Fellow Fifer (as in Fife, Scotland) Jean Redpath and I crossed paths many times over the years as she blazed a trail for singers of genuine Scots ballads and songs here in the States. Her voice and her ‘Coinyach’ were wonderful. She died this week, in hospice care.
When I first started getting interested in Scots ballads and folksongs, Jean was just a little bit older than me. She was a member of the Edinburgh University Folksong Society, led by the famous and influential Hamish Henderson, so had access to the archives of the School of Scottish Studies and had already begun to make recordings that were an inspiration to me.
I eventually began singing in partnership with Barbara Dickson and I tended to be the researcher of potential material. Jean was always a regular ‘go-to’ and we ‘stole’ quite a lot of her stuff. :]
After she moved to the US, she would regularly return to Scotland to tour the folk clubs and festivals, and I always made a point of going to see her. On one of these nights she said that one of the things she’d kind of forgotten was how polite Scotsmen were. While staying at her mother’s house in Fife she had gotten what she described as a ‘heavy breathing’ phone call. But the gent on the other end of the line started by saying “would you mind if – – -“. So Jean’s great sense of humor also permeated her performances and that taught me a lesson as well.
Many years later, just around the time I was touring the States quite a bit, I found myself sharing the stage with Jean at East Tennessee State University. During the afternoon we appeared live on the local radio station to help promote the concert. I had almost forgotten about that program until it re-surfaced recently; I was stunned when I heard her rendition of Robert Burns’ song ‘O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast’ – absolutely beautiful and a real challenge!
Shortly after that she again toured in Scotland and I was fortunate to interview her for my own radio show Scene Around. We did the interview in her late mother’s beautiful house down near the harbor in Elie, Fife–the same place where the polite heavy breather had phoned.
For someone so well known through regular appearances on Prairie Home Companion and other great venues, I found her completely charming and down to earth, never over the years turning the least bit ‘prima donna-ish’.
My abiding memory of her, though, is of her performing one of Robert Burns’ most explicitly raunchy songs–it’s so bad, I can’t even write the title here–to a typical audience of elderly ladies at that concert at ETSU, and getting away with it through her sheer personality.
Or maybe they just didn’t understand any of the words, given her lovely Fife accent.
Rest in Peace, Jean. You inspired successive generations, and you will be missed.