Coope, Boyes & Simpson
Coope, Boyes & Simpson
The British trio of Coope, Boyes & Simpson has brought an originality of content and a new spirit of social and political commitment to the art of unaccompanied vocal harmony. Technically, the group amazes audiences and wins critical raves for its intricate trio arrangements, and, like other a cappella groups around the world, they have sung their share of traditional material. More often, however, Coope, Boyes & Simpson apply their harmonies to original songs about historical events and about life in modern England, focusing on war and on the lives of working people. Forging an entirely distinctive sound themselves, they have also been active as collaborators with other musicians, both in England and abroad.
Barry Coope, Jim Boyes, and Lester Simpson were all working consistently as musicians in Northern England's folk scene in the late 1980s, and their paths occasionally crossed. Boyes performed with a group called Swan Arcade that sometimes joined up with another group, Blue Murder, which included British folk pioneers Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy. Blue Murder would later grow to include Coope, Boyes & Simpson as a trio. Boyes also performed with Simpson in a vocal harmony group called Tup and in the Irish trio band Ramsbottom, which signed Coope as a keyboardist after Boyes left the group. In 1990, when all three musicians found themselves temporarily unattached, it made sense to singer John Tams to bring them together. "It was luck," Boyes told Vic Smith of Folk Roots. "When you are singing with other people that you are not related to, it's a matter of great fortune to find people that you can sing with. We knew instantly that this was going to work."
All three members combined a love of harmony singing with an appreciation for the seriousness of traditional folk songs, such as sea shanties, that addressed the life of trouble that England's poor had faced all through history. Coope and Boyes grew up singing hymns in Methodist churches, and Simpson had sung in an Anglican church. All three also soaked up influences from African-American gospel and soul music. By the time Coope, Boyes & Simpson began touring and recording in 1993, they had developed a unique harmony style, one that John L. Walters of the Guardian described as "in the folk-country tradition, but with a twist that mirrors the barbed lyrics, a wide pitch range, and thrilling bass sonorities swapped between all three." The group gained exposure with two appearances on BBC Radio; one was on the widely heard series Kershaw Comes Home and featured new songs specially commissioned for the program.
Those "barbed lyrics" marked another innovative contribution on the trio's part. Although a cappella singing in both England and America was strongly associated with traditional or at least old-fashioned material, Coope, Boyes & Simpson wrote most of their own songs. "It's strange, when we first started, and we hadn't recorded any traditional material, only our own songs," Boyes told Chris Nickson of Sing Out! "But we were still advertised as traditional." In fact, the group showed an early ability to create music tailored to specific events. In 1994 they were commissioned to write songs for a concert at Passendale Church in Belgium to commemorate the three Battles of Passchendaele ("Passchendaele" is an older spelling of the town's name, Passendale) in 1917, during World War I. Almost 600,000 soldiers lost their lives in a battle that lasted a little more than three months. The concert turned into an album, We're Here Because We're Here, recorded with Belgian musicians Willem Vermandere and Norbert Detaeye.
Later Coope, Boyes & Simpson would record other material related to Passendale and to the antiwar cause more generally. With another Belgian group, the octet Panta Rhei, they recorded an original song cycle, the Passchendaele Suite, in 1996, and they became involved with an annual peace concert held in the area. But they also followed other musical avenues. After another album of mostly original material, 1996's Falling Slowly, they turned to traditional British folk music with Hindsight in 1998. Critics quoted on the group's website described "the compelling unity of their voices and the enchantment of their adventurous chords" (The Folk Diary), performances "never short of ear boggling" (Surrey Folk News), and "an object lesson in the art of harmony singing" (Shreds and Patches).
In 1998, the group released the Christmas album A Garland of Carols, which was composed of regional folk Christmas songs. The following year they joined with the Belgian group Wak Maar Proper for a Christmas album of a different kind, The Christmas Truce, on the theme of the temporary Christmas cessation of hostilities between German and British troops in 1914. Also in 1999 Coope, Boyes & Simpson released Where You Belong, a unique song cycle commissioned by and concerning the town of Belper in the Derbyshire region. The year 1999 saw the release of yet another album, the compilation What We Sing. Coope, Boyes & Simpson appeared with Blue Murder at the Beverley Folk Festival in 2000 and also made their first appearances in the United States as part of the Vocal Chords Tour, a New England series featuring a cappella groups from various traditions. They toured Britain, Belgium, and the Netherlands in 2001, featuring the Christmas Truce and Garland of Carols material, and they also joined a group of other folk musicians in a sort of social-critique review of songs about coal mining, Hearts of Coal.
