Tributes paid to folk legend Jean

Jean Redpath
Jean Redpath

The voice of one of the greatest ever interpreters of Scottish folks songs has fallen silent.

Jean Redpath, born in Edinburgh but raised in Leven, passed away in a hospice in Arizona last Thursday after losing her battle against cancer. She was 77.

Musicians and music lovers alike paid tribute to the singer who really was one of folk music’s first superstars.

Scottish singer and songwriter Sheena Wellington described Jean as the “foremost ambassador for Scottish traditional song for more than 50 years”.

Former First Minister Lord McConnell described her as “a legend of folk music and a terrific cultural champion”

Born into a musical family, though her father James made his living as a driving instructor, the Redpaths lived first at the foot of Leven’s Mitchell Street then later in School Street.

Though her musical career took her around the world, Jean never lost her love of Scotland and Fife, and had a home in Elie which she visited just a few weeks ago.

She was well-kent in the village and is fondly remembered as simply a local face who was always willing to chat.

Jean was already starting to breakthrough in the music scene in the late 1950s.

The poet, playwright teacher and folk song collector Arthur Argo visited the future star in Leven in 1960, and was impressed both by her, and the accompaniment provided by her father on hammer dulcimer.

She chose to read medieval studies at Edinburgh University but after discovering the School of Scottish Studies there, music dominated her life. In 1961, at the age of 24, she travelled to the United States to attend a friend’s wedding and, at first, headed to San Francisco.

An invitation for a three-week booking drew her to New York and although that engagement never materialised she went on to perform at Gerde’s Folk City there and connected with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village, which was the heart of the NY folk scene.

Following a concert in 1963 that attracted enthusiastic reviews, she was signed to Elektra Records.

As her fame grew she toured the world, performing in South America, Hong Kong, and Australia, including the Sydney Opera House, and appeared often at the Edinburgh Folk Festival.

From 1972 to 1976 Jean was artist-in-residence at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. She lectured in folklore and gave talks in schools.

In 1976, she embarked on a project to record all the songs of Robert Burns, some being folk songs, some Burns’ own compositions, and most a mixture of the two.

She received many honours for her work, including honorary doctorates from the University of Stirling, St Andrews University, from the Royal Scottish Academy of Drama and Art, and from Glasgow University. In 1977, Jean was one of only four performers commanded to appear by Queen Elizabeth at the royal banquet at Edinburgh Castle during the Royal Jubilee Year.

She was appointed the first artist-in-residence at Stirling University in 1979 where she lectured for more than a decade, and received an MBE for her services to music in 1987.

In 2011, she returned to Edinburgh University to become artist-in-residence at its department of Celtic and Scottish studies.

Although less active on the concert circuit, Fifers had an opportunity to see her perform in Colinsburgh back in 2011 when two concerts, one at Balcarres and another in the Town Hall, raised over £4000 for community funds.