper died in 2004, a few days after receiving an MBE. In an obituary by Ken Hunt in The Independent newspaper, Bob Copper was described as “England’s most important traditional folk-singer”.
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