Jean Redpath, 1937-2014

One of the worst things about getting older is watching your idols march into the Unknown before you. From the NYTimes:

Jean Redpath, an esteemed Scottish folk singer whose arresting repertoire of ancient ballads, Robert Burns poems and contemporary tunes helped energize a genre she described as a “brew of pure flavor and pure emotion,” died on Thursday at a hospice in Arizona. She was 77…

Ms. Redpath, who recorded some 40 albums, combined voluminous historical knowledge, a winning stage presence and a voice that could be both bright and melancholy to become perhaps the most prominent Scottish folk singer of the postwar era.

She once sang for Queen Elizabeth II in a command performance, but she began as one of the gaggle of young singers who arrived in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. For a while, according to histories of the era, she dated Bob Dylan. They slept on the floor of an apartment at One Sheridan Square with other folky hopefuls like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott…

She went on to become what The Boston Globe called “something very close to Scotland’s folk singer laureate.” The Edinburgh Daily News ventured that characterizing her as a folk singer was “a bit like calling Michelangelo an Italian interior decorator.”

Ms. Redpath set out to record all 323 songs written by Robert Burns, Scotland’s revered bard, and made it to 180. She was the first folk singer to perform at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival, where she sang Scottish songs as arranged by Joseph Haydn. She memorized so much Scottish music, she said, that she could sing for a week without repeating herself…

She wasn’t “just” a singer, but a wonderful raconteur who could make history come alive in a few sentences. (I like to imagine her sharing the ferry ride with Robin Williams and Richard Attenborough — wouldn’t that be a party!) There’s not nearly enough of her work available on YouTube, but she does have a dedicated website that includes plenty of samples

I am fond of telling audiences that I used to ask for requests, but I got them, so I stopped asking. There is a grain of truth in this claim, although it is delivered tongue in cheek. It is only natural that people will ask for the songs they already know and like, but the end result (unless I were completely churlish), would be that I find myself singing the same repertoire more often than I might prefer…

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27 replies
  1. 1
    Comrade Luke says:

    She was no angel.

  2. 2
    Olivia says:

    Loved her, loved her music.

  3. 3
    Lee Rudolph says:

    She used to drop in on Robert J. Lurtsema’s Morning Pro Musica from time to time. Since you bring up getting older.

  4. 4
    Dog On Porch says:

    @Comrade Luke: Still, there’s no denying her voice was angelic (I wonder if that poor kid they buried today in Ferguson could sing?). Prior to her death I had never even heard of her, but listened to a few songs over the weekend. She was blessed, and from all accounts made the most of her god given talents.

  5. 5
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    Oh, how I love Jean Redpath! Am so sad to learn of her death. She’s been a frequent guest on, as noted, A Prairie Home Companion, as well as the must-hear-if-you-like-Celtic-music, The Thistle and Shamrock.

    Gus am bris am là.

  6. 6
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Lee Rudolph:

    Stop that.

  7. 7
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Anne Laurie, top:

    (I like to imagine her sharing the ferry ride with Robin Williams and Richard Attenborough — wouldn’t that be a party!)

    No love for Lauren Bacall? Because you just know it’s not a real ferry party until Betty shows up.

  8. 8
    The Pale Scot says:

    Slan leat(h) Jean,

    But gie me a ramblin’ rover,
    And fae Orkney down to Dover.
    We will roam the country over
    And together we’ll face the world.

  9. 9
    chopper says:

    @Comrade Luke:

    Won it in one.

  10. 10
    celticdragonchick says:

    I bought a CD of hers about twenty years ago, and it was/is amazing. The song Riddles Wisely Expounded remains one of my favorite Scottish tradtionals.

  11. 11
    Botsplainer says:

    So I was just at the mailbox and a curious envelope arrived for my youngest daughter, who is now in school in Cincinnati. I texted to let her know I’d be forwarding it, and took photos of both sides. It bore a Pittsburgh postmark and had a bit of Orthodox liturgical phrasing handwritten on the back; I assumed it was from one of her friends from the Orthodox church camp we always sent them to.

    She laughs by return text and tells me she wrote that to herself three years ago. She’s apparently done that to keep her goals on track and to bolster herself a few times. She gives them to trusted acquaintances, not close friends, and gives them strict instructions.

    I think it’s sort of neat.

  12. 12
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    I think that’s incredibly neat! What an amazing daughter you must have!

  13. 13
    Iowa Old Lady says:

    @Botsplainer: What a wonderful child.

  14. 14
    Baud says:


    She’ll go far.

  15. 15
    celticdragonchick says:

    Mary Hamilton sung by Jean Redpath here on the album Lowlands on Spotify.

    I sat in stunned silence for several minutes the first time I heard this back in 1996.

    Riddles Wisely Expounded here also.

  16. 16
    a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q) says:

    @Botsplainer: That’s an amazing kiddo you have. If you’d trust a leftie lawyer type to check on her while she’s up here. lemme know.

  17. 17
    the Conster says:


    Wow, so clever and clearheaded and very back to the future. Cool beans and kudos to both of youz! All the lights are on and everybody’s home.

  18. 18
    Botsplainer says:

    @a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q):

    She’s pretty involved in lots of campus lefty groups, does lots of organizing while working the Clifton Kroger. I’m sure that she’ll need checking on at some point.

  19. 19
    lefthanded compliment says:

    I first heard Jean Redpath sing on The Midnight Special radio program when I was growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the ’60s. She had one of the most beautiful, crystalline voices I’ve ever heard. “Dumbarton’s Drums” was a particular favorite, and has continued to play in my head over the many years since.;s+Drums

  20. 20
    gogiggs says:


  21. 21
    Anna says:

    How the hell did she come to die in a hospice in Arizona?

    Well, she’s now on the low road and she’ll be in Scotland afore me.

  22. 22
    grumpy realist says:

    I caught one of her performances at Krannert. The first half of her performance was an in-depth review of the different types of Scottish singing, together with examples. I especially enjoyed the “practice for the kirk” songs. Because it would be Godless to sing hymns on what wasn’t the Lord’s Day, people practiced by singing the same tunes but with definitely different lyrics. I still have in my head her performance of the last line: “…and the dog took up his leg and peed against the wall.”

    I hope she recorded those samples somewhere!

  23. 23
    shelley says:

    Oh no. She was one of my favorites too. Such a pure, high voice.
    Goddman it. Attenborough, Lauren Bacall, Robin Williams.

    People have got to stop dying!

  24. 24
    mzinformation says:

    Such a beautiful voice. Looked up her works on Amazon and found a CD entitled “A Fine Song for Singing”. You’ll love this – one of the songs is entitled “Annie Laurie”. Hmmmmmmm

  25. 25
    Anne Laurie says:

    @mzinformation: Yes, Annie Laurie‘s an old ‘folk song’ (more of a pop tune well-aged). And, to be honest, Redpath’s is about the only version I can listen to without gagging!

  26. 26
    greenergood says:

    Scottish independence referendum 18 September – wish us luck – we could be the world’s newest country on 19 September.

  27. 27
    Carol Thompson says:

    I shall miss Ms. Redpath terribly and am sad there will be no more concerts. At least I have many CD’s. Discovered her on an LP in the 70’s and have followed her ever since. The world of Scottish music has lost an outstanding singer.

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