Internationally regarded as the pre-eminent interpreter of Scots song, Jean Redpath has taken the ballads of her home country and particularly the songs of Robert Burns onto stages from the Lincoln Center, New York to Sydney Opera House and from Alaska to South America and Hong Kong.
Jean was a ‘weel kent’ face in Elie, where she had a house at The Toft. Born in Edinburgh in 1937 Jean grew up in Leven, where her father played hammered dulcimer and her mother (and her sisters) sowed the seeds of Jean’s passion for singing by sharing her repertoire of Scots songs with Jean. Originally intending to read medieval studies, Jean went to Edinburgh University but was soon drawn to the university’s School of Scottish Studies, whose staff including Hamish Henderson inspired and encouraged an interest in Scots folklore that was to become her life’s work.
In 1961 Jean arrived in the United States with eleven dollars in her pocket. Folk music was enjoying a boom and within weeks Jean was sharing a flat with such major figures as Rambling Jack Elliot and Bob Dylan and singing a floor spot at the legendary Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. This in turn led to a headlining appearance that won a rave review in the New York Times and resulted in offers of bookings across America and subsequently a recording contract with Elektra Records, home at the time to folk stars including Josh White, Judy Collins and Tom Paxton.
With her apparently effortless, unschooled mezzo soprano voice, Jean beguiled concert and folk festival audiences and became known to millions of Americans through her regular appearances on Robert J. Lurtsema’s popular radio programme Morning Pro Musica and later, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. Her love of Robert Burns’s work led to Jean undertaking the mammoth Songs of Robert Burns series of recordings with the late composer and arranger Serge Hovey.
Always keen to encourage and share her knowledge with up and coming singers, from 1972 to 1976 Jean was artist-in-residence at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, working as lecturer in folklore in the music department and as a cultural resource within the school system. In 1979 she became the first artist-in-residence at Stirling University, where as a member of the Heritage of Scotland Summer Schools staff she gave courses in Scottish Song for the next ten years.
Jean received many honours for her work, including honorary doctorates from the University of Stirling, St Andrews University, and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and being made a Kentucky Colonel
by the Governor of Kentucky. In 1987 she received the MBE from the Queen at Buckingham Palace and in 1998 a portrait of Jean by Alexander Fraser was hung in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh in a section dedicated to Scots who have made a significant contribution to their country and their culture – a description that in Jean’s case borders on an understatement.
Jean Redpath died on August 21st 2014.
[With acknowledgement to the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame.]