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JEAN REDPATH - 28 April 1937 - 21 August 2014

Jean Redpath died peacefully at a hospice in Arizona. She was 77. Born in Edinburgh in 1937, she grew up in Leven, Fife, where her family’s home resounded with music and an appreciation of Scottish culture. Her father played a hammered dulcimer. She was a major figure in Scottish music, although not too many people below a certain age will have seen her perform live back home as it was in the US where she established her reputation as an interpreter of Scottish folk songs, in live performance, on radio and on record. She was best known in her native country through her recordings, especially of the songs of Robert Burns.

Jean studied medieval history at the University of Edinburgh and it was there that she discovered the rich archives of the University's School of Scottish Studies. Hamish Henderson, who later went on to become a friend and mentor, gave a talk to the Literacy Society when Jean was a student. He played a tape of Jeannie Robertson singing The Overgate. Jean recognised the song from a version that her mother knew and describes this as a life changing discovery. Four years into her studies, in what she later described as “a mood of delayed teenage rebellion”, she dropped out of college to travel the world and to focus on her singing.

She was bold. Whether she was taking a lead from some of the characters in her songs, packing a bag and heading off to America would have been a huge move at that time. Arriving in the USA in 1961 with very little money in her pocket, she found herself at the right place at the right time. This was a time when folk music was becoming a commercial success in the US. She attended the Berkeley Folk Festival in California that year and at a panel discussion asked several questions and, after it became apparent that she knew more about Scottish folksong that anyone else, she was invited on stage to join the panel. She moved to Philadelphia and then gravitated to Greenwich Village, New York, the centre of the grassroots and alternative-lifestyle folk scene.

In recent years she had fun with interviewers by stating that she and Bob Dylan used to live together. “Miki Isaacson, whose apartment I stayed in on and off for several years, did not sing herself but what she could do was provide crash space for all the itinerant musicians around. I being one of the fortunate beneficiaries and Bobby Dylan being another; he landed in New York City, of course, at exactly the same time. So I, through no fault of or credit to myself, landed smack in the middle of the action as it were, in Greenwich Village. And it was a very exciting time and one needed to be twenty three to survive it.”

She shared concert stages with Bob Dylan and after an appearance at Gerdes Folk City, she received a rave review in the New York Times and her career was launched. She went on to tour throughout the world, performing in venues including the Sydney Opera House. Years later, in 2004, St Andrews University conferred the degree of Doctor of Music on Bob Dylan, recognising the inspirational role Scottish traditional songs had played in his music. There is little doubt that Jean had a significant influence on that aspect of Dylan’s music.

Jean was one of the few genuine stars emanating from the Scottish folk revival. In her publicity material she often used a quote from an Edinburgh newspaper saying that “characterising her as a folk singer was a bit like calling Michelangelo an Italian interior decorator.” Working in an area of music that generally shunned the glitz of showbiz, she was aware of the downsides of stardom but she recognised that the world tends to judge the value of your art by its price tag. She went further, realising that you had some choice over the value – the fee – that you placed on yourself. She spoke a lot about the ‘expectations’ that you set for your audience. She lived up to those expectations easily, commanding her stages with the power of a solo voice, a great repertoire and a gift for choosing the right songs. She played guitar, although she regarded it more as a stage prop than an essential part of her performance. By any measure she was a remarkable woman.

In the 1970s and 80s, Jean was a regular guest on the American radio show A Prairie Home Companion, presented by Garrison Keillor. This brought her singing to millions. She endeared herself to audiences with her voice, witty introductions to songs and great knowledge of their background, but according to Garrison Keillor her appeal transcended her wit, accent and ‘fabulous smile’. “A person doesn’t make a life singing traditional Scottish music on the basis of charm. She has a fierce devotion to the music, as a Scot and as an artist. Everything she most deeply feels and believes in - about death and love and country and womanhood - comes out in these songs. The songs aren’t pictures. They’re rocks. They are the mountain itself.”

