Blessed with a sweet but slightly roughened mezzo-soprano as gentle as mist and haunting as the highlands, Jean Redpath was one of the definitive interpreters of Scottish traditional songs. She was also a noted folk music ethnographer who played an important role in the reconstruction of nearly forgotten Scottish songs and was a lecturer at Scotland's Stirling University since 1979, and also lectured regularly at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut and other prominent institutions, including Harvard.
She was born in fife country outside Edinburgh. Her father played hammered dulcimer, and her mother was well versed in Scottish oral history, most of which was passed from mother to daughter via songs. One of four daughters, their mother passed on the music to each. Her knowledge of the ancient songs proved useful while Redpath was attending the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh and had begun formal research into her native ballads and compositions.
In 1961 she immigrated to New York, where she began singing in Greenwich Village coffeehouses. Redpath also gave formal concerts at events such as the Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival and soon became an extremely popular performer on the folk circuit. Not only did they love her unique, sensitive voice, audiences were also impressed by her knowledge about the over 400 songs in her repertoire and the fascinating insights about the music that Redpath offered during her concerts.
In 1963 she sang for the first time at the New School for Social Research and this led her to sign with Elektra, where she recorded through 1975, when she switched to the Vermont-based Philo label. With them she became one of folk music's most prolific recording artists. One of her most notable achievements was an ongoing project to record all of the songs written by Scotland's poet laureate Robert Burns. Out of 22 planned volumes, only seven were completed due to the death of producer Serge Hovey. Other well-known Redpath series include a compilation of Scottish songs written by women, including Lady Nairne (1986).
In addition to recording and performing live, Redpath also appeared on such radio programs as Morning Pro Musica on Boston's WGBH public radio station. Between 1974 and 1987 Redpath was also a regular on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion radio show. In August 2014 she died from cancer at a hospice in Arizona at the age of 77. ~ Sandra Brennan