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Bob and Ron Copper - English Shepherd and Farming

Sportsmen Arouse
Good Ale
The Season Round
Two Brethren - The
Threshing Song - The
Spring Glee - The
Sportsmen Arouse
Spencer the Rover
Shepherd of the Downs - The
Season Round - The
Month of May - The
Lark in the Morning - The
Honest Labourer - The
Hard Times of Old England - The
Good Ale
Dame Durden
Cupid's Garden
Birds in the Spring
Babes in the Wood - The

Traditional Songs From Rottingdean by Bob Copper

It is difficult to say when the story of these songs began? we can only say that it is still going on and at least two members of the Copper family, Ron and I still retain and cherish and sing them whenever a suitable opportunity arises. We know also where the story took place and in order to fully appreciate the songs I think it is necessary to know at least something of the background from which they spring and to have some sort of mind-picture of the type of men who sang them.

The family have lived for over three hundred years in and around the village of Rottingdean, which, when we were lads, was still a tiny village tucked away quietly In a fold of the South Downs on the Sussex seaboard. The Parish records in the little flint church, hard by the pond, bear entries of baptisms, marriages, and burials in our family from the year 1611, From 1745, when George Copper and his wife, Martha, recorded the baptism of a son, the line is unbroken right down to the children of the present generation. My cousin, Ron, is still living in Rottingdean; he is, in fact, the landlord of the Queen Victoria Inn, in the High Street. Up until the early years of the present century, our village was in the very heart of the Southdown sheep country, the home of the breed that earned world-wide renown for the sweetness and succulence of its small jointed lambs.

Until 1928, 3,000 acres were farmed from Rottingdean, including 2,000 undulating acres of sweet downland turf which contributed so largely to the success of our local breed. After that date, the dwindling fortunes of Home Agriculture forced the men of the village to shake the soil of Sussex downs from their boots and seek elsewhere for a livelihood. It was a wrench from which many of them never really recovered. My father, Jim, and his brother, John, had both started their working lives, as had their fathers before them, as shepherd boys at the age of 11 years on those wind-swept hills overlooking the English Channel, When, In later years, they saw the grass growing rank from neglect and, far worse, watched the ever encroaching tide of new houses and bungalows creeping further and further back into the downland, you can imagine how they felt. The taking over of rich agricultural lands for the purpose of building homes for the dwellers of overcrowded towns had begun. And this strip of Sussex, within fifty miles of London and having the advantage of running along the Channel coast, suffered more than most places. I remember one evening as Dad and I stood at the back of the village looking down the valley which seemed to be breaking out in a sporadic rash of red brick bungalows, he turned to me and said, "I don't know what your ol' Grand-daddy would say, boy, if he could see this lot. Houses, 'ouses, 'ouses, Y'know that makes me prostrate with dismal."

Other changes were taking place, too. The first tractor, a "Titan", had made its appearance on the farm and, although no one knew it at the time, had sealed the fate of the nine four-horse teams stabled in the ancient flint buildings in the shadow of the church. The days of the enormous dung-hill in the middle of the farm yard, upon which three or four dozen fat hens thrived, were numbered. The bridles and the harness, studded and decorated with fancy brasses, ware destined, by way of the antique shops, to decorate imitation ingle-nooks and week-end cottages.

These changes, after so many centuries, ware resented by all of the "old school", many of whom had known nothing more than the contentment of walking the home acres in the same footsteps and fashions of their forefathers. They had plowed their hills with oxen, they had broadcast their seed by hand, reaped their crops with scythes and, finally, had threshed out the grain with wooden flails in much the same manner as their Saxon and medieval ancestors. To many of them, these old songs were amongst the few things in their lives that remained unchanged. It was an unforgettable experience for me, as a small boy, to watch Grand-dad, his brother, Tom, my Dad and Uncle John sitting round the cottage fire on a winter's evening, singing, with the lead singers, or "trebles" (Great-Uncle Tom and Uncle John) on one side and the bass (Grand-dad and Dad) on the other. There they would sit and sing a whole evening away with a mug or two of ale and a thousand memories lighting their faces with simple and sincere enjoyment.

