Born April 28, 1937, in Edinburgh, Scotland; came to United States, 1961; daughter of James Redpath. Education: Attended Edinburgh University, School of Scottish Studies. Addresses: Office-- c/o Steorra, 243 West End Ave., New York NY 10023. Record company-- Phil Records, 70 Ct. Street, Middlebury VT 05753.
"In her purity of line, precision of intonation and control of pitch, the Scottish traditional singer Jean Redpath is an unequaled vocal technician among contemporary folk interpreters." With this description, Stephen Holden of the New York Times explained the international appeal of this unique artist. From Scotland to Lake Wobegon to Lincoln Center, Jean Redpath has presented the gems of her chosen repertory to appreciative audiences. She is recognized as the foremost interpreter of traditional Scottish music, which she described in 1986 as "a brew of pure flavor and pure emotion." The purity of her voice and a capella performance have brought her an international following far from her roots in Scotland.
Redpath grew up in a musical family in the country of Fife, near Edinburgh, Scotland. Her father played the hammered dulcimer. Redpath also continues a maternal tradition of music. "My mother's family were all musical, without any kind of formal background at all," she told Jennifer Dunning in the New York Times in 1988. "And most of the women were keepers of the song tradition, with incredible memories. When my mother would say, 'Ooh, I've just remembered a song but I can't remember the verses, 'there were four sisters to go ask. We could reassemble almost anything among them." As a student in the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, she combined this oral tradition with scientific studies in folk ethnography. A specialist in "reassembling" as well as performing traditional Scottish ballads and composed songs, she has served on the faculties of Stirling University (Scotland, since 1979) and Weslyan University (Connecticut) and has lectured extensively at universities in Great Britain, Canada and the United States.
Through program notes and performance commentary, Redpath has also educated her audience in concerts from Greenwich Village folk houses to Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival. Her first engagements in the United States, at Gerde's Folk City, were as a star of the folk and traditional music revival of the 1960s. Her solo debut, at the New School of Social Research, July 19, 1963, featured selections from her repertory that even then numbered over 400 songs. These appearences led to recordings by Elektra--at the time a leader in traditional and ethnic music.
Live concerts continue to be an important part of Redpath's career. She selects her programs with great care to include 500 years of traditional ballads, credited songs by Scottish poets and composers, contemporary music and "Scottish-style" songs by the great composers of the classics. A typical recital, as reviewed by Stephen Holden of the New York Times in 1984, "offered selections from [her albums of Robert Burns songs] along with traditional ballads, some of which date back more than five centuries. These were augmented by a smattering of contemporary tunes and an adaptation of a Tchaikovsky melody that the singer inbued with a strong Celtic feel." One of her most memorable appearances in recent years was as a recitalist in the "Haydn Marathon," presented by the Mostly Mozart Festival of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. In a promotional article in the New York Times and in her presentation at the concerts, Redpath was pleasantly ironic about Haydn's brief "adoption" of Scottish nationalism: "Basically it was hack work.... There was a trend at the end of the 18th century ... to 'improve' Scottish music by rendering it more English and more classical. The end result is meant to be Scottish enough to be recognized but not so Scottish that one needs to be embarassed about it ... publishers invited the well-known Europen composers to set the songs--thereby, of course, improving their worth immeasurably.... My involvement came because I like to remove the walls between pigeonholes."
Redpath joined Philo Records in Vermont in 1975. She has created one of the largest discographies in the folk and traditional music catalogues, with over three dozen invidual albums. Among her many on-going recording projects are a complete cycle of songs by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Six of the estimated 20 volumes have been released by Philo, as of 1988. She has also recorded the Scottish songs of Joseph Haydn for Philo and, with Lisa Neustadt, Scot-derived songs of American Appalachia. A continuing series of albums featuring the Scottish songs of identified woman composers for Philo has produced Lady Nairne (the works of Caroline Oliphant) and recordings of songs by Lady John Scott, Violet Jacob, and Helen Cruikshank on A Fine Song for Singing.
The broadcast media have become "classrooms" for Redpath as well. She appears frequently as a performer and folklorist on radio and television in Great Britain and the United States. Selections from her BBC-TV series, "BalladFolk," have been released on the album of the same name. In the United States, she has been a frequent visitor on many of the foremost classical radio stations, among them, WQXR in New York and the "Morning Pro Musica" broadcasts of Robert Lurtsema on WGBH in Boston. Redpath has become famous with a new audience from her performances on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" over the American Public Radio network, from 1974 to 1987. Although she was originally engaged to perform her traditional folk form (just as Keillor presented bluegrass, klezmerim, and Scandinavian choirs), she also participated in the advertising campaigns for many of his imaginary sponsors in the town of Lake Wobegon.
The range of her repertory, the scholarship, and the commitment to her selected genre are all justly celebrated, but it is Redpath's voice that has continued to attract fans and critical acclaim. Holden, writing in 1984 and 1986, described its qualities vividly. "[Her] voice is more than merely pretty. Her sweetness is backed by a fiber and quiet detemination that lend everything she sings a deep, lived-in quality. With her arching sense of melody and plain, unsyncopated phrasing, she is able to imbue everything she touches with a mysterious, slightly mournful quality that is the quintessence of a certain kind of folk classicism.... Redpath possesses a mezzo-soprano that most classically trained art singers might envy. Through not large, her voice projects a mixture of resilience and tenderness with a smooth, subtle, humming vibrato."
Redpath is generally described as an a capella vocalist, but, in fact, she often performs with instrumentation. She accompanies herself on the acoustic guitar, "strumming it delicately to produce a subdued harp-like effect." She also frequently performs and records with cellist Abby Newton, most notably on the Philo albums Lady Nairne, Song of the Seals, and Jean Redpath. Among her other occasional collaborators are violinist John Graham, fiddler Pamela Swing, and, on the aptly titled Greenhays album The Most Dulcimer, Mike Seeger and Diane Hamilton.
by Barbara Stratyner
Jean Redpath's Career
Concert performer specializing in a capella renditions of traditional Scottish folk music, 1960--; has made numerous appearances on television and radio programs, including "A Prairie Home Companion" (National Public Radio), 1974-87. Lecturer at Weslyan University and Stirling University, Scotland.
- Selective Works
- Skipping Barefoot Through the Heather Prestige/International, 1962.
- Scottish Ballad Book Elektra, 1962.
- The Songs of Robert Burns Philo, 1980--(volume 6 is most recent release).
- Lady Nairne Philo, 1986.
- A Fine Song for Singing Philo, 1987.
- New York Times, November 15, 1961; November 12, 1984; April 21, 1986; August 19, 1988.
- Stereo Review, June, 1981.