Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Robert Burns Lives!
Jean Redpath, A Memory By Kirsteen McCue

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

Sadly singer Jean Redpath has passed away. I knew Jean for only a short while, like a wisp of wind blowing refreshingly through the night. I met her at one of Ross Roy’s conferences on Robert Burns in Columbia, SC a few years ago, and as I sat during her concert that evening listening to the beautiful renditions of several of Burns’ songs, I marvelled at how calmly she explained the songs before singing them. I had learned from listening to her CDs just how wonderfully she sang, and even had some friends tell me to prepare for a masterpiece. They were correct. She thrilled those in the attendance and before we knew it, the concert had concluded and we all headed to our hotels or Starbucks for coffee. Susan and I met up with Debbielee Landi and her friend Ryan, both from Furman University, who had driven down from Greenville to hear Jean’s performance. We had a fabulous time discussing the concert over dessert. Fun evenings come too infrequently, but this will always be one for the ages! 

I mourn with her friends on their loss and remember the many times her name came up during conversations I had with Ross Roy over the years. They both received honorary degrees from the University of Glasgow the same year and were great friends. I’ll always be grateful to Ross for introducing Susan and me to Jean.  It is with pleasure that we welcome Kirsteen McCue to the pages of Robert Burns Lives! to better describe Jean Redpath to all of us. (8.4.14)

Jean Redpath, A Memory
By Kirsteen McCue 

It is with great personal sadness and also with a certain warmth that I offer the enclosed memory of the great singer Jean Redpath, who died last week. I first knew of Jean when I was a child, as my father, the singer Bill McCue, was often ‘billed’ with her in performance. But it was as a grown-up and through my work with Glasgow University’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies that I first really got to know her, and that’s only within the last few years. 

The key link for me was in 2008 when I had begun working on a chapter for a book that turned out to be called Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture (edited by Sharon Alker, Leith Davis and Holly Faith Nelson for Ashgate). One of the conferences, symposia and other Burns-related events in 2009 was a major coming together of scholars from the UK, Europe and ‘across the water’, hosted by Professor Leith Davis at her Centre for Scottish Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.  In April 2009 a whole group of Scots headed over there to join with scholars from North America to give position or discussion papers on research topics that viewed Burns’s relationship with the Americas in a new light. My topic was to revisit those fascinating song settings created from around 1952 until the mid-1970s by American composer Serge Hovey. As a consequence, I had to spend ‘academic’ time getting to know Jean and her work, for she had made the only extant recordings of these settings.  We had a frank email exchange that heavily influenced my own ideas about the project and which were instrumental in the writing of my chapter for this book.

This all led to an unforgettable time with her, when she was at home in Scotland at her very lovely house right on the sea wall at Ely in Fife. Indeed the day I first went to meet her there was one of those really stormy affairs, when the sea spray came across the wall in front of the cottage, and when the sky didn’t have time to decide whether to be cloudy or clear, as the wind was so strong. There were spectacular rainbows at times when the sun broke through. I am someone who has spent more of my life on the west coast, but that day I could see why folks love the east so much, and Jean’s own connection with this part of the world was clearly very strong indeed.

She greeted me so warmly, welcoming me into her house and showing me around, and reminiscing of singing with my Dad and of her very happy working days with Donald Low at Stirling University. Donald was my first ‘boss’ when I finished by PhD and came to work at Stirling as a Research Fellow in the University’s Centre for Scottish Literature and Culture, and he and his wife Sheona were pivotal people in my own life. Jean brewed some tea and we chatted fondly of both of them and of happy times at their home in Bridge of Allan. I was full of questions about Jean’s work on the ‘Scots Musical Museum’ project, which had happened directly because of Donald’s own passion for Burns’s songs and his love of Jean’s voice. Donald’s was to be the first facsimile edition of the Museum since it had appeared in a mid-nineteenth century edition, and his work was a real stepping-stone on the way to the new Oxford Burns edition that we’re now working on in Glasgow. Jean recounted how that project got going, and told me about the time they spent working through these original songs and making the recordings of them for Scottish Records. This was often done with a tape recorder in the front room, and was frequently interrupted by barking dogs!

But she was concerned about the safe-keeping of all of her materials – the books, music, cassette tapes of all the original tunes from the Museum which she’d accumulated to enable her to best perform this material. Even more notably, she was also worried about what on earth she should do with all the boxes of materials connected to the Hovey project. We chatted much about this, and spent several hours looking at the materials and at other books and music collections she owned, and talking about what we both thought about major scholarship on Scots songs and how this influenced the singing of the songs themselves.

Jean had spoken of her special relationship with Serge Hovey warmly, but also with characteristic sharpness in various published interviews across the years and in Tim Neat’s moving documentary about Hovey’s illness and the creative relationship he had forged both with Burns and also with Redpath. The bringing together of a traditional singer, whose introduction to Burns had been slight and was all based on unaccompanied songs sung by her mother in Fife, with the musical settings of a man contemporary with Leonard Bernstein, and whose musical trajectory was so very different from her own, still raises eyebrows. As she had noted earlier in an email to me, she only ever had two responses to her Hovey-Burns work: either ‘Best thing you’ve ever done’ or ‘What did you do THAT for?’ There is no doubt that nearly 30 years after they started making recordings of the songs Hovey’s work divides most Burnsians in this way. But it was clear to me, as we chatted, that part of the unique quality about this project had to do with Jean’s own enquiring mind. She was genuinely interested in how Hovey worked, in what a composer ‘thought’ and how he achieved his own artistic targets. And she was keen to see in what ways this newly acquired knowledge would make itself apparent in her own singing. Many of the songs, she confessed to me, were learned purely for the project and, even unaccompanied, some she didn’t ever wish to perform again – a notable comment on the range of Burns’s song-writing, where the best are fabulous, but where there are a few that are best forgotten! But working closely with Serge, she said elsewhere, was a great artistic adventure and the fact that she was willing to overcome the difficulties of his illness, where communication was painfully slow and not always direct, speaks of their tremendous respect for one another as musical creator and performer.