In 2002, the collaboration with Blue Murder grew into a new album, No One Stands Alone. That same year, Coope, Boyes & Simpson also issued a new album of their own, Twenty-four Seven. The album consisted of edgy songs on social and environmental themes, and in general the trio expressed left-wing attitudes in most of their music, whether traditional or not. They recorded for the No Masters label, a cooperative organization that grew out of a period of labor agitation in Britain associated with a bitter miners' strike in the 1980s. The group's war songs also led to an association with antiwar activities. "The more things you find out, the more you're dragged back to the same area," Boyes observed to Nickson. "For most families [in Europe], there are World War I connections: great uncles and great grandfathers who fought in the war. It's because of that we've continued with it, and we continue to be invited back to do even more."
Coope, Boyes & Simpson shifted gears once again in 2005 with Triple Echo, the closest they had come to a traditional, archival British folk release. The album featured songs collected by three classical composers who also worked as folklorists in the early 20th century: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Percy Grainger, and George Butterworth. Sing Out! called the trio "remarkable singers with a chilling blend" who "keep these unaccompanied songs interesting with inventive arrangements, and a vocal energy that seems effortless." With a new album of seasonal music, Voices at the Door, appearing at the end of 2006, Coope, Boyes & Simpson were continuing to broaden both their audience and musical reach.
Funny Old World, No Masters, 1993.
(With Willem Vermandere and Norbert Detaeye) We're Here Because We're Here, No Masters, 1995.
Falling Slowly, No Masters, 1996.
(With Panta Rhei) Passchendaele Suite, No Masters, 1996.
A Garland of Carols, No Masters, 1998.
Hindsight, No Masters, 1998.
(With Wak Maar Proper) Christmas Truce, No Masters, 1999.
What We Sing, No Masters, 1999.
Where You Belong, No Masters, 1999.
(With Blue Murder) No One Stands Alone, No Masters, 2002.
Twenty-four Seven, No Masters, 2002.
Fire and Sleet and Candlelight, No Masters, 2003.
Triple Echo, No Masters, 2005.
Voices at the Door: Midwinter Songs & Carols, No Masters, 2006.
For the Record …
Members include Jim Boyes, vocals; Barry Coope, vocals; Lester Simpson, vocals.
A cappella folk vocal trio; formed 1990 in Sheffield, England; signed to No Masters recording cooperative; released debut album Funny Old World, 1993; released Falling Slowly, 1996; toured Belgium; recorded (with Belgian octet Panta Rhei) Passchendaele Suite, 1996; recorded other music based on experiences of World War I; released A Garland of Carols, 1998; released Where You Belong, 1999; (with Blue Murder) released No One Stands Alone, 2002; released Fire and Sleet and Candlelight, 2003; released Triple Echo, 2005; released Voices at the Door: Midwinter Songs & Carols, 2006.
Addresses: Record company—No Masters, 78 Moor-gate Rd., Rotherham, S60 2AY, UK, phone: 44-0-1709-375063, fax: 44-0-1709-327164, website: http://www.nomasters.co.uk. Website—Coope, Boyes & Simpson Official Website: http://www.coopeboyesandsimpson.co.uk/
Coventry Evening Telegraph (Coventry, England), January 19, 2001, p. 55.
Folk Roots (now FRoots), June 1998, p. 29.
Guardian (London, England), September 22, 2003, p. 22.
Sing Out!, Fall 2005, p. 55; Winter 2006, p. 150.
Coope, Boyes & Simpson Official Website, http://www.coopeboyesandsimpson.co.uk (November 21, 2006).
"Coope, Boyes & Simpson," No Masters, http://www.nomasters.co.uk/coope_boyes_&_simpson.htm (November 21, 2006).
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