When I first remember Grand-dad, he had not long since handed over his job of Farm Bailliff to Dad, He was a man much revered in the village and his forthright manner, his loud bass voice and complement of status symbols from large watch and chain to amber and meerchaum cigar-holder commanded just the right amount of respect and affection from his fellow villagers. He wore a fringe of white whiskers beneath his chin, known locally as a "Chiswick beard", which, by way of side-boards, met up with his fine head of snowy-white hair. He had had very little schooling and had taught himself to read and write. Nevertheless, all the Farm Books wages, stock and cattle records, acreages and yields - were kept meticulously up to date. His younger brother, Tom, was, to a certain extent, a younger version, bearing a distinct resemblance to his older brother, but with a much lighter voice and, perhaps, a more whimsical character.

But of all times in the year, of course, Christmas was the season when all members of the family congregated at Grand-dad's home at Rottingdean.
That little cottage would fairly bulge with aunties, uncles, and cousins that we only saw at Christmastime. On Christmas morning, Ron and I had to take the gigantic turkey and a great round of beef down to the village bake-house to be cooked. It was all far too large to be put into the cottage oven.
We used to carry it on a home-made wooden affair about six feet long which resembled a stretcher and, walking slowly down the High Street with our load draped in white linen sheets, we must have presented a somewhat gruesome and disconcerting sight. At dinner time, everyone seemed to be flocking round Grand-dad who, as hub of the family, was in a grand, benevolent and expansive mood, smoking a cigar in his favourite holder and sporting a fancy waistcoat the one with the cat1s-eyes buttons. Everyone was talking, hardly anyone listening, and there was a rich smell of Christmas pudding, cigar smoke and wine, all of which added up to that warm, cheerful, friendly atmosphere I have always associated with the "spirit of Christmas".

After dinner, the older folk would doze in front to the fire, but we used to go for a walk to try to work up an appetite for tea, It was important to have plenty of room for a good tea because every mince pie we ate was supposed to ensure a happy month in the coming year. But with the best will in the world after such a dinner, twelve would be beyond the capacity of even the most enthusiastic. I have managed seven or eight, which would take me through July or August, but by that time my trouser buttons would be so tight that, reluctantly, I had to leave the rest of the year to look after itself.

About seven in the evening, grouped in a wide circle round the fire, we would all settle down to start singing. Only carols and Christmas hymns were allowed up until midnight. After that when it was officially Boxing Day the rest of the extensive repertoire came into its own. Towards 1 A.M. the ladies started to lay the supper and what a supper! There was a great round of cold underdone roast beef, a ham and a vast cold rabbit pie covered with golden crust, laced with a flank of bacon and the best part of a dozen hard-boiled eggs all set in a rich, thick jelly. During supper, we always sang "The Babes in the Wood" and, when everyone had a full plate set in front of them, Granddad would strike up, "Oh, don't you remember..." and we would all join in, interspersing singing with eating and vice-versa, ingeniously maintaining a steady continuity of both. It was really a work of art and only came after years of practice, this singing in relays. I can see Grand-dad now, finishing a line of the song with a piece of rabbit pie poised on his fork, handing over the song to Uncle Tom and consuming the mouthful of pie before taking up the tune again, two lines later, and so on until the song and most of the supper was over. By this time some of us younger ones were practically crying into our supper plates from grief over the story. This custom went on for years and was continued long after the old man's death.

These old songs, then, were symbolic of a way of life that was fast slipping away and seemed to inspire a certain sense of permanence in a rapidly changing world. They cannot be said to belong to Rottingdean any more than any folk song can be attributed to any particular area (this with very few exceptions "The Derby Ram," etc.), but they are the versions as sung in the village. These are the songs of the open Down where the Channel wind brings the tang of the sea to mingle with the scent of the gorse. They belong to the shearing barn or the lambing fold built high with fuzz-bush against the early March winds. They know no accompaniment but the call of the seagull, the song of the lark, or the wavering cry of the newborn in search of its dam. They are at home with the sighing of the wind in the hawthorn or the distant thunder of surf on the shore.

But if you take one and plunge it into a bewildering world of microphones and mixers, crochets and quavers and "beats to the bar", then something dies inside it. It is like the poor butterfly whose dusty ghost, pinned to a white card in a museum showcase, bears little resemblance to the elusive flash of glory that fluttered around the buddleia bush.

