Archive Of Folk Singer Bob Copper Given To University Library

By David Prudames | 15 April 2005
Shows a photograph of a colection of papers including a sheet of music, handwritten song lyrics and a sketch of a village pump.

More than 10 boxes of Bob Copper's notes, diaries and sketches have been handed over the University of Sussex. © 24 Hour Museum.

A lifetime’s worth of notes, diaries and papers collected by internationally renowned folk singer Bob Copper has been acquired by the University of Sussex in Brighton.

Described as the most important English traditional folk singer of the 20th century, Bob Copper spent his life making sure the songs collected by his father and grandfather in the East Sussex village of Rottingdean, were kept alive.

His archive will now share shelf space with papers of Virginia Woolf and Rudyard Kipling and was handed over to the university during a presentation on April 14, attended by three generations of the famous singing Copper family.

"It’s a lovely coming together of ideas," John Copper, Bob’s son, told the 24 Hour Museum. "Our problem was having all this stuff and not knowing what to do with it."

Shows a photograph of John Copper delivering a speech.

John, Bob Copper's son, described the songs his father taught him as having come from a time "before music". © 24 Hour Museum.

When Bob died in March 2004 the family was left with boxes and boxes of his papers, sketches, play scripts, letters and, of course, song lyrics. Lacking either the space or expertise to collate, catalogue and conserve this archive the Coppers offered it to the University of Sussex, which awarded Bob with an honorary MA in 2000.

For librarian Deborah Shorley it was an easy decision to make: "We leapt at the opportunity of having Bob’s archive," she said.

Expressing her gratitude to the family for trusting the library with it, she added: "We shall keep it very carefully and make it last forever. Above all we’ll do our best to make sure that all people who are interested in it can come and see it."

The archive will be held in the university’s Special Collections, where the famous Mass Observation Archive is kept, and once catalogued will be made available to members of the public.

Shows a photograph of Shows a photograph of a colection of papers including a sheet of music and sketches of village scenes.

© 24 Hour Museum.

Including a recording of a 1950 radio documentary about Bob’s father Jim and Jim’s handwritten accounts of farm life at the end of the 19th century, it will be of interest to social historians, as well as folk enthusiasts.

"His writings are sure to be of use to anyone researching his life, Rottingdean, agricultural history or folk song," added Bob Copper’s son-in-law, Jon Dudley.

With their harmonised, unaccompanied singing of English folk songs handed down through successive generations the Copper family are known internationally.

Their roots in the village of Rottingdean go back to the 16th century, where Bob was born in a farm cottage in 1915. It was there he learned the songs ‘collected’ by his father, Jim, and grandfather, James.

Shows a photograph of the Copper family singing.

The tradition goes on. The Copper family including Bob's children (John - far left - and Jill - centre). © 24 Hour Museum.

Such was their contribution that a paper on James and Bob's great-uncle Thomas Copper’s songs was presented at the first meeting of the English Folk Song Society in 1899.

The tradition was carried on by Bob and continues today: "The songs have really been preserved in the family and carried on by word of mouth in the oral tradition from generation to generation," Bob’s daughter Jill told the 24 Hour Museum.

"Nothing’s been written down, it’s just one of those things that’s percolated and trickled through."

John Copper described the songs he learnt from his father as coming"from an era that somebody once described as ‘before music’."

"It’s music people used to make in their own homes for self entertainment," he explained. "All we are is a vehicle to bring these songs into the modern world. We keep them alive and we enjoy doing it. We don’t want to change them, they’re valuable, it’s the songs not the singer that’s important."

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