Although by folk music standards her performance fee was large, the actual fee wasn’t that important to Jean – it was the respect, both for her as a performer and for the songs, which she valued so much. That respect was a two way street. She flew the Atlantic to sing at the Greentrax Recordings 20th Anniversary Concert and knowing Jean, there would have been no fee or expenses involved. She had a great respect for Ian Green and a strong relationship with Greentrax. Her contribution to that concert was her tribute to Ian Green. She was quite happy to play folk clubs or small venues but from a professional perspective needed to be careful not to compromise how others might view the direction of her career. But ways around this could, and were, found. I had personal experience of Jean’s generosity when she did a concert in support of our fledgling summer schools. Normally even a free gig costs the organiser something. Not so with Jean. She paid all her own travel and accommodation costs, even paid the bill for the meal we shared in her hotel.

I first saw Jean at the Irvine Marymass Folk Festival in the early seventies. Her performance was exceptional in many respects. As well as performing, she was a judge at the Traditional Singing Competition at the festival. My wife, Heather Heywood, a young singer at the time, was awarded second place and in her summing up Jean said some kind (and prophetic) words about her future development as a singer. Over time I discovered that this encouragement was typical of Jean, she encouraged singers of all ages, backing that up with formal and informal teaching.

I held Jean in the highest regard as a performer. She was a master communicator. “One of the reasons I like the lights up in a hall is so that I can watch the faces,” she said. She enthralled her audiences and went through her performances without leaving space for applause between songs, which she saw as a distraction – the applause came at the end. I’m not sure if this was to counter the tendency of American audiences to applaud as they recognised songs coming up, or if it was just a technique that worked for her. I was present at a concert in the Scottish Borders when applause erupted in the middle of a set. Jean broke into a big smile, she had left a tiny gap but the applause was genuine and she herself recognised that something special was going on. She had the same attitude to the ritual encore, telling the audience that this was her last song and that she wasn’t going to do the on and off the stage trick.

She demanded attention and expected an audience to listen. “You don’t get chatting during a classical music performance, why should we have it in a folk concert? As a performer you have to have a belief that what you are doing is worth listening to. It’s not just a case of listen to me, you should also have a belief that the songs you are singing have something to say.” She had wit and a sense of mischief and she did have the ability to deliver with self-confidence. She said she never liked being labelled a folk singer. “In fact,” she said, “I avoid putting a label on anything. I just like to sing - it’s an easier form of communication to me than talking.”

She was honoured by various bodies, often well ahead of the pack in time and in 1987 she was awarded an MBE for her services to music. She has honorary doctorates from the Universities of Stirling, Glasgow, St Andrews and the RSAMD and numerous honorary memberships in music and literary societies. Her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, one of the very few musicians to be recognised in this way.

Jean didn’t need to seek out bookings; she was in demand as a performer. This coupled with the expectation that her fee would be unaffordable meant that we saw less of her in Scotland than we, or she, might have liked. She was let down by the organisers of the Burns Bicentenary in 1996. This coincided with the launch of the first of the Summer Schools that I was working on and I stepped in and organised a performance for her in the very special setting of the Round Drawing Room at Culzean Castle. That led to me organising a short tour for her in Scotland the following year. The more I got to know her, the more appreciative I became of her special qualities.

She was committed to teaching. She often returned to her home in Elie, Fife, during the summer and from 1979 until 1989 she played a leading role in the University of Stirling’s Summer Schools. In 2011, she was artist in residence in the department of Celtic and Scottish studies at Edinburgh University, bringing her full circle to the archive that had so interested her 50 years earlier. She would have seen that as her gift back to the tradition but characteristically she made a joke out of it. “Some people manage to graduate in four years; it’s taken me 50!”

She couldn’t read music. “I hear a song that I admire, it’s the most natural thing in the world for me to listen, study, memorise and begin performing it,” she said in an interview with The Chicago Tribune in 1990. “That’s simply the way it has been done with Scottish folk music for hundreds of years.”

In May 2014 she sang to standing ovations at her last performance, in Cambridge, New York. I have often said that I would recommend any singer or musician to go and see a Jean Redpath performance. Sadly that is no longer possible. Her website states that her recordings will be her legacy. I think her greater legacy already lives on among the many singers she inspired.

Pete Heywood