‘A one-man fiddle inspiration industry... one of the leading
behind-the-scenes activists’ - fRoots profile, ‘Best of 2006’ issue
Pete Cooper plays, teaches, composes, records and writes about fiddle music. He is best known for his tutorial book/CD The Complete Irish Fiddle Player (1995), published in the USA by Mel Bay, and his more recent collections issued by Schott: Irish Fiddle Solos (2004), English Fiddle Tunes (2006), Eastern European Fiddle Tunes (2007) and American Old Time Fiddle Tunes (2010). After years of performing, travelling and playing in too many late-night sessions, he brings a relaxed, good-humoured approach to his workshops and concerts alike. He also sings, backing himself on fiddle, and plays the mandolin. His unusual fluency in different styles - English, Irish, Scottish, Old Time, Swedish, Eastern European - has been described as ‘chameleon-like’. He travels all over the country to teach and perform, and has also made recent trips to China (2004), India (2007) and Japan (2008 and 2010). A firm believer in lifelong learning, Pete has run regular fiddle courses in London since the mid-1980s, bringing his group classes under one roof in 2001 as the ‘London Fiddle School’.
‘A natural performer whose humour shines through his music’
- Leicester Mercury
left to right: Raju Ram ravanhatta,
Sophy Ball fiddle, Samshu Khan sindhi sarangi,
Pete fiddle and
Chanan Khan kamaycha.
Jodhpur, India 2007
Pete performs in 'Rattle on the Stovepipe' with Dave Arthur (banjo, guitar, melodeon, vocals) and Dan Stewart (banjo, guitar). Folk club tours have built them a dedicated grassroots following and Shirley Collins, a self-declared fan, presented them at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2008 ('Folk Roots, New Routes'). The band have regularly appeared at Whitby Folk Week and other festivals, as well as performing in France (2009) and Japan (2010). No Use in Cryin', their latest (2009) CD of British and Appalachian songs, ballads and tunes (Wild Goose, WGS371CD) has been widely praised - see Projects - while 2010's So Far So Good (Wild Goose, WGS374CD) presents the best of their previous releases, Eight More Miles (WGS333CD) and Return Journey (WildGoose WGS313CD).
Rattle on the Stovepipe at Whitby
Pete sings and plays as a solo performer too, as well as in a duo with cello and guitar-player Richard Bolton. ‘Cooper and Bolton’ have performed at the Oxford, Warwick and Cheltenham folk festivals, and recorded two much admired CDs of new and traditional English tunes and songs on their own Big Chain label. They released Turning Point in 2002, and The Savage Hornpipe - their ‘strongest release yet,’ said fRoots magazine, ‘full of melodic richness and ingenuity’ - in 2006 .
Cooper and Bolton - Islington Folk Club
It’s as a fiddle teacher and workshop leader, though, that Pete is best known to many. Among his more high-profile students in recent years has been radio and TV presenter Verity Sharp. A regular tutor since 1996 at ‘Folkworks’ events in the north-east of England, Pete has inspired many of the new generation of young British folk artists. He has taught fiddle at Dave Townsend’s ‘Hands On Music’ weekends in Witney, Oxfordshire, since 1997, and from 1998 to 2005 directed the annual ‘Fiddle Days’ at Wigmore Hall, London, initially with violinist Michael Spencer. This project brought folk repertoire and playing techniques (and some outstanding tutors) to otherwise mainly classical players, including violin teachers. Pete has also taught at the Dartington International Summer School. He has coached the Stockport-based ‘Fosbrooks’ youth group since 1997, and performed with them in Shetland and Italy, as well as in China, representing Britain in 2004 at the 6th International Folk Arts Festival, Huangshan City
with the Fosbrooks in China, 2004
He’s been a visiting tutor on the folk degree course at Newcastle upon Tyne, at the University of Cork, Ireland, and the University of Ulster. He’s also led workshops in Scotland at the Edinburgh Fiddle Festival (2001), Blazin’ At Beauly (2002) and Taransay Fiddle Week (2003). Pete also organised his own annual workshop weekends, at Glebe House, Cornwall (1988-1995), Barton Pines, Devon (1996-99) and elsewhere. His playing has been described by Highlands fiddler Bruce MacGregor as ‘not bad for an Englishman.’
