In the annals of traditional Scottish folk-inspired music, few have done more to preserve the institution than singer and music historian Jean Redpath (1937–2014). During her 50-year career, Redpath put her mezzo-soprano voice on more than 40 albums and toured the world, making traditional Scottish music and ancient ballads accessible to the masses.
While Jean Redpath was labeled a folk musician and participated in the U.S. folk revival during the 1960s, she hated the designation. During a 1988 interview with Focus talk show host David Inge on WILL Radio, Redpath said she tried to avoid having the term “folk” attached to either her music or her name. She thought the term was too broad because it could be applied to such a wide range of music. “The longer I live and the more I sing the less I am inclined to put any kind of label on anything I sing,” she explained. “I like to sing. It's an easier form of communication for me than talking …. It's also easier for many people to listen to because it doesn't require immediate response, at least verbal response. But what does it matter—whether it's Scottish traditional, or French art song or American contemporary—if it's communicating, if it's reaching … the audience or the group at the moment?”
Redpath was born April 28, 1937, in Edinburgh, Scotland, to James Redpath and Isabella Dall Redpath. Together with her brother Sandy, she grew up in the seaside town of Leven, in the Kingdom of Fife, Scotland. James Redpath drove a motor coach and played the hammered dulcimer, and his wife was also quite musical; she had grown up one of 12 children, all of whom played an instrument, from the mouth organ to the piano and the accordion, and none who had received formal lessons. Isabella Redpath sang constantly, entertaining her daughter with tunes from her Scottish heritage and telling stories in the Scottish oral tradition.
Despite her musical upbringing, Redpath's interests lay elsewhere, and she matriculated at the University of Edinburgh intending to study medieval studies. To help pay her way through college, Redpath took odd jobs, for a time working as a driving instructor and also as an undertaker's assistant. While at Edinburgh, she met Hamish Henderson, a Scots poet and songwriter who taught in the university's School of Scottish Studies. At the time, Henderson was deeply engaged in recording and archiving traditional Scottish tunes, particularly those by Gypsy and Traveller groups.
Redpath joined the University Folk Song Society and began attending lectures by Henderson. She had an epiphany one day when she connected a song from one of Henderson's lectures to her childhood, realizing that her mother learned a different version of the traditional tune known as “The Overgate.” She dove into a study of the university's large music archives, researching songs as well as the oral folklore that went along with them. In this way, Redpath became a walking encyclopedia of Scottish ballads and songs.
When Redpath hit her early 20s, she rebelled and left college without finishing her degree. In 1961, she moved to the United States, prompted by a friend's wedding invitation. First, she went to California, then ended up in Manhattan, in Greenwich Village, where she befriended Bob Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, sharing living quarters with each of them. At the time, there was a folk revival in progress and she decided to join the fray. She started performing at amateur variety shows.
In November 1961, Redpath performed at Gerde's Folk City and received a great review from famed New York Times music critic Robert Shelton. (Shelton went on to become Dylan's biographer.) After the positive review, she gained plenty of bookings and her singing career took off. Despite the influences brewing in the New York City music scene, Redpath had an innate drive to keep performing her catalog of Scottish traditional music.
Redpath recorded her first album, Skipping Barefoot through the Heather, in 1962, and this Celtic-inspired collection was released on Prestige International. The recording comprised 13 tunes, including traditional ballads such as “I Aince Loved a Lass.” In 1963, she signed with Elektra Records and over the next decade her reputation grew. By 1967, Redpath had released two more albums and she eventually signed with Philo Records. She enjoyed performing before live audiences, however, and in addition to touring in the United States and Canada, she performed at the Sydney, Australia, Opera House and in South America, introducing traditional Scottish ballads to listeners around the globe. Redpath was a perennial favorite at the Edinburgh Folk Festival and made appearances at the Mostly Mozart Festival, an annual series sponsored by the New York City–based Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
By the end of the 1960s, Redpath knew that she had found her calling. As she recalled in discussing her career trajectory with Inge, “I stumbled into it because it sounded like fun. It was something I was interested in. It was a repertoire I already had. Gave me a chance to travel and from there it gathered momentum and ten years later I realized this was no longer a stop gap. I was in it right up to my ears.”
