"It doesn't get much better than this.."

Vic Smith's account of Bob Copper's 85th birthday party at the Royal Oak, Lewes, 6 January 2000
Reprinted with permission from his article in Living Traditions (April/May 2000)

long illustration

I suppose the germ of this idea started back in August 1994. I made the short journey over to Peacehaven to interview Bob about his book, "Across Sussex with Belloc" which had just come out then. As the producer/presenter of "Minstrels Gallery", the folk music programme for the south of England, I had worked closely with Bob over twenty five years, but there had been a mass of contacts over other projects, articles, events, reviews, TV and radio. Tina and I were invited to become comperes and residents at the Coppersongs folk club when that had started in the late 1960's and the Coppers had been involved in all the Sussex Singers Nights that we had put on at our clubs as well as being regular guests for us from the time the time when Ron was still alive.

This time, however, Bob mentioned, in passing, that his 80th birthday was imminent. That hit home! An opportunity for the folk scene to celebrate this auspicious occasion seemed to be needed and so we set things in motion for this to take place at the Royal Oak in Lewes on the day before he reached that significant age.

We soon realised that we had a monster on our hands. Our clubroom is a fairly large one but on that night the clubroom and the pub itself was packed well beyond capacity as Bob's friends from all over the country as well as from the USA and New Zealand journeyed to help celebrate. Bob sat at the front all evening and with his gentle modesty refuted all the compliments and tributes that the star-studded supporting act of floor singers were heaping on him.

However, despite his natural humility, Bob was clearly delighted with the great success that the evening had been and amongst the paeans of thanks and praise that Bob expressed to us at the end of the evening was one comment that was typical of Bob's rustic humour. He had enjoyed his birthday so much this year that he was thinking of making it an annual event! So we arranged, there and then that, for as long as it was going to be possible, the first meeting of the Royal Oak folk club in each year would be Bob Copper's Annual Birthday Party.


No-one deserves it more. Most people who read these pages will be familiar with the history of the Copper Family of Rottingdean and the major part they have played in preserving and promoting a rich heritage of English traditional song and the central part that Mrs Kate Lee collecting from the two Mr Coppers played in the formation of The Folk Song Society around the last time a century changed. Most of this information comes from Bob's books and broadcasts. Much less has been written and said about Bob himself and the vital role that he has fulfilled.

Bob Copper has probably done more than any other single person to foster a close relationship between the Sussex folk club scene and the county's traditional singers, from the time in the very early days of the revival when he was one of the first people to sing folk songs live on the radio in the seminal "As I Roved Out" programme, through the time that he worked for the BBC in the 1950's as a song collector, recording some of the finest ever English singers like Ned "Wintry" Adams, Enos White, Victor "Turp" Brown and very many others to the early sixties when local folk singers were invited to take part in "Copper Nights" at the Central Club in Peacehaven. Bob has participated in local folk events in a wide range of roles, singing as the patriarch of The Copper Family, singing as a soloist, broadcaster, speaker, compere, event and club organiser, competition judge, Old Father Christmas with the Rottingdean Mummers... the list seems endless.




So, six years on and we were preparing for Bob's 85th birthday. One thing troubled us however. There would obviously have to be some sort of presentation and, frankly, we were running out of good ideas. There was no doubt that the scheme for the 80th birthday had been a good one. This was a commemorative plate. It had one of Bob's illustrations from his first book, "A Song For Every Season" surmounted by "80" and around the edge the words "BOB COPPER - A GENTLEMAN OF HIGH RENOWN" We know it went down well because of the prominent place that it occupies in his cottage. But what to do this time? Yes, we can get everybody there to sign a huge card, but what else? A big cake? Seems a bit tame. Then the phone goes and it is Shirley Collins and she has got a Cunning Plan.

About three years ago, Shirley worked long and extensively on an application to get a New Year's Honour for Bob. She managed to get over thirty people to write letters in support of this application from prominent people from folksong academics and performers through to Bob's admirers from the literary world to other people who admire Bob. It is a very impressive list including people like Judi Dench, Jim Lloyd, Ursula Vaughan Williams, Ian Anderson..... a lot of people you would expect to see on the list and quite a few that you wouldn't. It seemed such a strongly supported submission that it would be bound to succeed. But it didn't. At least, it hasn't so far. Who knows how these things work? You can rest assured that Shirley's terrier-like qualities will not let the matter rest until she gets the outcome that she is after.

The whole thing had been kept a secret from Bob, but with no positive outcome, how was he to appreciate what people were saying about him? Shirley's answer was to present a bound copy of all the letters to him on the 6th January; this year we were lucky that our Thursday club night fell on the actual birthday.


The evening itself was one of those "remember it for the rest of your life" occasions. There were a few singers who had to call off with the 'flu that was raging through Sussex at that time, but perhaps it was just as well because the room was packed beyond capacity and even with one song each and a bar extension until midnight, there was not time to put on to sing anything like as many people as we would have wanted. I'll avoid the boastful name-dropping of those who contributed, thought it does make a pretty mouth-watering list. However, the one song that Martyn Wyndham-Read sang to Iris Bishop's beautiful accompaniment on duet concertina must be mentioned. It was outstanding, even by Martyn's high standards.

