The Copper Family - part 1

19 Dec 2014

The Copper Family - a multi-generational group of singers with deep roots embedded in the Sussex countryside - has done more than most to keep the spirit of traditional English folk music alive. You may know them well or you may be more familiar with the likes of the Unthanks or The Staves who owe a debt to this rather unassuming family group.

We recently caught up with family members Ben Copper and Jon Dudley…

The Copper line in Sussex can be tracked back as far as 1593 and the singing tradition as far as 1784 when one George Copper was born, in the village of Rottingdean, later to become a celebrated village singer.

Their songs were handed down through the generations as an oral tradition until they were first ‘officially’ collected in the late 19th century when the Coppers became honorary founding members of the Folk Song Society, later to become The English Folk Dance and Song Society.

Over the years some songs were written down by family members (notably James ‘Brasser’ Copper and his son Jim) in an effort to preserve the heritage. And though they remained very much alive in Sussex the wider repertoire began to fade from public memory.

It was in the 1950s when Jim heard a version of one of the family songs on the radio, that he was prompted to contact the BBC. From then on the family started broadcasting regularly and Bob began compiling and collating songs and memories and became the custodian of the family songbook.

The family, steeped in the song tradition, is renowned for its unaccompanied vocal style and has performed not only locally in Sussex but around the UK and abroad. Over the years they have been called upon to sing in pubs, at concerts, for harvest festivals and family parties but never have any members been professional singers or made their living from the craft. Over the years they have visited the USA on many occasions where the family repertoire is widely known, especially on the East Coast.

We don’t advertise for gigs – if people ask us we think about it and see if it is interesting’. Jon Dudley

Singing was more of a vocation for Bob Copper it seems. The most recognised member of the Copper clan, he was pivotal to the wider dissemination and preservation of the songs. He became a collector of songs and dialect in Sussex and Hampshire, appearing on BBC radio which led to him recording and publishing various books, including the award-wining A Song for Every Season.

For Bob it was all for the love of the songs and the obvious pleasure it gave him. He once said ‘we sing for the sheer joy of singing’ and this was confirmed by his grandson Ben:

’There was never any obligation to keep tradition going – more that our parents and grandparents always looked like they were having a good time. It’s exactly what we do now – it’s a great glue for the family – we’re all busy running businesses but we do meet up and socialise together.’ Ben Copper