Up to fifty years ago, they were familiar in nearly every cottage, but now, alas, there are scarcely any villagers who could sing one song right through. But in years gone by, on Saturday nights in the tap-room of the Black Horse in the High Street ot the Plough up by the pond, with the atmosphere heavy with shag tobacco smoke and a pot in each man's hand, the walls would fairly shake with sound as a well-known chorus was roared out for sometimes, it seemed, the hundredth time. It always struck me that the company In general, having found a tune to their liking, were loath to leave it and would repeat the chorus, or such as they knew of it, over and over again with undiminishing enthusiasm until such time as "Order" was called for the next singer. This was the signal for an expectant silence to fall on the room and the performer was always afforded the utmost attention until we were all invited ("All together, now") to join in the chorus. In this manner the work-wearing hours of the week were forgotten the knife-edged "north-easter" seemed a long way from that near stifling room to the shepherd who spent his working day on the lonely down and the cheery faces and shining eyes were proof enough that relaxation such as this was ample fortification against the week's work ahead. No paid entertainers were required In those days. Apart from the undeniable pleasure of "having a good sing, it was a well established principle that you never paid anyone else to do a job you could do for yourself.

On my earliest visits to the public houses (clandestine visits, of course, for they were probably far too early in life for my spiritual welfare), The Black Horse was the favourite place for a song. After all, this was the inn that old Tommy Copper had kept on his retirement from being farm carter (NOTE; The Plough as stated in the Folk Song Journal) and I suppose the tradition just lived on. Across one of the beams in the low ceiling were slung the set of hand-bells which had been rung by the team, headed by old Tom, at the big houses in the village green at Christmas time when the Mummer's play was also performed and the old carols sung. This, in Dad's words, "faded out about 1900". There, having made sure from Ernie Tellick, the landlord, that Dad was not there and it was all clear for me to go in, I would slip discreetly into the corner of the bar. All the old company would be there, many of them old mates of Grand-dad, Wonderful old characters, some of them, with complexions tanned to match the shining mahogany counter and beards or sidewhiskers bleached by the sun and wind to the colour of the froth that topped the pots and tankards that seemed never far from their lips. Sometimes, having been spotted, I would be called upon for a song, "Come on, young Copper, let's have 'Spencer, the Rover'."
Although I knew the tunes well enough, I sometimes found that I did not know the words to all the verses. If this happened, there was one easy way of learning. I had only to start singing the song at home, sometime during the week, and Dad was bound to join in and supply the missing lines, so on the next Saturday I would be able to sing the song right through. It was well worth the effort, for the old saying "every song a drink" was also a custom and many a rewarding pint have I had at the end of a song. I remember old Ralph Cheal, a pal of Grand-dad's, Who once filled my adolescent head with pride by saying, "Well done, mairt (mate)? ol' Jimmy Copper will never be dead all the time you're alive." At the end of a song, quite often the company in general would sing,

A jolly good song and jolly well sung,
Jolly good company, everyone;
If you can beat it you're welcome to try,
But always remember the singer is dry.

Give the old bounder some beer
He's had some, he's had some.
Then give the old bounder some more.

Half a pint of Burton won't hurt'n, I'm certain,
O, half a pint of Burton won't hurt'n, I'm sure.

s - u - p

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 by the method of natural selection. In this manner, a man's songs sweet or sad, gallant or gay would give some indication of the man himself.

New songs were learnt orally from singers in neighboring villages when on visits for sheep shearing, farm sales or the like. Uncle John has told me how on some occasions he has captured the tune and a couple of verses of a song on a first visit and has had to wait sometimes months before the next meeting with the singer in order to garner the complete version. But then, a good song was always worth waiting for.

There is no telling which is really the oldest song nor exactly when the family first started singing them. But at least we have some of them written by Grand-dad in his own inimitable spelling. At the foot of one of them, "The Shepherd of the Downs", he wrote, "My grandfathers used to sing this song." His grandfather, John Copper, was born in Rottingdean in 1793.

It was Grand-dad and his brother, Tom, of whom Miss Kate Lee wrote in the No. 1 Journal of the English Folk Song Society in 1899.

