Peter Cooke - 1930-2020

Thu, 04/01/2021 - 11:15
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It was with great sadness that the family of Peter Cooke announced his passing on 28th December 2020, aged 90. An internationally renowned ethnomusicologist, musician, musical director, lecturer, founder of forums, archivist, his life’s work embraced and touched a myriad of people. In recognition of his contributions to Scotland’s musical heritage, in 2019 he received the Hamish Henderson Award for Services to Traditional Music.

Peter was born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1930. His music teaching career began in secondary schools and as a lecturer at Redland College of Education in Bristol. In 1964 he moved to Uganda to take up the post of head of music at Makerere College, followed by establishing the new music department at the National Teachers’ College at the now Kyambogo University. For over five decades most of his research on African music remained constant alongside Scottish music. In 1969 he was appointed to lead research into the traditional music of Scotland at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh University where he also gained his doctorate on his study, The Fiddle Music Tradition Of The Shetland Isles (1980). Initiating ethnomusicology courses within its Faculty of Music, he championed this field of study wherever he taught, including at Birmingham University and as Research Associate at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. From 1989 to 1995 he took a part-time post in Practical Ethnomusicology and Scottish Music at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, no doubt instigating designs for RSAMD in developing its new department established in 1996: the BA Scottish Music course of which Peter became an External Examiner.

An advocate for the music and traditions he studied, he wrote of his time in post at the School of Scottish Studies: “It was a huge privilege to be able to research, publish and discuss with colleagues and students both my own and their research into the many different musical traditions of Scotland during my teaching and research for the School of Scottish Studies. As a musician I was also concerned that the best of a huge store of music recordings accumulating in the School’s archives needed to be made publicly available and much of my time and energy, apart from teaching, went into working with colleagues to select and publish music itself rather than words about music.”  Peter was series editor for Scottish Tradition Nos 1-9, a series of well documented 33rpm discs with booklets from Tangent Records, London, later to be re-edited and currently available in CD format on the Greentrax label.  

In 1970, Tangent Records’ first catalogue releases of folk music and world music (then a new term) were recordings from Jean Jenkins, archive curator at the Horniman Museum, Ethiopian Music; followed by Mustapha Tettey Addey, Master Drummer From Ghana in 1972. Peter’s astute judgement for the Scottish Tradition Series placed them in this context, with the first records produced in 1971: Bothy Ballads: Music From The North East, also Music From The Western Isles; Waulking Songs from Barra (1972); Shetland Fiddle Music (1973); The Muckle Sangs: Classic Scots Ballads (1975) and Gaelic Psalms From Lewis; Calum Ruadh: Bard Of Skye (1978); James Campbell Of Kintail (1984) and The Fiddler And His Art (1989).

Peter continually researched and kept ahead with multimedia developments and cataloguing which led him to re-edit two of The Scottish Tradition Pibroch Series, for release on Greentrax (2015). His work in archiving, organising, indexing and digitising collections held within institutions includes the John Levy archive for SSCS, 1110+ of his Scottish field recordings, some of which are to be found on the Tobar an Dualchais website. The British Library houses over 1300 of his African field tapes, which are available in its sound archives. Many people regard the Godmother of world music to be Jean Jenkins, and between 1994 and 1995 Peter was appointed Professional Assistant for the National Museums of Scotland, digitising and archiving the Jean Jenkins Collection of field tapes and documents: a fitting home with links back to her curation of the Man And Music exhibition staged there (1983).

From 1972 onwards I was an infrequent but consistent visitor to the School of Scottish Studies, always spending time with Hamish Henderson, who had very much taken me under his wing, and if around, with Peter who would invite me into open lectures such as Jan Fairly on World Music or to meet with other current visitors: John Blacking, Jean Redpath, etc. A vivid memory is of Peter recording me for my first album in 1977, Belt With Colours Three, for the Tangent Label. Peter took consideration in choosing the acoustical environs for my unaccompanied singing. He settled on the wood lined theatre at 50 St George Square, University of Edinburgh, for its warm ambience and in the School of Scottish Studies building at 27 St Georges Square, because of the stairwell’s acoustics.  I was to sing The Highland Widow’s Lament accompanied by piper Rab Wallace. He was to play positioned at the foot of the stairwell in the basement, allowing the drone and melody to waft up the stairwell to the second floor, where Peter with his recording equipment recorded my performance. Throughout these sessions we did no second takes. Peter also recorded me guesting at the Edinburgh and Manchester folk clubs for live tracks on the album. Quite recently we reminisced about these sessions during a telephone conversation. He told me of having been particularly inspired by Ludwig Koch (1881-1974), a broadcaster and famed sound recordist, recognised as a wildlife recording pioneer.

The Edinburgh Folk Festival organised by John Barrow over two years paired myself with singer and storyteller Betsy Whyte to visit schools; this was around the time of the release of my children’s book and record, The Funny Family. We were given a twin room together in a B&B in the city where we blethered a great deal after getting back from the schools over a cup of tea, carrying well into the night. At the time, Betsy hadn’t published The Yellow On The Broom: The Early Days Of A Traveller Woman - Betsy Whyte (1979) but many of the life stories we shared in our times together I found later in her book. I considered it a gem then, and now.  Peter and Betsy’s productive partnership led to two autobiographical publications, the second being Red Rowans And Wild Honey (1990), sequel to Yellow On The Broom, both now widely read and acknowledged as classics.

Peter enjoyed introducing like-minded people or those working in the same field as each other. During my production of Willie Scott’s book, Herd Laddie O The Glen (1988, first ed), Peter supervised his student, Lance Whitehead, to transcribe by hand the song music of this shepherd’s singing from my recordings, and of those in the archives. Peter’s endless energy, engaging enthusiasm, genuine warmth, and encouragement to people whether students, musicians, singers or enthusiasts, was a gift, putting them at ease to give of their best.

We all stand on the shoulders of others - but some shoulders are mightier than others.       

Alison McMorland