The Copper Family which traces its ancestry back to 1593, has been singing its folksongs in and around Rottingdean, Sussex, since at least the end of the 18th . These old songs are maintained unchanged, unpolished and handed lovingly down from generation to generation. If that doesn’t qualify them as being ‘Oily Rag’ I don’t know what does. For those who like to see a physical manifestation of such things then check out the Family songbooks.
Ancestor James ‘Brasser’ Copper (born 1845, into Rottingdean’s agrarian community) was encouraged to write down the words of some of his songs by his employer’s daughter, a Mrs Corrie. Until this moment, the songs had been passed down purely by the oral tradition. This method was necessitated by the fact that the labouring classes to which James and his predecessors belonged were unlettered; a legal requirement to learn the ‘three Rs’ was not enacted until 1870. If you wanted to know a song you had to learn it by heart. These people were not unintelligent however, merely uneducated. Brasser and his brother Tom were ambitious, and paid a penny a lesson to a charitable upper class lady, to receive instruction in the rudiments of literacy and numeracy.
Consequently, with that advantage they progressed a little more than their contemporaries, Brasser becoming farm bailiff (foreman) and Tom a publican. Thus it was possible, with much effort from Brasser, to write down the words to twenty-four of the Family’s songs. The spellings, although somewhat ‘freeform’ are perfectly intelligible and charming, for example, one song entitled ‘Here’s Adieu Sweet lovely Nancy’, Brasser renders as ‘Hears a Dew Sweet loveley Nancy’. Through a miracle of late 1920s technology copies were made of these writings by Mrs Corrie’s London lawyer and given to the Family. Since the original writings have disappeared, this was a most generous and fortunate act of historic significance.
In the late 1930s, Brassers’s son Jim, wrote down the words of almost the complete Family repertoire for his son and daughter in two further volumes. Written in old farm account books in a bold ‘Copperplate’ hand these are treasured items in the Copper Family archive and still used (sparingly) by them today. They will soon need conservation – but never restoration.
The Family continues to sing the songs handed down over the centuries unchanged, and uniquely for the English folk tradition, in a rough harmony style. With the arrival of grandchildren to the current senior family members, the Coppers have evidence of at least seven consecutive generations of singers. An Oily Rag tradition? Definitely.