This week’s Free Ride* muses on the songs of Jean Redpath, the prolific purveyor of traditional Scottish music, who turns 75 today. With over 20 albums to her credit, recorded from the early 60s to the present, and with continuing appearances on radio shows such as Prairie Home Companion and television shows such as Late Night With David Letterman, her voice has become synonymous with the music of her native Scotland. It’s fun to listen to her sing, and read the lyrics, and wonder what in the world the song is talking about at times. While they speak English there in the old country, the vocabulary and pronunciations and accents are far different than what we speak in America. I think I get this one, though, one of the examples of her contributions to the freedom songbook, The Land o’ the Leal. It’s sung from the point of view of a dying woman to her sorrowful lover:
So dry that tearful ee, John,
My soul langs tae be free, John
And angels beckon me, John
tae the Land o’ the Leal
So fare-thee-weel my ain Jean,
This world’s care is vain, Jean
We’ll meet and aye be fain,
tae the Land o’ the Leal
One of Redpath’s major lifeworks was to record the songs of fellow Scot Robert “Rabbie” Burns, who wrote lyrics for some 323 songs in addition to his treasure trove of poems. This project gave us many contributions to the songbook of freedom, as Rabbie Burns gave voice as much as anyone to the independent spirit and drive for freedom among the Scottish people. Redpath was inspired by American musicologist and Burns scholar Serge Hovey, and together they had planned to record all 323 of the songs. The project came to a premature halt when Hovey died after a long illness, but not before they got roughtly 1/4 of the way through, with 7 CDs of Burns songs. There’s a really fine documentary of their collaboration, Tree of Liberty, that gives you a good sense of Redpath’s deep respect for Hovey’s brilliance and his courage in battling through his disease. Here are a couple of examples of the songs they recorded, with lyrics that give expression to the spirit of freedom. The first (covered here by the McCalmans) speaks to the love of a weaver that stole the freedom from a young lass’ heart:
The second, one of the many political references in Burns’ work, is a lament to Mary, Queen of Scots. You might want to have your Burns Country glossary at hand to decipher some of the lyrics:
Now laverocks wake the merry morn
Aloft on dewy wing;
The merle, in his noontide bow’r,
Makes woodland echoes ring;
The mavis wild wi’ mony a note,
Sings drowsy day to rest:
In love and freedom they rejoice,
Wi’ care nor thrall opprest.
Now blooms the lily by the bank,
The primrose down the brae;
The hawthorn’s budding in the glen,
And milk-white is the slae:
The meanest hind in fair Scotland
May rove their sweets amang;
But I, the Queen of a’ Scotland,
Maun lie in prison strang.
I was the Queen o’ bonie France,
Where happy I hae been;
Fu’ lightly raise I in the morn,
As blythe lay down at e’en:
And I’m the sov’reign of Scotland,
And mony a traitor there;
Yet here I lie in foreign bands,
And never-ending care.
O! soon, to me, may Summer suns
Nae mair light up the morn!
Nae mair to me the Autumn winds
Wave o’er the yellow corn?
And, in the narrow house of death,
Let Winter round me rave;
And the next flow’rs that deck the Spring,
Bloom on my peaceful grave!
May there be many more years of spring flowers and summer sun and autumn winds for Jean Redpath to enjoy, and may we have many more years to enjoy this quintessential voice of Scotland singing us to freedom.