Star turn

July 23, 1999

Students sing the praises of a woman who is passing on the heritage of Scottish folk songs. Olga Wojtas listens in Learning has probably never been more congenial for the students attending Stirling University's summer school on Scottish singing. Their lecture theatre is a wood-panelled room in the 18th-century Airthrey Castle, among the lush Stirlingshire hills, filled with the glorious voice of Jean Redpath.

An article about Redpath said that to call her a Scottish folk singer was a bit like calling Michelangelo an Italian interior decorator. Edinburgh-born, now US-based, and an a cappella pioneer of the 1960s folk revival, she has introduced audiences worldwide to Scotland's oral tradition, ranging from traditional ballads and the songs of Burns to children's rhymes and contemporary material.

The course requires no singing experience: Redpath says that if someone can talk, they can sing. "Don't expect me to teach you how to sing. I know nothing about voice production, but I know many songs. There are songs that are going to grab you and many that won't. If everybody leaves with two or three songs about which they're genuinely excited, this has been a roaring success."

There is no such thing as getting it wrong, she insists. She gives the students permission to stop and start, change key, and generally reconstruct the songs to suit themselves.

"One of the great freedoms of unaccompanied singing is that you reproduce it where it is comfortable for you. Thank God I didn't get seduced into classical singing - there is a key and a shape to every aria, and you cannae say to the conductor, 'I had a heavy weekend, can you drop it about an octave?'"

As a student at Edinburgh University, Redpath was inspired by its school of Scottish studies, which has a unique archive of Scottish music. She has a deep understanding of her songs' backgrounds and has worked as a lecturer in folklore as well as an artist in residence, but she wears her learning lightly.

"I lay no great claims to scholarship and research. I've done a lot of digging for my own interest. What I do, I do because I want to and because I love it."

Every song comes with a fascinating gloss. A ballad sparks a digression on a centuries-old terror of referring to the devil by name. This ran the risk of summoning him, but if you suspected he was already there, confronting him by name would exorcise him. "It's a game of spiritual Russian roulette."

Redpath outlines the transatlantic travels of a question-and-answer ballad, originally a departing husband asking his pregnant wife who will fend for her during his seven-year absence. It has evolved into a Texan-style waltz, "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?", in which the female concludes: "I don't need no man". "Very unballad-like, that. That wasn't in the thinking at all."

Scotland has no language of affection or passion, Redpath claims. "It all goes into the music. If there is something you don't know how to express, you sing it," she says.

"Forty-nine out of 50 love songs in the tradition are unrequited. I suppose if love's requited there's a lot you can do with your time and energy that doesn't involve singing."

Susan Christie Woodward, an American singer, says she has come to extend her repertoire because of keen US interest in Scottish music. But two of the local students guiltily confess that this is their first experience of singing songs from their native land.

Lesley Abernethy, a primary school music teacher, is determined to prevent such ignorance in her pupils. "I want to sing and know more about the songs because the children should have some of this heritage. It's wonderful because Jean's so knowledgeable about everything, she's so steeped in the tradition. It's all just pouring out of her."

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