In 2009 we were delighted when the University of Glasgow agreed to confer an Honorary Doctor of Music on Jean Redpath, along with an Honorary Doctor of Letters on Professor G. Ross Roy, great champion of Burns and of Scottish Literature more widely. Both knew one another well and were great pals, and both came to Glasgow on a beautifully sunny June day to receive their degrees in the splendour of Glasgow’s Bute Hall at the University’s Commemoration Day. Jean did not perform there, aside from gallantly receiving her degree, but the University’s Chapel Choir did perform some Burns, including a gorgeous setting of ‘Red Rose’ by Katy Cooper, and this received an appreciative nod from Jean as she listened. It was a really wonderful day; a fitting event for that auspicious Burns year for us at the Centre for Robert Burns Studies. And afterwards, at a lunch hosted by the University’s Chancellor Sir Ken Calman, Jean did perform to the guests – off the cuff – relaxed and sweet-toned.

Mine is really a very personal memory – the enclosed ‘oration’ given by Professor Marjorie Rycroft at the Degree Ceremony that memorable June day gives a more detailed biography of Jean, and her own website (which she also chatted lots about that day in Fife) gives even more detail at

I am indebted to Jean for sharing her thoughts and the wisdom of a lifetime of singing our nation’s songs with me. I’m sorry I didn’t get the opportunity to spend more time with her.

Kirsteen McCue, Co-Director, Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow –


Commemoration Day

17 June 2009


Jean Redpath was born in Edinburgh and brought up in Fife, where from an early age her musical talent was nurtured by her parents, both of whom were keen folk musicians. She learnt her first songs from her mother, and by the age of 10 was already making a name for herself as a folk and ballad singer. Since these early days Jean, who has never received any formal musical education, has continued to learn her folkmusic by ear.

On leaving Buckhaven High School she went to Edinburgh University to read Medieval History and English. Folk music continued to play a big part in her life, however, and she made good use of the university’s School of Scottish Studies with its rich collection of recordings of instrumental music, Gaelic and Scots songs, poetry and folk tales. It was there that she met her ‘guru’ and mentor, Hamish Henderson, co-founder of the School and pre-eminent folklorist of the day. Inspired and encouraged by him, Jean began to explore new repertoire that helped forge her career.

In 1961 she headed for the States, arriving with only 11 dollars in her pocket. Life was tough, but, as she recalls, after several weeks ‘living on peanut butter and jelly’, she had a lucky break. By chance she found herself singing at a hootenanny in Greenwich Village, in the company of Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and others. This brought her to the attention of promoters and she was invited to sing at Gerde’s Folk City, receiving a rave review in the New York Times for her ‘clear, rich, beautiful mezzo-soprano’ voice. Her career was launched. She was soon to be found on the American folk music circuit appearing with Joan Baez, Mike and Pete Seeger, Bill Munroe and the Bluegrass Boys to name but a few.

A decade later Jean embarked on two ground-breaking Burns projects – one in the States, the other in Scotland. In 1972 Serge Hovey, American composer/arranger and pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, contacted her on the recommendation of Hamish Henderson and invited her to record some of his arrangements of Burns songs. It was to be the start of a 20-year project. Some have expressed surprise that she agreed to undertake such a project, for Hovey’s musical style and harmonic language are very different from those of the folk songs with which she was familiar. And indeed for Jean, who claims not to read music, it must have been a real challenge. Nothing daunted, however, she rose to the task, learning her notes aurally from specially pre-recorded piano tapes. A total of 7 LPs were produced, all to great critical acclaim.

At about the same time she embarked on her second Burns project with Donald Low of Stirling University – recording the songs in the Scots Musical Museum. This, Chancellor, was a project with which she felt much more at home. As she herself has said: ‘The Hovey project was like learning a foreign language for me, the Scots Musical Museum project was one I already spoke.’

Jean has a bubbly personality with an infectious sense of humour. Her enthusiasm for the folk music of her native land is apparent to all who come in contact with her. An inspired teacher she has held posts as artist-in-residence at Wesleyan University, Connecticut and at Stirling University. Without doubt she is one of the pioneering figures in Scottish folk music. Mention her name and another springs immediately to mind – that of Robert Burns. It is therefore most appropriate, that in 2009, the anniversary of Burns’s birth and Scotland’s Year of Homecoming, that the University should honour ‘the world’s pre-eminent interpreter of the songs of Robert Burns’.

It is with great pleasure, Chancellor, that I invite you to confer the honorary degree of Doctor of Music on Jean Redpath.

A collection of videos of her singing is available on YouTube at

Return to Robert Burns Lives! Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus