In a café in the East Sussex town of Newhaven, I took out my portable CD player, and attempted to interpose Come Write me Down, the new collection of songs by The Copper Family of Rottingdean, between myself and the over-familiar stuff on the radio. I failed: the poignant, unaccompanied harmonising of the Coppers was completely obliterated by Dr Hook singing "When You're in Love With a Beautiful Woman". Later I took a taxi to the nearby town of Peacehaven, where the Coppers are based. "Everyone around here's heard of them," said the taxi driver. "Of course their sort of music's dying out you know... there's no general demand for it at all."
The HQ of The Copper Family is the Central Club in Peacehaven. Because it's run by the Coppers – and has been for 70 years – it's not like the rest of East Sussex. It is like the past. There's a real snooker table, real ale and a real fire. The interior is decked out with agricultural implements salvaged from the huge farms that used to exist around Rottingdean before the bungalows came. It is from this territory that most of the Coppers' agricultural folk songs derive.
In the 10 minutes after my arrival, the Coppers begin to turn up. Partly because they mainly have monosyllabic Christian names, things might become a little confusing from here on, but the names are interchangeable really, since the Coppers are all vigorous-looking, lean people with friendly, handsome, pre-war faces. Present for the interview were the patriarch, Bob Copper, now 87, his son John, who currently manages the Central Club, and John's son Tom, a 23-year-old student; also present were Bob's daughter Jill, and her husband, Jon Dudley, who together run an interior design consultancy. All of the above sing, but a full complement of the current singing Coppers would also include John's other children, Ben and Lucy, and Jon and Jill's children, Mark, Sean and Andy, some of whose names are, admittedly, creeping towards two syllables.
Bob begins by showing me two beautifully handwritten songbooks. The first is the one Bob's grandfather, James (nicknamed "Brasser"), passed on to Bob's father, Jim; the second is the one Jim passed on to Bob, with the inscription: "You'll find some songs you ought to know, now have some beer and let her go." Beer accounts for a lot of the Coppers' musicality. I ask whether they could ever get together socially, have a few drinks and then not sing. "No," says Jon Dudley immediately, "not possible."
Brasser was a dandified figure, who'd walk off to the pub with his meerschaum-and- amber cigar holder. He, like his son Jim, was the bailiff on a 3,000-acre Rottingdean farm run by a family called the Browns. In his last years, Brasser lived in the cottage in which Bob grew up. According to Bob, he would would sit down in front of the fire, mutter "Best 'ave a song then," and that was it; they'd be off. Bob's dad would sing around the house constantly. "It was like breathing," recalls Bob.
All the Coppers have sung all the time, with or without audiences, for generations, and the outside world has taken an interest on four main occasions. The first was in 1898 when a Kate Lee visited Rottingdean. She was in the vanguard of the late-Victorian fashion for writing down folk songs that had been passed on orally. She plied Brasser and his brother Tom with whisky, and got the songs out of them.
The spotlight found them again in the early Fifties, when there was a brief vogue at the BBC for recording authentic folk music. Bob, his dad, and cousin Ron were recorded at the Eight Bells pub in Jevington, Eastbourne. It was for a Sunday morning radio show called Country Magazine, and the photographs of the event are preposterous, showing the urbane BBC man leaning solicitously towards the rugged countrymen. It looks like a Fast Show sketch, yet Country Magazine had an audience of 15 million. In 1951, further BBC recordings were made, and a programme on the life of Bob's father, which lead to him appearing on the cover of the Radio Times. In 1952, Bob, his dad, uncle John and cousin Ron sang at a folk festival at the Royal Albert Hall. They decided to go on early, before they had drunk too much. That was the plan, but after the performance, uncle John was found lying in a corridor singing.
By now Bob, in middle age and recently retired from the police force, had come to realise the importance of his musical legacy. None the less, it was back to relative obscurity for nearly 20 years, until, in 1971, he came out with the first of his five memoirs, "A Song for Every Season". It won the Robert Pitman literary prize, and during the prize-giving ceremony, Bob was presented to Lord Longford. At this memory, the other Coppers shout out: "And he bloody curtsied!"
There is a serious point here. The Copper's southern English folk is not radical like that of the north, and it would be hard to imagine a Yorkshire folk singer joining the police or showing much respect to a lord. Of the songs on the new collection, only "Hard Times of Old England" is anything like a protest song. Bob remembers his mother sometimes questioning his dad's cap-doffing deference to the land-owning Browns, and his father replying that he "didn't know where the hell we'd be without them".
The publication of the book was accompanied by the release of a four-album set of Copper songs. The latest CD, comprising material from early-Fifties and Sixties recordings, is the most important release since then; and it is being accompanied by a fourth burst of publicity. Television researchers are "sniffing around", and Bob recently appeared on a well-received Radio Four programme, on which he swapped notes with his friend, the American folk singer Pete Seeger. The family play a gig every couple of weeks, mainly at folk clubs.
The Coppers also perform regularly in America, where they are not given enough, or sometimes anything, to drink. "You'll get 15 types of cheesecake, though," says John, rolling his eyes. Their songs are performed with compelling, full-throated relish and none of the piety of those middle-class folkies more at home in an archive than a tap room. But one of their favourite lines is that the music "is better than it sounds", meaning that the history in it is as important as its beauty; that the legacy must be carried on. Jon Dudley, the in-law, puts it nicely: "It's like marrying into the bloody royal family," he says, striding up to the bar for more beer all round.
'Come Write Me Down' by The Copper Family is on Topic Records. Andrew Martin's novel 'The Necropolis Railway', is published by Faber & Faber in August