The other singer that really deserves a mention comes from the other prominent traditional singing family in Sussex, the Spicers. Back in the sixties when Bob and Ron Copper had been regular contributors to our Sussex Singers evenings, they had also been songs from that great performer, George Spicer. Some years after his father died, George's son, Ron had started singing in public and fortunately became a regular supporter of the Royal Oak music evenings. (Look back at your Living Tradition No. 3 for an article on these two) When Ron died, we thought that was going to be the end of the singing Spicers. We only had wait for Ron's Wake to find out that we were wrong. We were asked to play some tunes, and then Ron's brother, Ken, who had never sung in public was coaxed into singing. Were we all going to let it rest at that? No we, were not! Ken is gradually becoming heard more at singing venues in Sussex and developing the confidence to match the great talent that he has in putting across his father's songs.




Further delightful evidence of the ongoing Sussex tradition was to follow. We called up what we think of as the singing family for their first spot - Bob, son John, daughter Jill and son-in-law Jon and after the long whooping reception died down, they gave us "Babes In The Wood". Just one song and then they sprung their surprise. Six grand-children were plucked out of the crowd. Lucy had actually joined the Coppers for one song the previous year, but this time she was joined by brothers Ben and Tom and cousins Mark, Andy and Sean.

Now, this was not just a matter of the youngsters joining in tentatively behind the four seasoned public performers. In fact the two older generations sat quietly, Bob cocking a critical ear whilst the six youngsters sang, five of them for the first time in a folk club. They gave us "Claudy Banks". Everyone willed it to be good and it was - very good indeed! They finished that and when the applause died down, John Copper was able to point out that this was the seventh generation of the family that they knew for certain had sung some of these songs. After that they wanted to stay and sing on. Fortunately, there are now published versions of the Copper Family Song Book, because there was not enough room for them all to get around the original. The sound the ten of them made together was a pretty powerful and majestic one.

The middle section of the evening also had its amazing surprises. Shirley Collins was called up for the presentation. We all know she has stopped singing in public, but would she offer a song before it? Yes, she would! The wild applause indicated that she was going to make a lot of people very happy. It was a delight to here that gentle yet powerful, simple but utterly convincing voice again. She gave us "The Gower Wassail" and we 'fol-de-dolled' powerfully our responses. This contrasted with the complete silence in which Shirley was heard as she gave her tribute and read some moving excerpts from the letters. She finished saying how sad she was that her efforts had so far been in vain. Never mind, John told us, they know what he is worth locally and he announced that his dad is to be made an honorary M.A by the University of Sussex at the end of January, that's after the family make their sixth singing visit to the United States.



Then it was Bob on his own. He is a remarkably sprightly and lively man still. He was having the time of his life and he wanted to share it with us. He talked a bit about his family and his boyhood and of the most difficult years for the songs, during the thirties when no person of their generation seemed interested; there was just Ron and himself. Then gradually some new seeds started to prosper and before long the whole world wanted to know. He talked about his collecting days and gave us the version of "George Collins" that he had learned from Enos White.

"Don't you think the feelings of 'George Collins' are just like the blues? Just like Sleepy John Estes?", says Bob. "I think I'll sing a couple of blues now." You'll do WHAT? Whilst we all look at one another in utter amazement, Bob called up Ben Mandelson AKA Hijaz Mustapha of 3 Mustaphas 3 to play mandolin and Ian Anderson of fROOTS magazine to play guitars. Before we can recover our breath, Bob is telling us what he'd do if the rivers were whisky and he was a duck. It is wonderful. We have died and gone to heaven. Ian switches to steel National guitar and bottleneck and Bob's going down to Brownsville. The crowd go mad! They want more, but the Peg Leg Copper Trio were only formed at 6.30 that evening and have a repertoire of two. l have to impose on Ben and Ian to provide the encore. As I come up at the end of the song Ian confides that it is the first time that he has sung in public in ten years.


After that it's the Copper Family all the way and we get all the songs we have known and loved for years. "The Wedding Song" was sung to Andy and his soon to be bride, Miriam. Her lovely singing in the style of the great Edith Piaf had been heard earlier. We had known that we would need an extension but by the time we got to the end of "Oh, Good Ale" we had managed to overrun by 35 minutes. Then slowly, oh so slowly the room emptied. Bob wanted a chance to talk to everybody he knew before he went and he seemed to know everybody. Bob, now in overdrive, was the last out of the room. Eventually, Jon managed to shepherd them all into the Coppermobile.

The whole evening had been a delight and the many thanks that we got made it even more worthwhile. The most treasured one will be the e-mail from Jon Dudley which contained this:- "As Bob said at about 3am this morning, 'It doesn't get much better than this..', and it doesn't. What a crowd, what a reception, and the kids were absolutely made up with it all."


Jon Dudley's account on Garry Gillard's Copper Family site.

• Illustration from The Copper Family Song Book, published by Coppersongs, 75 Telscombe Road, Peacehaven, East Sussex BN10 7UB
• Photos © Michael Shade, Chris Smith and Tim Kent, not to be used for commercial purposes without permission.

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