The Two Bob's Worth

Bob Lewis and Bob Copper at a Kent folk club, 1999

MT Records MTCD374

A Fair Maid Walking; The Honest Labourer; Good Morrow Mistress Bright; You Seamen Bold; We Shepherds are the Bravest Boys; The Streams of Lovely Nancy; The Pretty Ploughboy; George Collins; A Sweet Country Life; The Banks of Sweet Primaroses; The Cobbler; The Bold Princess Royal; My Boy Willie; While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping; Three Crows / Blackbirds; The Threshing Song; Spencer the Rover; Thousands or More; Oh Good Ale; John Barleycorn
Although from different generations, Bob Copper and Bob Lewis were friends up to Bob Copper's death in 2004.  They shared the same space with regard to Southern English traditional folk song, and often shared the same concert stage, taproom of a country pub, and in the case of this excellent CD, they shared a guest performers slot at the folk club in Tonbridge, Kent in October 1999.

Both could, and did, do solo guest bookings (Bob Lewis still does), but on that night, at the end of the last century, they did a song each in turn, until near the end of the evening when they sang a few songs in tandem.

And what songs, and what singing!  Singing first, Bob Lewis set the bar very high with an assured version of The Young and Single Sailor.  He sang, and still does, unaccompanied, a warm rich voice.  Later on, he chooses to pitch his voice very high on Good Morrow Mistress Bright, and My Boy Jimmy; the drama here is whether he will be able to stay at that level all the way through, which of course he does wonderfully, without detracting from the stories unfolding in the songs.  They are rarely heard songs, as is his signature song, Sweet Country LifeWe Shepherds are the Bravest Boys is a lyrical song I will always associate with Bob Lewis, and its inclusion here seals Bob's reputation for classic subtle singing.  Many of us revivalists would do well to listen carefully to Bob Lewis's style and phrasing

Over the years Bob Lewis has carved out his role as a singer with a unique style, voice and repertoire.  He spent his younger days in the company of many older Sussex traditional singers, particularly George Belton, and even offered his services as a driver to get "the good old boys" out to singing occasions in the long distant pass.  Such time in their company, listening to their anecdotes, and their songs, gave him a wonderful insight into what is now a long gone era.  Like the other Bob, Bob Lewis has a valuable link with the sometimes overlooked past, as a bridge to the Sussex countryside in the last century, and the rural singers he met and became friends with.

Bob Copper chose that night to accompany himself on his English concertina on his first five songs.  When he sang with his family, the singing was unaccompanied, but here he provides a straightforward musical backing to his strong solo voice.  The playing sounds a little uncertain on one song only, but he never lets the music get in the way of the song; so no fancy counter melodies on the instrument, which so many others seem to employ needlessly.  He characteristically is self deprecating about his musicianship, but the song and the story always shines through.  He also sings his version of George Collins, with that lonesome bluesy second line to the fore.  His songs include ones he collected on his 1950s' song-collecting project for the BBC.  He talks briefly about the old singers he met, befriended, and recorded; now, poignantly it is Bob Copper himself who is old, but giving a very great account of those very songs he collected over 50 years ago.  He then puts the concertina aside, and gives us the Full Bob, especially on Bold Princess Royal, and Dogs and Ferrets

Bob Copper made many friends via his singing, his books, his recordings of older generations of singers, and of course, by his genial good humour.  In 1999 he was the 'senior partner' in the singing family from Rottingdean, and the family can trace singers back at least seven generations; he brings an unspoken authority to traditional singing.  So, happily, songs associated with the Copper Family crop up at the end of the performance, including Spencer the Rover, and Thousands or More.  Bob Lewis sings the melody line on these two gems, and Bob Copper switches effortlessly to the harmony role.  This is a joyful sound.  (Recently, in Sussex, we were lucky to hear two of Bob's grandsons Andy and Sean sing in that close harmony style on the song Two Brethren; long may this continue).  The two Bob's end the evening/CD with each in turn helping out on chorus songs Oh Good Ale, and John Barleycorn.

This snapshot of a live appearance at a folk club, with no expectation that a CD would surface 18 years later, captures the atmosphere created that night; our thanks to Andrew King for recording the whole evening.  Of course, a few background noises (coughs, drink glasses being placed on tables etc.) filter through, but what we get is 80 minutes of fine singing of well chosen songs, from two giants of Southern English traditional singing, together with the companionable good humour of both men, working together before an appreciative audience.  The accompanying booklet has an informative and amusing personal essay about his father-in-law Bob Copper, from Jon Dudley, and some transcripts from interviews with Bob Lewis, made by Vic Smith.  The words of the songs, and corresponding notes from Rod Stradling are helpful and thorough as always on Musical Traditions Records.

Bob Lewis still sings when asked to, and has the authority in his voice and the repertoire he had then; get to hear him live if you can.  In the meantime, I heartily recommend this CD.

Will Duke - 15.11.17