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Jean Redpath

Singer

Singer

Born: April 28, 1937 Died: August 21, 2014

JEAN Redpath, who has died at the age of 77, was arguably Scotland's ­greatest ever ambassador for traditional songs. With her slightly regal bearing onstage and a purity of tone, blended with a deep feeling for her repertoire, she always exuded relaxed, calm authority.

My abiding memory of her is slightly earthier and a bit less calm than her public image, though. In the early 1990s she was back in Leven, in Fife, preparing to record a televised Scottish song ­workshop for the BBC and she gave me a very generous part of her day to chat about her eventful career and obvious love of what fuelled it.

As she was waxing lyrical about Serge Hovey, the American composer who had arranged more than 300 of Robert Burns's songs for a series of albums that was planned to document the bard's complete songbook, a bumble bee made the terrible mistake of invading Redpath's space.

She swatted it away but it had taken a real shine to her and it came back and back until my host could stand the invasion no longer.

Excusing herself, Redpath pursued the invader with a determination and vigour that made it easy to see how, as a young woman of 24, she had made such a natural transition from the douce Edinburgh of the early 1960s to the ­altogether tougher environs of New York.

Eventually, with a flick of the ­antimacassar that she had armed herself with, she struck the fatal blow and yelled a triumphant, "There, got ye, ye wee [expletive deleted]. That'll teach ye tae meddle wi' a Fifer" and carried on where she'd left off.

Born in Edinburgh, Redpath ­inherited her love of Scots songs and a large repertoire from her mother, who sang constantly around the house in Leven where Jean grew up. On leaving school she crossed over the Forth to Edinburgh University to study medieval history and, to supplement her meagre funds, she sang for beer money and took on part-time jobs, including as a driving instructor and undertaker's assistant.

When she encountered folklorist Hamish Henderson and the work he was doing at the School of Scottish S­tudies, however, she made a quick switch of course and became immersed in the catalogue Henderson was collecting.

In 1961, she experienced a belated teenage rebellion and decided to travel the world.

She fetched up in San ­Francisco, where a letter found her from a man purporting to be a musical ­impresario ("impresario, ma dowp," she told me) who had heard about her singing and offered her a three-week engagement in a New York club.

So, "showing a gullibility I was about to lose forever", off to New York she went to find no sign of her putative employer and no evidence that the club existed.

She was directed to an apartment in Greenwich Village, where she found Bob Dylan and Ramblin' Jack Elliott enjoying a hootenanny with the ­Greenbriar Boys, and moved in as Dylan's flatmate.

Dylan introduced her to Gerde's Folk City, one of the many folk cafes that were thronging with young people eager to hear a real alternative to the insipid pop songs of the day and after appearing there a number of times with her guitar for whatever money came out of the hat that was passed around, Redpath caught the attention of the New York Times.

A rave review from its music critic gave her a passport to paid performances and, in 1963, a recording deal with the prestigious folk label Elektra Records, whose artists included Judy Collins and Tom Paxton.

So began a career that produced some 40 albums and saw Redpath ­appearing at venues including Avery Fisher Hall in New York and Sydney Opera House, although she was as happy singing in a village hall or a folk club.

She didn't regard what she did for a living as a job (although she was always a model professional) so much as giving her the privilege of sharing a repertoire of songs that she loved. When Serge Hovey became too ill with Lou Gehrig's disease to continue working, Redpath described him as ­irreplaceable and the planned 22 album series of Burns songs halted at volume seven.

She took to teaching as readily and naturally as she had to singing in public (she wasn't, she told me, a performer) and from 1972 to 1976 she worked as a lecturer in folklore and as a cultural resource at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

From 1979 to 1989 she gave courses in Scottish Song at Stirling University's summer school and more recently, in 2011, she returned to her alma mater and served as artist in residence at the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, as it's now known.

Her admirers included Garrison ­Keillor, who featured her on his A ­ Prairie Home Companion radio show regularly and among the many honours she received were honorary doctorates from the University of Stirling, St Andrews University, and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She was appointed MBE in 1987 and inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

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