Barry Coope, who has died from cancer aged 67, was a folk singer, instrumentalist and musical arranger who sang in an a cappella harmony trio with Jim Boyes and Lester Simpson, and played keyboard and sang in a duo with John Tams.
Coope, Boyes and Simpson came together in 1992. Jim was looking for new musical partners after his trio Swan Arcade folded, and the three voices gelled immediately. Jim’s bass voice, combined with Lester’s middle-range singing and Barry’s high harmony gave a rich and tight sound that was unlike any of the established harmony groups on the folk circuit. For Jim, Barry’s considerable harmony skills were the trio’s great strength.
Their repertoire was largely drawn from songs of social and political comment written by Jim and Lester, alongside similar songs from other songwriters. Their albums, starting with Funny Old World (1993), were released on the No Masters label, a co-operative established by northern songwriters.
Traditional songs were featured on Hindsight (1998) and Triple Echo (2005). They recorded albums of traditional Christmas songs including A Garland of Carols and Voices at the Door, and regularly toured a seasonal show featuring local Derbyshire carols.
They became popular in Belgium through regular performances at the Passchendaele peace concerts, leading to several CDs including Passchendaele Suite (1996) and In Flanders Field (2014) made in collaboration with Belgian musicians. It was through a visit to Belgium that Barry and the other band members first met the children’s author Michael Morpurgo. Already impressed by their singing, Morpurgo created Private Peaceful, a collaborative project featuring readings from his award-winning book and songs arranged by Coope, Boyes and Simpson. This was followed by On Angel Wings, a retelling of the nativity story with carols, both released on CD with Morpurgo as the storyteller.
Coope, Boyes and Simpson also replaced Swan Arcade in the occasional harmony big band, Blue Murder, with the Waterson family, recording No One Stands Alone (2002).
In the 1990s, Barry had been a member of Tams’ group The Questionnaires as well as the John Tams Band, and he teamed up with Tams in a much-sought-after duo, performing at festivals including Glastonbury, Cambridge and Cropredy. The two men had already duetted on Tams’ album Over the Hills and Far Away: The Music of Sharpe (1996), and Barry brought his harmonies and keyboard skills to Tams’ award-winning albums Unity (2000) and The Reckoning (2005). The two men won best duo in the 2008 BBC Radio 2 folk awards. Barry also performed with Tams in War Horse readings with Morpurgo. Barry contributed as both instrumentalist and solo and ensemble singer to the BBC Radio 2 series of Radio Ballads, also released on CD in 2006. Tams regarded Barry’s voice as “one of the greatest I’ve ever come across. He was exceptional: the best and truest singer of his and any generation.”
Barry was born in Belper, Derbyshire, son of Walter Coope, a miner, and Joyce (nee Haslam), a housewife. After Heage secondary modern school, Barry worked for Johnson and Nephew wireworks and then for Lubrizol, a speciality chemicals company. He retired in 2016 and received the Royal Society of Chemistry’s industry technician of the year award.
He was first inspired to sing at Belper folk club. In the 1970s and 80s, he played in the Derbyshire folk bands Ram’s Bottom and Rogues Gallery. In 1982, Barry performed in a touring show of English dance, music and song, The Everlasting Circle, produced by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. During the show he met the folk musician Fi Fraser; they married the following year.
Barry was song director at Sidmouth folk festival in Devon from 1983 to 1984, then, in 1986, he joined the Old Hat Dance Band, playing on their eponymous 1992 album, where his subtle yet rock-steady keyboard playing underpinned the band’s bouncy dance rhythms. Barry also played keyboard with the duo Chris Wood and Andy Cutting when they performed at dances, and appeared on their 1992 CD, Lisa.
Barry’s nationwide performances were fitted around his full-time job. He was still very rooted in his native Derbyshire, and was an inspiring leader of the Rolling Stock community folk choir, and a member of the occasional charity fundraising folk big band the Derbyshire Volunteers.
Coope, Boyes and Simpson retired in 2017, and, the following year, Barry, Fi, Jo Freya and Lester (later replaced by Jim Causley) started a new band, Narthen (Derbyshire dialect for “Now then”), but Covid-19 disrupted their plans. Barry’s final performance, with the band, was at Sidmouth festival in August.
Barry is survived by Fi and their daughter, Katy, and by Rachel, his daughter from a previous marriage, which ended in divorce.
• Barry Coope, folk singer and musician, born 9 July 1954; died 6 November 2021