Jean Redpath ... A brief biography

Jean Redpath photoJean Redpath was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and raised in the Kingdom of Fife. She attended the University of Edinburgh to major in medieval studies but soon discovered the School of Scottish Studies there. The School collects and preserves the oral traditions of Scotland; its research facilities include a major archive of tapes and disks recording the instrumental music, tales, ballads and songs of both Scots- and Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland. As she worked her way through four years of university acting variously as major-domo of a boarding-house, driving instructor, undertaker's assistant and keen hosteler, her association with Hamish Henderson and other members of the faculty at the School inspired and encouraged an interest which was to become her life's work.

Ms Redpath arrived in the United States in 1961 with eleven dollars in her pocket. A series of serendipitous "accidents" saw her in Greenwich Village four months later sharing quarters with such legends of the '60s folk revival as Rambling Jack Elliot and Bobby Dylan. An appearance in a hootenanny at Gerde's Folk City brought the offer of a booking, won a rave review in the New York Times, and Jean had very much arrived on the American folk scene. Invitations to record soon followed.

Musical career

Since 1962 Jean has toured extensively throughout the USA and Canada, across Australia, and has presented programs in South America and Hong Kong. Her hundreds of performances over the years have been in venues as widely disparate as the Community Centre of the Cardhu Distillery on Speyside and Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Centre, and as widely separated as Haines, Alaska and the Sydney Opera House. She has made more than forty recordings, the most recent on her own label. These range in scope from the songs of Robert Burns and traditional ballads to her legendary performance of the Song of the Seals and the contemporary favorite Sonny's Dream. She is known to millions of Americans as a radio personality through her many appearances on Robert J. Lurtsema's Morning Pro Musica from WGBH in Boston, and Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion from NPR.

From 1972 to 1976 Ms Redpath was artist-in-residence at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, working both as lecturer in folklore in the Music department and as cultural resource in the local school system. In 1979 she was appointed as the first artist-in-residence at Stirling University and invited to join the staff of the Heritage of Scotland Summer Schools there, offering courses in Scottish Song over the next ten years. She has toured several times for the Scottish Arts Council and has appeared at the Edinburgh International Festival. In 2011 she was artist-in-residence in the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University. It was from this same building, the School of Scottish Studies as it then was, that she set forth in 1961.

While she is still exploring the wealth of Scottish oral tradition, Jean has also devoted a large portion of her professional life to the songs of Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns. Her work with the late Serge Hovey, who researched and arranged 323 of Burns' songs has produced seven recordings which have won critical acclaim. Four more recordings made originally in Scotland by Scottish Records are sung mostly a capella. These were produced in collaboration with Dr Donald Low of Stirling University and bring Jean's recorded repertoire of Burns's songs up to 180.


Ms Redpath has received many honors 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. Ten years later her name appeared on the Queen's Birthday Honors List and she was invited to Buckingham Palace to be awarded an M.B.E. (Member of the British Empire). The Governor of Kentucky has made her a Kentucky Colonel; The Saltire Society has presented her with Honorary Membership and she has been inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame. A portrait commissioned by the Glenrothes Burns Club and Fife Arts Council and painted by Alexander Fraser hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh in a section dedicated to Scots who have made a significant contribution to their country and their culture.

Some quotes

"Of Jean Redpath an admirer wrote 'Jean was blessed with a divine voice. She was additionally blessed with a fabulous smile and a quick wit which, along with her Scottish accent, endear her to people immediately. What is most admirable about her, however, is her backbone. A person doesn't make a life singing Scottish traditional music on the basis of charm. She has a fierce devotion to the music, as a Scot and as an artist. Everything she most deeply feels and believes in — about death and love and country and womanhood — comes out in these songs. The songs aren't pictures. They're rocks. They are the mountain itself'."
Garrison Keillor

"Redpath is something very close to Scotland's folksinger laureate and certainly the world's preeminent interpreter of Burns' songs. Her deep, sandy voice is a marvelous ballad instrument, its naturalness concealing awesome control."
The Boston Globe

"... sang the songs of Robert Burns with a tenderness and skill no living singer can match."
The Boston Globe

"Jean Redpath possesses a mezzo soprano that most classically trained art singers might envy, and there is no one who interprets the Scottish tradition more beautifully or with more affection."
The New York Times

"... is much more than a folksinger. She's also a stand-up comedienne and an ethnomusicology professor on stage. This contribution makes her one of the most vital, entertaining, and consistently interesting true folk-music performers in the English-speaking world."
Champaign-Urbana Evening News

"... To call Jean Redpath a Scottish folk singer is a bit like calling Michelangelo an Italian interior decorator."
Edinburgh Evening News

"All this chill month there has been a world-class folk festival in the west. Celtic Connections has lacked only one chief and incomparable asset: her name, Jean Redpath. Edinburgh and the east should therefore count themselves blessed indeed; for the woman whose voice uniquely and soul-upliftingly combines operatic resonance and of-the-soil rootedness flew into the Festival Theatre for a formidably fine night of homage to our greatest poet, doubling as early launch of the 1996 Burns International Festival... Chief among them all was the homecomer, Jean Redpath... . when she takes a breath, she blows, just as Burns does, beauty into the very soul."
The Scotsman

"The finest voice in Scottish song."
The Scotsman