Meet a trio determined to keep alive memory of Great War victims

Fascism, racism and the horrors of war. They are tough issues for any band to tackle — let alone a group of a capella singers. But then Coope Boyes and Simpson are not your usual group.

Using their roles as artists to prick consciences and raise awareness, as well as entertain and amuse, this powerful vocal trio are an engaging spectacle — who are as likely to leave you with a tear in the eye as they are to make you smile.

“Popular music is so bland and meaningless that I feel the need to sing more important songs to fill the void,” says Lester Simpson, talking from his home in Wirksworth, on the edge of the Derbyshire Dales.

“The good thing about folk music is that you can do that.”

Drawing on the English folk tradition, Lester, Barry Coope and Jim Boyes sing a mix of classic songs, original compositions and those penned by respected writers such as Richard Thompson, Clive James and Robert Burns.

“We are angry and cynical,” he says warmly. “And we are socialists — but with a green slant.

“Our songs are all Political with a large ‘P’, political with a small ‘p’ or are just beautiful.”

Although they have known each other since the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1993 that they began singing as a three-piece.

Lester explains: “We had all sung together in various combinations but never all three of us at the same time.”

Each singer has strong folk circuit credentials. Jim was a member of the band Swan Arcade and also performed in Tup with Jim in the early 80s. All three men appeared in other bands — among them Rogues Gallery and Ramsbottom — though not together.

It was a suggestion by singer-songwriter and actor John Tams that the three should work together.

“We knew each other for a long time but had never sung as a trio,” says Lester. “But as soon as we sang together it was immediately obvious that our voices blended together very well.

“We were booked to play Sidmouth Folk Festival before we had even sung, just on the strength of our names.”

So why a capella? “We are all instrumentalists as well,” says Lester. “But our great forte lies in the strength of our voices.

“Outside folk, or barbershop, people are not used to hearing three voices just striking up and singing. We like the purity. “We have an immediacy which is amazing, and it is more powerful than if we played instruments. Instruments wouldn’t add anything — in fact they’d take it away.”

He laughs: “Having said that, perhaps we should do a plugged-in album and use electric instruments to keep people on their toes.”

Their songs span the breadth of experience and emotion from joyous and laugh at loud funny, to painfully sad.

A Hill of Little Shoes, for example, deals with the aftermath of the Holocaust and the loss of a generation of children. “It is heartbreaking and I see people shedding a tear,” says Lester. “But we need to remember as we are now at the stage where Holocaust survivors are not going to be around for much longer.”

Another song, Under the Stone, is a reminder that the prejudice and hatred that fuel genocide are still never far away.

“We still feel the need to do those songs,” he goes on. “We still have Holocaust deniers in politics in Europe. Even Sunderland’s new manager Paolo Di Canio has admitted he’s a fascist.

“These people don’t go away. You think they’ve gone, but you pick up a stone and they are still there. And they are waiting to come back again.

“We have also got a song called We Did Get Fooled Again, which is an answer to The Who’s song, and is about everything from religion to politics. We don’t know if they’ve heard it though!”

Other songs are based on historic hymns and Christmas carols.

“We do sing religious songs with a spiritual element,” says Lester. “And we sing lullabies for grandchildren, so there is massive breadth, but people would probably regard us as political. Without tub-thumping we like to creep up on people with a lyric like a quick knife in the side.”

Among the causes closest to their hearts is keeping alive the memory of those killed in the First World War. One of their first shows took place in Flanders at Passchendaele, the site of one of the conflict’s bloodiest battles.

The band have continued supporting Peace Concerts Passendale (to use the modern Flemish spelling) and the Great War has inspired many of their more poignant songs.

Passchendaele Suite was commissioned by the people of Passendale to mark the 80th anniversary of the battle, Terminus Passchendaele and The Belgian Girl were performed on battlefield sites like Hill 60, and their songs We’re Here Because We’re Here and The Christmas Truce have been performed, respectively, in Passendale Church and Yprès Cathedral — the latter with an 80-piece Flemish choir.

They have also collaborated and performed with War Horse author Michael Morpurgo in a musical story-telling production of his World war One children’s story Private Peaceful.

Next year they will perform a series of concerts in Flanders to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the war.

“Politicians will wave flags,” he says. “It’s easy to get into the pomp and glory of it, but we have to say what happened and why. And we can sing one small story which serves as a metaphor for the horror of war.”

One of those is Widow. “It’s about a widow from the Great War but is also completely contemporary and relevant to Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says.

“Questions still need to be asked,” he adds: “The world is a fantastic place, but we need to keep looking at it and pointing out the imperfections which occur and reoccur.

“I like the idea that we can make people laugh a bit when we are performing, then do something serious, and then make them smile again. You don’t have to be nice all the time.”

Coope Boyes and Simpson

North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford


Tickets: £13/£11 concessions from