Obituary: Jean Redpath, folk singer, 77

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JEAN Redpath, legendary Scottish folk singer, has died, aged 77.

Redpath was born in Edinburgh in 1937, to musical parents. Her father played a stringed percussion instrument called the hammered dulcimer, while her mother taught Jean and her brother traditional songs.

She was brought up in Leven, Fife, but returned to the Capital to do a degree in medieval studies at Edinburgh University.

To help pay her way through her studies, she took on a variety of jobs, including driving instructor and undertaker’s assistant.

She got to know renowned poet Hamish Henderson, who was working in the School of Scottish Studies at the time. She took a keen interest in the archive of tapes and discs of music and songs.

She learned about 400 songs, together with the oral folklore that went with them.

Then in 1961, after four years’ studies, she decided “in a mood of delayed teenage rebellion” as she put it, to drop out and travel the world.

She went to the United States and ended up in Greenwich Village, New York, then at the centre of a folk revival. There she shared a flat with Bob Dylan and other future stars, including Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

After a rave review in the New York Times, she was offered recording deals and went on to perform around the world, including South America, Hong Kong, and Australia, including the Sydney Opera House.

She was best known for singing the songs of Robert Burns and became the distinctive voice of Scottish folk for music lovers around the world.

In 1976, she embarked on a project to record all Burns’ songs. Twenty-two volumes were planned, but the project came to a premature halt when her collaborator, the composer Serge Hovey, died.

Although she was based in the US, Redpath made frequent trips back to Scotland, sometimes slipping back unobtrusively two or three times a year.

In 1977, she 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 made the first artist-in-residence at Stirling University in 1979 and for ten years she gave courses in Scottish song at the Heritage of Scotland Summer School there. In 2011 she was artist-in-residence at Edinburgh University’s Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, based in the same building she had left in 1961.

She also often performed often at the Edinburgh Folk Festival.

She was awarded an MBE in 1987 and has received many honorary doctorates. A portrait of her by Alexander Fraser hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street.

Redpath was recently diagnosed with cancer and died in a hospice in Arizona.