Born in 1951 in the Midlands village of Gnosall, Pete took violin lessons from the age of nine with classical teacher Alan D’Agorne, though never with the idea of playing for a living. From grammar school in Stafford he won a scholarship in 1970 to Oxford, and read English at Balliol College, before moving to Brixton, south London. Outside the folk music world, Pete may be familiar to TV viewers from his appearance in ‘Property is Theft’, Vanessa Engel’s acclaimed 2006 film in the BBC ‘Lefties’ series, about life in Villa Road, Brixton, a squatting community he lived in during the mid-1970s. He was a leading ‘political’ squatter before being lured away, as Engel’s film amusingly shows, to join a commune of Primal Screamers. In the film he talks of the radical theories, lifestyles and sexual politics of the street, and sings ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, Leon Rosselson’s song about the Diggers. In 1976 he was playing in the Villa Road band ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’, which supported ‘The 101-ers’, Joe Strummer’s band before ‘The Clash’, at a Mayday gig at City Poly, Aldgate. He also got to know his Irish neighbour Sean MacLaughlin, a legendary Armagh-born fiddler famed in Ireland, according to Ciaran Carson’s book ‘Last Night’s Fun’, as ‘The Shadow’.
‘It seems to have been a narrow world, divided into Marxist and Freudian tribes - into sloganisers and primal-screamers. Only Pete Cooper - now a fiddle player - seems to have belonged to both. His lovely singing nearly made one like those nasal whinges of the primordially dissident’
- Richard D. North
Pete in Villa Road Brixton in 1975
After a spell in Co. Donegal, Ireland, Pete set out to make his living as a musician, first as a busker, fiddle-singing on the streets of Europe, and later, after an inspiring trip to West Virginia in 1978, as a folk club performer, initially with dulcimer player and singer Holly Tannen, whom he met in Ostend while both were waiting for a night ferry back to England. Based in Yorkshire, they made an LP in 1979, Frosty Morning (Plantlife Records 015), including a couple of tracks with Martin Simpson on guitar, and toured in England, Wales, France, Germany and Northern Ireland before their partnership ended with a successful tour of California in 1981.
Frosty Morning LP with Holly Tannen
Pete moved back to London, where his duo (1982-1990) with folk revival singer Peta Webb (described by Dick Gaughan as ‘among the handful of singers supreme in their art’) won widespread praise on the folk-club circuit in England and Wales. ‘Smashing music from a winning combination of two strong voices and twin fiddles,’ wrote Maggie Holland in Folk Roots magazine of their 1986 LP The Heart Is True, which also featured, among others, Rory MacLeod on harmonica.
‘This is what it sounded like in the old days - tough, straightforward, gutsy and human’
- Folk On Tap
The Heart is True LP with Peta Webb
Pete also teamed up with guitarist and piano-player Lawrie Wright to play several month-long, six-nights-a week bar gigs (1983-1986) in Norway. With four 40-minute sets a night to fill, they developed a big enough repertoire of rock, country and jazz standards never to be short of a song at a party again. (Pete also took the opportunity to learn hardanger fiddle tunes from local players on his night off.)
Pete with Lawrie Wright (1984)
Until the late 1990s he and Lawrie played at countless weddings, parties and pub gigs, joining forces for dance events with British bluegrass maestro Pete Stanley (5-string banjo) and Laurie Harper (bass) as the ‘Ragged but Right Stringband’, working with squaredance caller Nigel Hogg.
with Nigel Hogg
Pete set up his first teaching project, ‘Fiddling From Scratch’, in 1986 , inviting fiddle players as diverse as Lucy Farr, Vladimir Asriev, Brian Golbey and Kathryn Tickell to lead guest workshops in London. Folk historian Doc Rowe filmed two of the sessions. Pete also started leading adult education fiddle courses, and his workshops were soon attracting up to forty fiddlers at a time. He continued teaching at the Working Men’s College and the Mary Ward Centre, London until 1998 and 2001 respectively. His method was to teach tunes by ear, with written music for students to take home; and the twice-weekly demand for fresh course material, combined with his kid-in-a-sweetshop response to ‘new’ fiddle styles, stimulated Pete’s researches, not only into the Irish and Old Time music he already knew, but English, Scottish, Norwegian Swedish, Cajun and, after a 1990 visit to Hungary, central European and Balkan tunes as well. The first fruit of this work was All Around The World (1990), his tape of traditional fiddle tunes from Scandinavia, central Europe, Ireland and the USA, and a booklet of the tunes was published by Matt Seattle’s Dragonfly Music. The tape and booklet are long out of print, but some of the Swedish and Old Time tracks were re-mastered and issued on Pete’s 2004 compilation CD London Sessions (Big Chain BC102).
