Gill Cook

Folk doyenne at Collet's
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The Independent Online

From the early Sixties onwards, Gill Cook was the manager of the folk department at Collet's Record Shop at 70 New Oxford Street in London, when Collet's was folk's Mecca. If your tastes ran to folk, blues, international folk (the marketing forerunner of "world music") or countercultural rock such as the Grateful Dead or Velvet Underground, discovering Collet's was like hitting the mother lode.

Music played constantly. Requests were welcomed. Downstairs from the folk department, Ray Hunter Smith operated Jazz Central. "Don't underestimate the importance of the jazz dept!" Cook cautioned once in a letter:

Many of their punters, mostly of the avant-garde variety, the likes of Lol Coxhill and Evan Parker, stopped in their tracks walking thro' the folk dept. and became good customers.

Word spread. The shop became a hangout. Pete Seeger, who performed there, did his usual job of tipping off the world. (At one Pete Seeger concert Cook found herself sitting next to Marlene Dietrich.) You could bump into Sydney Carter, Leon Rosselson, members of the Incredible String Band, the Rolling Stones, the Young Tradition. Paul Simon brought Art Garfunkel. The Dead's Jerry Garcia and the poet Allen Ginsberg bought records there.

Nineteen sixty-five was a watershed year for folk music. Cook was then in a relationship with the guitarist Bert Jansch, seven years her junior, and between the release of Bert Jansch (April) and It Don't Bother Me (November) came the birth of their son, Richard. The relationship with Jansch did not last, but they remained friends.

Cook co-ran or ran a succession of London folk clubs, ventured into publishing with John A. Brune's The Roving Songster Vol 1 (1965) and launched her own label, Righteous Records. It started and ended with a reissue in 1980 of Shirley Collins and Davy Graham's groundbreaking folk roots, new routes (1964). Cook was living with Collins's first husband, Austin John Marshall, the duo's original instigator, at the time of the reissue.

Gill Cook was born in Stratford, east London, in 1937, but her parents settled in Cambridge when she was two. Around 1958, with a grammar-school education behind her and working as a hospital laboratory assistant, one evening she happened past the Dog & Pheasant in Newmarket Road:

I heard some guitar music from outside. I went in. It was the Stan Kelly Skiffle Club. The man on the door turned out to be Eric Winter [the folk music journalist]. I got very enthusiastic about this music. I started playing folk guitar, joined Stan Kelly's band. It wasn't really skiffle at all and actually his name was Stan Bootle.

Still based in Cambridge, she travelled to London to see Paul Robeson and to Vienna for the 1959 World Youth Festival, where she heard the Bulgarian Koutev Ensemble ("It blew my mind").

Cook had made friends with the Winters and, when they moved to Willesden, they sent word about a job opportunity at Collet's, a chain of left-minded shops with Eastern bloc links. Moving to the capital, she sang with the London Youth Choir, led by John Hasted, played double-bass with its offshoot folk group the Fielders, and helped "stapling copies of Sing! - Eric's magazine".

She started at Collet's in 1960, but continued other work, including with Centre 42 (1962), financed by trade unions to decentralise arts from London. On the Nottingham leg she met the 17-year-old singer Anne Briggs. A lifelong friendship ensued. Briggs even used Collet's as a poste restante address.

Collet's remained at New Oxford Street until 1974 when, owing to structural problems, it moved to Shaftesbury Avenue and finally Charing Cross Road. The economics of record-selling were changing and Collet's felt the squeeze from the Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street, closing in 1989. Cook then joined the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society in Streatham, which collects royalties for songwriters and composers.

After retiring from the MCPS, she kept up her contacts and assisted with the record label Fledg'ling's Davy Graham reissue programme (2005). The last music she listened to was Davy Graham.

Ken Hunt

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