"I shall never forget the delight of hearing the two Mr. Coppers, who gave me the songs, and who are now members of the Society. Mr. William (James) is a foreman of a farm and his brother is the landlord of the Plough Inn (Black Horse), a very small public house. They were so proud of their Sussex songs, and sang them with an enthusiasm grand to hear, and when I questioned them as to how many they thought they could sing, they said they thought 'half a hundred'. You had only to start either of them on the subject of the song and they commenced at once. 'Oh, Mr. Copper, can you sing me a love song, a sea song, or a plough song?' it did not matter what it was, they looked at each other significantly, and with perfectly grave faces off they would go. Mr. Thomas Copper's voice was as flexible as a bird's. He always sang the under part of the song like a sort of obbligato, impossible, at first hearing, to put down. I hope to show you the beautiful variety of these songs which, by the way, I only collected in November last ...".

They were made honorary members for their contributions of songs in 1899. Many years later, in 1952, Dad, Uncle John, his son, Ron, and I shared a similar honour when we appeared at the Folk Song and Dance Festival at the Albert Hall, London. At the Diamond
Jubilee of the Folk Song Society in 1958.
Ron and I went to the Cecil Sharp House in London, the Headquarters of the Society, and were privileged to be in such distinguished company as Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Percy Grainger, and many others. The cake baked to commemorate this historic occasion, which was cut by Dr. Vaughan Williams, bore an inscription in icing which included the opening bars of "Claudy Banks", which was reputedly the first song collected in behalf of the Society and can be said to have played an important part in the formation of it.

So a tradition coming down to us from the quiet mists of eighteenth century rural England (and maybe even before) lives on into the brash, noisy, electronic world of today. How much longer it will continue is, of course, impossible to say. But many years ago, Ron and I made a vow that we would never be the weak links in the long chain of "singing Coppers". We are happy to think that, in some small measure, we have been lucky enough to be able to fulfill that promise.


The following songs have not previously been collected: '"The Two Brethren", "The Month of May", "The Shepherd of the Downs", "The Threshing Song", "Sportsmen Arouse" "The Hard Times of Old England" and "Good Ale". "The Honest Labourer" is a version of "The Nobleman and the Thresher" which has been collected in eight English counties and was extensively printed on broadsides. "The Lark in the Morning" was also widely distributed and appeared on broadsides as "The Plowman's Glory" Only one other version of the following songs has been found, always in Southern England: "The Spring Glee", "Dame Durden", "Birds in the Spring" and "Babes in the Wood", although the latter has been widely reported in America and appears to be a fragment of a much longer ballad of broadside origin. Four versions of "Cupid's Garden" have been collected in the North, South, East and West of England. Several Yorkshire versions of "Spencer, the Rover" have been found, as well as versions from the West Country and East Anglia. Three other versions of "The Season Round" have been reported, all in Southern England.


This type of two-part harmonizing, as one can learn from what Bob says about his own family, goes back several generations and may wall go back several centuries. Although much of the harmony might at first sound similar to church choir or glee club, there Is much In the style which could be an example of primitive folk polyphony survival. Their practice is to give a "hovering effect" in passage from one main note to another, the main notes themselves very often being in unison. Their style is not confined to their own family as I have heard other family pairs, not only in the region of the; South Downs, but also in the Thames Valley area.

Peter Kennedy


Sportsmen arouse, the morning is clear.
The larks are singing all in the air.
Go and tell your sweet lover the hounds are out.
Saddle your horses, their saddles prepare;
We'll away to some cover to seek for some hare.

We searched the woods, the groves all round;
The trial being over, the game is found.
Then off she springs, through brake she flies.
Follow, follow the musical horn,
Sing follow, hark forward, the innocent hare,

Our huntsman blows his joyful sound,
Tallyho, my boys, all over the Downs.
From the woods to the valleys, see how she creeps.
Follow, follow the musical horn,
Sing follow, hark forward, the innocent hare.

All along the green turf she pants for breath;
Our huntsman he shouts out for death.
Relope, relope, retiring hare.
Follow, follow the musical horn,
Sing follow, hark forward, the innocent hare.

This hare has led us a noble run.
Success to sportsmen everyone.
Such a chase she has led us, four hours or more.
Wine and beer we'll drink without fear;
We'll drink a success to the innocent hare.


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