‘In lesser musicians there often seems to be a trade-off between virtuosity & soul, with technique developing at the expense of passion. Not so with Cooper who supplies both in large measure. It’s rare indeed to find a player who understands music as deeply as this...The quality never drops below the very highest level’
- Andy Cheyne, Folk Roots
Fiddle Cassette Many of the
the tape are
Pete was first prompted to start writing tunes by a request for an Italian-style piece (‘The Architect’s Waltz’) for Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film Belly Of An Architect. When his partnership with Peta Webb ended, he joined Kathryn Locke (cello) and Geoff Coombs (mandola and tenor guitar), two of the musicians on ‘All Around The World’, to form a new band, ‘Vivando’, initially with New Orleans fiddler Neti Vaan. Kathryn and Geoff, who also played on Pete’s 1993 ‘Irish’ CD The Wounded Hussar, were both active tunesmiths, and Vivando became the vehicle for some highly original new pieces inspired mainly by celtic and eastern European music, several of them captured in 1995 on their tape-only demo album, Vivando. (Sadly, the original master tapes were lost after Vivando’s demise.) Among their high energy performances at folk clubs, theatres and arts centres, some of the best were at Joe Giltrap’s legendary pub venue, ‘The Weavers’, in Newington Green, which for the next few years became Pete’s musical home from home.
‘A fine example of what can happen when three virtuoso musicians pool their talents’
- Folk On Tap
‘Cooper’s fiddle playing would make a corpse tap its foot!’
- Dave Pope, Folk Buzz
Vivando in 1995
The musical stimulation provided by Vivando, combined with Pete’s continuing immersion in traditional fiddle, led to a sustained burst of tune writing from the mid-1990s. He road-tested many of his new tunes at monthly ‘Pete Cooper and Friends’ gigs at The Weavers, often with Lawrie Wright on guitar, Alan Gibson on double bass, and various guests, including former student Emma Peters and Old Time fiddler Rayna Gellert. In 1995 he wrote music for Moira Sweeney’s TV film Coming Home, in 1997 for BBC Radio-4’s Inside Track, and in 1999 for BBC-2 drama Eureka Street. Simon Blendis, violinist with the Schubert Ensemble, commissioned ‘The Dartington Jig’ for his solo Bach tribute, Partita, in 2000, and he and Pete performed a concert programme at Wigmore Hall in 2006. Karen Tweed and Timo Alakotila recorded Pete’s tune ‘Melting’ in 2001 on May Monday (FYCD003).
Pete’s tunes have continued to flow in his partnership with Richard Bolton Their début CD Turning Point (2002) included eleven of his tunes. Nick Beale (fRoots) found ‘his wistful "August"... a particular highlight’, and the same tune, wrote Dai Woosnam (The Living Tradition), ‘has what it takes to be a classic along the lines of Jay Ungar's ‘Ashokan Farewell’.’ Pete’s cross-tuned fiddle piece ‘Lorna’, also on that album, was described by Shirley Collins as ‘quite simply one of the most beautiful and beguiling pieces of music I’ve ever heard.’ Pete and Richard also included several original tunes on ‘The Savage Hornpipe’ (2006).
‘One particularly interesting set is Cooper’s ‘Synapse’ combined with the eighteenth century Lake District version of ‘Hod the Lass’. Beginning in the rather un-English metre of eleven (3+3+2+3), it segues marvellously into the wildly-syncopated traditional reel. Another quirky tune is Cooper’s ‘The Sleeper’ which features the 7/8 ‘loads of biscuits’ rhythm familiar to his many students. A couple of newish tunes in traditional style, such as ‘Snicket’ by Sue Lee and Cooper’s ‘G for Gnosall’ could easily slip into a session. Bolton’s introspective composition ‘Wilbye’s Lament’ is a bittersweet change of pace from the lively dance tunes.’
- Elaine Bradtke, English Dance & Song
Pete appeared (as himself) in Mark Norfolk’s 2006 film Crossing Bridges , playing his tune ‘Angel’s Waltz’.
London Fiddle Convention
The Weavers, mentioned above, was the birthplace in 1992 of the remarkable London Fiddle Convention, an annual gathering of London-based fiddle players now in its 18th year. Along with fiddlers Bob Winquist and Chris Haigh, bass-player Bernard O’Neill, and others, Pete is still actively involved, both on and off the stage. After the Weavers closed down in 1999 the Convention transferred to Cecil Sharp House, and workshops, sessions and a fiddle contest were added to the main concert.
London Fiddle Convention
Tunebooks and other Writings
After All Around the World, Pete went on to write a tutorial book/ double CD, The Complete Irish Fiddle Player (Mel Bay Publications, 1995), a labour of love that became an international bestseller.
‘An excellent book that not only clearly explains what the music is about in good plain English but has loads of additional information that makes for a pleasant browse...one of the best books that you can get your hands on’
- Joe Crane, Folk Roots
It was not until 2004 that his next book/CD collection, Irish Fiddle Solos, appeared. This explored regional fiddle styles from Kerry to Donegal, and was published by Mel Bay in the United States and by Schott in Europe. English Fiddle Tunes (Schott ED 12758) followed in 2006, presenting ninety-nine tunes from English fiddle tradition.
