Obituary: Jean Redpath MBE

Jean Redpath MBE, internationally renowned singer of Scots folk songs who once shared a flat with Dylan. Picture: TSPL

Jean Redpath MBE, internationally renowned singer of Scots folk songs who once shared a flat with Dylan. Picture: TSPL

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Born: 28 April, 1937, in Edinburgh. Died: 21 August, 2014, in Arizona, aged 77.

JEAN Redpath was the lass frae Fife who became an internationally renowned folk singer, a cultural ambassador for Scotland who was, for listeners throughout the world, the voice of Scots traditional song, and particularly Burns songs.

Emerging from the crucible of the Scottish folk revival during the late 1950s, she would spend much of her time in the United States, in the early Sixties sharing a flat with a youthful Bob Dylan. Redpath, however, would carve a path of her own, utterly committed to the traditional song heritage of Scotland. A singer of great presence she sang in a limpid mezzo-soprano with unmistakable poise and purity.

Redpath, who died of cancer in Arizona, was born in Edinburgh in 1937 but grew up in Leven, Fife. Her mother possessed a generous store of Scots songs, while her father played a hammer dulcimer made by his grandfather. She attended Buckhaven High School where, she once recalled, her musical education was comprised almost entirely of English art songs.

Things would change, however, at the end of the Fifties, when she went to the University of Edinburgh, ostensibly to major in mediaeval studies, and discovered the university’s School of Scottish Studies, with its major archive of recorded folk song, music and tales. She came under the mentorship of the poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson and joined the University Folk Song Society.

In an interview at the beginning of this year on Fiona Ritchie’s Thistle and Shamrock show on American radio, Redpath recalled Henderson giving a talk on traditional song to the student literary society, during which he played a recording of the great Jeannie Robertson singing The Overgate. “That was an epiphany for me,” she explained, “because I had a song very like it to a different tune from my mother. She promptly sang her version to Henderson, who loftily described it as “an interesting variant”.

“I teased him for years about that. I had made this world-shaking, life-changing discovery and he called it an interesting variant, but it didn’t put me off my stride.”

Henderson, for his part, later described the same incident: “When I went to the Society one evening and heard Jean raising the family version of The Overgate in her stunning soprano voice, I felt that the Scottish revival was really getting somewhere.”

She was struggling with her graduate studies, however, and an invitation to a friend’s wedding in California in 1961 saw the first of what would be innumerable Atlantic crossings over the next 50 years, dividing her time between her mother’s house in Leven and numerous locations in the US, and latterly a house in Elie.

Initially, however she settled in New York, where she soon became embroiled in the bohemian enclave of Greenwich Village, where at one point she shared an apartment with various musicians, including Rambling Jack Eliot and one Bobby Dylan.

Asked recently whether she thinks she influenced Dylan, who went on to use various Scots and Irish tunes for his songs, she said she had no idea. It is noticeable, however, that Dylan based his song With God on Our Side on the tune of Dominic Behan’s Patriot Game, which was in her repertoire. In the meantime, she started gaining bookings, won an enthusiastic review in The New York Times, and was soon invited to start recording.

Over the years, demand took her all over North America, back to Britain and on to Australia, South America and Hong Kong, performing in venues from village hops to concert halls.

She released a steady flow of recordings – more than 40 to date, not least the astonishing project she embarked upon with the American composer Serge Hovey, to record all of the songs composed and collected by Robert Burns.

Despite being paralysed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, dependent on a ventilator and communicating by letterboard and computer, Hovey had arranged 323 Burns songs, matching them to their original melodies, but often to imaginative contemporary orchestral arrangements. Redpath recorded seven albums of these arrangements, which were critically acclaimed, and went on to make other Burns albums, particularly in collaboration with Dr Donald Low of Stirling University.

It was Hovey’s researches which enabled her to sing Auld Lang Syne, to its original tune – a fine one, which has since been adopted by many other folk singers.

Ian Green, director of Greentrax Records which released many of her recordings in the UK, said that he would greatly miss “this warm, lovely person. Jean never failed to phone me when she came home annually for a holiday in Scotland, to what had been her mum’s house in Elie, Fife. She called me some weeks ago when she was again in Scotland and it seemed she was saying goodbye.”

Redpath’s profile was also enhanced by her frequent broadcasts on American radio, particularly on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. Fiona Ritchie of The Thistle and Shamrock show recalls: “I have rarely seen anyone captivate an American audience so completely, often singing unaccompanied with her guitar, as she put it, ‘worn as a prop’. They would absorb Jean’s songs in Scots, loving the voice, the soothing presence, the dry humour, as she slipped from song to song without a set list, picking songs from what she called ‘a stream of semi-consciousness’.”

Redpath also championed folk song through education, in the Seventies becoming artist-in-residence at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, working in both the music department and the local school system. In 1979 she was the first artist-in-residence at Stirling University and taught at its ground-breaking Heritage of Scotland summer schools. Things came full circle for the one-time struggling Edinburgh University student when, in 
2011, she became artist-in-residence at the university’s Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies.

Sheena Wellington, a singer who also gained fame through a Burns song, the magisterial rendition of A Man’s a Man she gave at the state opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, described Redpath as “quite simply the foremost ambassador for Scotland’s song for over 50 years. That wonderful voice, her clear diction and her personality won her friends and devoted admirers wherever she went. She was a generous teacher and so many Scottish singers, particularly the women, would quote her as an inspiration. At a time when many a young folk singer was trying to sound like a 90-year-old with a sore throat, it was hearing Jean’s lovely singing that let me know there was another way.”

During the Jubilee Year of 1977, she sang by royal command at a banquet in Edinburgh Castle. Ten years later she became a Member of the British Empire. It can’t be too many artists who could boast being an MBE, an honorary Kentucky Colonel and having their portrait commissioned by Glenrothes and District Burns Club. That fine portrait, painted in 1997 by Alexander Fraser, has her seated in diva-like yet pensive splendour, but with a glimpse of a moonlit East Neuk fishing village just round the corner. As an international folk superstar, she never forsook her roots.

JIM GILCHRIST

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