Back in 1986, Jean recorded the album “Songs of Lady Nairne” in
the USA, on the Philo label of Rounder records. But the album was never
easily obtainable here in the UK. However, now Greentrax Records have
put matters right by licensing it from Rounder Records USA and
releasing it here in the UK, not just with a new title, but also with
re-designed artwork by John Slavin that includes wonderfully legible
liner notes which commendably have black type on a plain white
background (and golly, you perhaps don't know how rare this is
These liner notes include incidentally, a very helpful glossary for Sassenachs.
So, I hear some of you ask, who was Lady Nairne?
Well, Carolina Oliphant, the Baroness Nairne (1766-1845), is responsible for a surprising amount of material which is still in the popular repertoire in Scotland. An incredibly prolific, talented and melodic writer, she went to great lengths to remain anonymous during her lifetime and has had little acclaim in the last 150 years for so many well-loved songs. Jean's intention with this album was “to see her get credit for such staples as The Rowan Tree and Will Ye No Come Back Again”.
A laudable intention. Certainly, the name Lady Nairne was one I had heard often down the years, but had you asked me to name her compositions, I confess to probably being reduced to a floundering stutter. So I am in Ms Redpath's debt for this knowledge. And songs like The Auld House, Caller Herrin' and the two Jean just mentioned, now have their rightful origin in my mind, instead of me still thinking of them as “trad”!
But, more than the new knowledge, I am in an even greater debt to Jean for this album. It is a delight from start to finish. Her accompanists (the cello of Abby Newton and the fiddle of David Gusakov) provide real musical gravitas: but in truth, there is nothing more musical on this CD than the glorious mezzo-soprano voice of Jean Redpath herself. Has there been a better female voice since the advent of the Folk Revival?
I ask the question with genuine puzzlement, since, Folk megastar in Scotland though she is close to being, here in England where I live, it is a different situation. Jean has never had the kudos here that the great English Folk divas have had: I mean Mesdames Tabor, Denny, Collins, Prior and Rusby. Could it be her many years spent in the USA is a factor?
Perhaps. But golly, push me hard and I will still be unable to come up with a better voice. It has such warmth in it. And here she is on the top of her game.
The album kicks off with The Auld House. From the first bar, the Newton cello tugs at the heartstrings as the singer takes us on a trip down memory lane. Then, with Strathearn, she goes a cappella to show that she has no superior in this department.
The album though reaches high water mark between tracks 6 and 9. The magnificent Will Ye No Come Back Again? has me reaching for superlatives. It is enough to make me a paid-up member of the Bonnie Prince Charlie fan club. (Not for nothing was Lady Nairne – born 21 years after the 1745 Jacobite uprising - christened Carolina! It is of course the female form of Charles.) Jean sings this song like she - rather than her ladyship - wrote it: really makes it her own. Then The Lass O' Gowrie sees David Gusakov's fiddle come to the fore on this apparent foot-tapper which masks a heavyweight lyric.
Then The Rowan Tree, and track 9, Caller Herrin', admirably show two different sides of Carolina's love: the first, her love of the countryside; the second, her compassion for those less lucky, who toil in dangerous conditions to put fish on the gentry's table.
Toward the end, a couple of the songs seem a little lightweight, but hey that is a minor problem. Above it all, triumphs the great soaring voice of Ms Redpath: over 20 years since she was granted an MBE, but long overdue for a damehood.
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