'If you play, or want to play, English fiddle tunes... this book is the number one purchase. Not just a book; you get a CD too, of Pete Cooper playing all 99 tunes on solo fiddle, inhabiting each one with fine tone, plenty of shape, lift and style and just enough hints of the possibilities of variation to trigger a player’s own developments’
- Andrew Cronshaw, fRoots
His next book/CD, Eastern European Fiddle Tunes (Schott ED 12886), with eighty traditional pieces, appeared in 2007.
‘Pete’s consummate skill is as an enabler. He knows how to harness the enthusiasm of the budding amateur and show you how... An invaluable book for those with a touch of Gypsy wanderlust’
- Verity Sharp, fRoots
His most recent book/ CD in the series, American Old Time Fiddle Tunes (Schott ED13236) - 'a fantastic book', Catherine Nelson, The Strad
Pete wrote a regular 'Fiddle Corner' column in FiddleOn magazine from 2000 to 2010, covering a multitude of subjects from ‘Tuning the Fiddle’ to ‘Playing in Sessions’, ‘Learning by Ear’ to ‘Stagefright’ etc. He has contributed reviews and articles to fRoots, Musical Traditions, Music Teacher magazine and The Strad, as well as producing extensive ‘Study Notes’ for all the Wigmore Hall ‘Fiddle Days’.
Pete’s a member of the Performing Rights Society (PRS/MCPS) and Musicians’ Union.
1979 Holly Tannen & Pete Cooper Frosty Morning
Plantlife Records PLR 015
1986 Peta Webb & Pete Cooper The Heart Is True
Heart Records HR 001
1990 Pete Cooper All Around The World
Fiddling From Scratch FFS 001
1993 Pete Cooper The Wounded Hussar
Fiddling From Scratch FFS 002
Glenthorn Records GLN 001
2001 Pete Cooper & Richard Bolton Turning Point
Big Chain Records BC101
2004 Pete Cooper London Sessions
Big Chain Records BC102
2006 Pete Cooper and Richard Bolton The Savage Hornpipe
Big Chain Records BC103
2006 Rattle on the Stovepipe Eight More Miles
Wild Goose Records WGS 333
2009 Rattle on the Stovepipe No Use In Cryin'
Wild Goose Records WGS 371
2009 Rattle on the Stovepipe So Far So Good
Wild Goose Records WGS 374
2014 Rattle on the Stovepipe Old Virginia
Wild Goose Records WGS 398
2014 Pete Cooper and Richard Bolton Angel's Waltz
Big Chain Records BC104
Other Artists’ Albums (selected)
1983 Gerry Hallom A Run A Minute
Fellside FE 036
1986 Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl Items Of News
Blackthorne Records BR1067
1989 Peta Webb The Magpie’s Nest
Musical Traditions MTCD 202
1996 Dave Arthur & Barry Murphy The Rufus Crisp Experience
Fellside FECD 113
1997 Gerry Hallom On The Periphery
William Boyd Music WBMCD 001
1996 Various A Celtic Christmas
Saydisc Records CD-SDL 417
1999 The Mellstock Band The Dance At The Phoenix
Beautiful Jo BEJOCD 28
2003 Dave Arthur Return Journey
Wild Goose WGS 313CD
2004 The Mellstock Band Glad Tidings
Serpent Press SER008
2010 The Mellstock Band The Leaves of Life
Serpent Press SER010
1990 All Around The World
Dragonfly Music ISBN 1 872277 04 7 (Edition of 1000 - out of print)
1995 The Complete Irish Fiddle Player book/ double CD
Mel Bay Publications 95406
2000 Master Anthology of Fiddle Solos, Volume One
Mel Bay Publications 98376BCD (includes Pete’s tune August)
2004 Pete Cooper Irish Fiddle Solos book/ CD
Schott ED12734 (UK & Europe) / Mel Bay Publications MB20919BCD
2006 English Fiddle Tunes book/ CD
Schott ED 12758
2007 Eastern European Fiddle Tunes book/ CD
Schott ED 12886
2010 American Old Time Fiddle Tunes book/CD
Schott ED 13236
TV and Film
2008 Tess of the D'Urbevilles (BBC, director David Blair) - as village band fiddler
2006 Property is Theft (BBC, director Vanessa Engle) - as himself
2006 Crossing Bridges (Prussia Lane, director Mark Norfolk) - as himself
1998 Tess Of The D’Urbervilles (London Weekend TV, director Ian Sharp) - as village band fiddler
1987 Belly of an Architect (director Peter Greenaway) - soundtrack
1987 Number 73 TVS - as himself