In the mid-1970s, Redpath launched into a new project: recording all the songs written by beloved 18th-century Scots poet Robert Burns, thus safeguarding these works. She made the recordings in conjunction with U.S. composer Serge Hovey, who, after research, revived the original melodies and then set them against a backdrop of contemporary orchestral sounds. Hovey suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease and was confined to an iron lung during the recording sessions. The first release, The Songs of Robert Burns, Vol. 1, came out in 1976, and singer and composer continued work on the project until Hovey's death 13 years later. Volume seven was released the following year, 1990, ending the series, although 20 albums had been planned in all.
While Hovey arranged 323 of Burns's songs before his death, Redpath recorded about 180 of them, creating a substantial archive of Burns's work. Although unfinished, this project brought wider recognition to Burns and sparked a renewed appreciation for his work. After the completed recording were released, Redpath's rendition of Burns's songs circulated the globe, inspiring folk singers beyond the confines of Scotland. Thomas Keith lauded the Redpath-Hovey collaboration in Studies in Scottish Literature, asserting that the Scots vocalist “possesses one of those rare voices that has a quality which comes as close as any human voice to the depth and precision of a musical instrument. In her case, perhaps, a cello. Her pleasing sound and intuitive execution are well suited to Hovey's innovative arrangements and are a key factor in the popularity of these recordings which have been reprinted and continue to sell one and two decades after their initial releases.”
In addition to working with Hovey during the 1980s, Redpath recorded The Songs of Robert Burns from the Scots Musical Museum, a series produced with the help of Stirling University's Donald A. Low. Here she performed mostly a capella, with the occasional guitar accompaniment. According to Keith, this series was equally important in the Burns canon. “Redpath's singing on these recordings is, as on the Redpath/Hovey albums, typically clear, unaffected and unmistakably potent,” he noted.
In 1977, Redpath was invited to perform at Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee celebration, which commemorated her 25th year as the United Kingdom's ruling monarch. Ten years later, the Scots singer was invited to Buckingham Palace and awarded membership in the Order of the British Empire for her work preserving Scotland's musical heritage.
In the concert setting, Redpath was known for her wit and for her extensive folklore lessons, which she used to set up each song. To further support folk-music scholarship, she served as an artist-in-residence at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, for four years beginning in 1972. In 1979, she returned to Scotland and began a decade-long stint in a comparable post at the University of Stirling. In 2011, Redpath came full circle and began teaching Celtic and Scottish studies at the University of Edinburgh, the place where her love for traditional Scottish music had been born five decades earlier.
Over the course of her career, Redpath released some 40 albums. One highlight included 1986's Lady Nairne, which paid homage to a Scots balladeer and poet who published much of her work using pseudonyms. Lady Nairne's songs rivaled Burns's for popularity, yet she remained unrecognized during her lifetime and beyond. Redpath sought to rectify the oversight. Songs on the album included “Lament of the Covenanter's Widow” and “The
Laird O' Cockpen.” Redpath died on August 21, 2014, at a hospice in Tucson, Arizona. She was 77 and had been diagnosed with cancer. Like many of the Scottish bards whose work she sought to preserve, Redpath never learned to read music and thus transcribe her musical interpretations. Thus, she knew that her work might be lost to history, telling Marc Shulgold of the Los Angeles Times: “I realize some people can't cope with something that's not in print. I've made records that are available to the ear.” Supplementing Redpath's audio legacy is one available to the eye: Her portrait was painted in 1997 by Scottish artist Alexander Fraser and hangs at the Scottish National Gallery.
Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1990.
Edinburgh Evening News, August 25, 2014.
Guardian (London, England), August 22, 2014, “Jean Redpath.”
Los Angeles Times, February 20, 1987.
Studies in Scottish Literature, January 1, 2004.
Scotsman online, http://www.scotsman.com/ (January 9, 2017), “Jean Redpath, MBE.”
WILL Radio/University of Illinois College of Media website, https://will.illinois.edu/focus/program/focus881003b (October 3, 1988), David Inge, interview with Jean Redpath.❑