Part of the students’ union: reflections from Strawbs founder David Cousins

“Don't think in straight lines ahead - think laterally. You never know what might be just around the corner.”

David Cousins’s advice to fellow Leicester students and graduands comes from great experience. The founder member and frontman of rock band Strawbs has turned his hand to a great many ventures, even while topping the charts.

He says: “I went into advertising as a media researcher, moved on to become media manager of a company that specialised in placing colour advertising for the first time in local newspapers, and then started my own advertising agency and market research company with an office in High Holborn.

“But all the time, I was playing music in folk clubs in and around London. Anyway, eventually I had to wind up the company when we were signed to A&M Records in Hollywood and started appearing on Top of the Pops.”

David was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree on Friday 20 January, recognising his contribution to the music industry. Founding Strawbs in 1964, the band would evolve from playing bluegrass music to folk rock, and on to progressive rock with a string of successful albums and single hits in the UK and North America.

But where did it all begin for David? “Lonnie Donegan's 'Rock Island Line' was the start of it all - as it was for the Beatles, The Stones, and many other bands.

“That song lead me to Leadbelly, and on to Woody Guthrie. Rambling Jack Elliott, Woody Guthrie's disciple, came to London and we sat at his feet, mesmerised. The next Woody Guthrie disciple to arrive in London was Bob Dylan - I sat in the front row at a BBC TV show recording. Soon after that I started to write my own songs which have developed in a natural evolution.

“Strawbs started out playing in folk clubs because we played acoustic instruments, not because we sang folk songs.”

David found an outlet for his passion for folk music while at the University of Leicester, where he studied for a degree in pure mathematics and mathematical statistics.

He recalls: “Because I played folk guitar and banjo, I started the University Folk Club and organised the first folk festival. A friend and I opened up a disused cellar under the Percy Gee Building as the Friday Night Trad Jazz Club. It's now a storage room tucked away in the 02 Academy.

“I routinely attended the lectures and seminars but my social life revolved entirely around the Percy Gee Building. At eighteen I was mixing with students who had done their national service and were more worldly wise then me. It was a great experience.”

The University of Leicester had not long become a university in its own right at the time, so what drew David there? The brochure, he admits: “It was very modern compared with those from other universities. 

“At A and O Levels, I passed all subjects with a consistent high average, but I didn't excel in any one particular subject. The general degree offered me the opportunity to choose from a wide variety of courses. I studied pure mathematics and mathematical statistics for three years each, alongside one year courses in physics, British archaeology, and psychology. I'm pleased to say I've maintained my interest in all of them - and used them in business and song writing.”

Which brings us back to David’s advice for our students. Not limiting himself to just making music, he has also carved out an extensive career in putting it on the airwaves too. An opportunity that his already diverse experiences set him up nicely for.

He explains: “Before we signed to A&M Records I did a solo tour of Denmark playing in coffee houses, and on a TV show where I met The Who.  I was interviewed by Tom Browne who presented a folk music show in English on Danmarks Radio, which was recommended listening for schools. Tom decided to move back to London and Danmarks Radio asked him to record a weekly show with the latest news from the pop world - he asked me if I would produce it. We recorded the show from the BBC's Radio One studios and it ran from 1967-1972 when Strawbs had a massive hit with ‘Part of the Union'.

“When I went to work in radio I already had the business background and radio production experience. I took to the radio industry like a duck to water! 

“I spent twenty challenging and satisfying years in radio but music was, and still is, my first love.”