Acclaimed Scottish singer Jean Redpath (1937–2014) is best remembered for her impressive repertoire of ancient ballads, Robert Burns songs, and contemporary folk music, recorded and performed over a career spanning some fifty years, from the 1960s until her death in 2014. In Giving Voice to Traditional Songs, Mark Brownrigg helps capture Redpath’s idiosyncratic and often humorous voice through his interviews with her during the last eighteen months of her life. Here Redpath reflects on her humble beginnings, her Scottish heritage, her life’s journey, and her mission of preserving, performing, and teaching traditional song.
A native of Edinburgh, Redpath was raised in a family of singers of traditional Scots songs. She broadened her knowledge of the tradition through work with the Edinburgh Folk Society and later as a student of Scottish studies at Edinburgh University. Prior to graduation, Redpath abandoned her studies to follow her passion of singing. Her independent spirit took her to the United States, where she found commercial success amid the Greenwich Village folk-music revival in New York in the 1960s. There she shared a house and concert stages with Bob Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Often praised for her unaccompanied, gentle voice, Redpath received a rave review in the New York Times, which launched her career and lead to her wide recognition as a true voice of traditional Scottish songs.
As a regular guest on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion radio show, Redpath endeared herself to millions with her soft melodies and amusing tales. Her extensive knowledge of traditional Scottish music history lead to appointments as artist in residence at universities in the United States and Scotland, where she taught courses on traditional song. Among her final performances was a 2009 appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.
Redpath’s extraordinary career has been celebrated with many accolades, including honorary doctorates from several universities, an appointment as Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, and induction into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame. Although Redpath preferred not to be labeled as a folk singer, a term she found restrictive, she is revered as the most prominent Scottish folk singer of the postwar era.