The Copper Family
of Rottingdean,
Come Write Me Down
(Topic, 2001)

When I was a teenager, I was given one of the most significant presents of my young life: an AM/FM clock radio. The clock enabled me to get to school on time. The FM introduced me to radio stations that would influence my life in terms of musical direction. One of those stations featured a folk music show on Sunday evenings, and that's where I first heard of the Copper Family -- from a cappella albums of traditional British folk songs. There were times when, as a teen, I wished the show's hostess would get on with it and play songs I enjoyed more by musicians such as Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention or a fledging group from Ireland called Clannad. It wasn't until I was just a mite older that I understood the importance of those old-fashioned sounding recordings by the Coppers. If it weren't for the Coppers, that first wave of traditional performers in the '50s and '60s, and all the ones who followed it, would be less wealthy in terms of sources. While the first songbook penned by a Copper wasn't published until 1936, Kate Lee, a folk song collector and later the first secretary for the English Folk Song Society, lured two members of the family to sing songs for her to transcribe and collect as early as 1898.

Topic Records recently has reissued some of their early recordings, going as far back as far as 1951. For one CD, it's a thick collection due to two very lengthy CD booklets, one on the background of this family from Sussex, emphasizing their singing and recording history, and the other detailing the 28 actual tracks found on the disc.

If you're interested in the roots of traditional British music and collecting said songs -- if you're the sort of person who would love to be let loose in the library at London's Cecil Sharp House, the informative CD booklets alone are worth the price of the CD. They are a gold mine regarding the Coppers' repertoire and their contributions to traditional British music folk music, ranging from a history of the family and their village, Rottingdean, to an analysis of their use of harmonies.

The songs themselves, however, probably are of the most interest to folk music fans in general. Included are songs dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, including "Babes in the Woods" and "The Month of May" to various 19th-century broadsheet ballads such as "The Claudy Banks" and "Spencer the Rover." Some songs, such as "The Banks of the Sweet Primroses," have been collected from numerous sources, but others, such as "The Hard Times of Old England," seem unique to the Coppers. Enthusiasts of more contemporary folk performers might recognize some lyrics and tunes, as various singers and groups learned songs from the Copper collections.

Do realize that these are a cappella arrangements that could sound as the Coppers used to sing them at the Black Horse pub in the 19th century (members of the family, including the younger generations, still sing together). There aren't any electric guitars nor drum kits in the background. This is British folk music in what might be considered its purest form, a style that needs to be preserved even today.

Track 27, the only non-singing track, appropriately titled "Talking," perhaps sums up that need best. In 1951, Jim Copper commented about how times had changed. "Now it's houses, houses, on the land that we used to plough. I don't like it. In fact, there's only one thing that's come through from my young days unchanged, and that's our songs." Luckily, those songs are still around today to be remembered and appreciated for their heritage and the living history that they are.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 18 August 2002