Jeannie Robertson was one of Scotland's most famous Traveller tradition bearers, and is widely considered to have been the finest traditional ballad singer of her generation.
Born Regina Christina Robertson in 1908, 'Jeannie' was the youngest of five children, and the only girl born to Donald Robertson and Maria Stewart. Although the family were based in Aberdeen, they were of Traveller stock on both sides, and would take to the country in the spring and summer months, where Maria's skills as a hawker and Donald's as a piper provided for the family. Tragedy struck when Donald died before Jeannie reached a year old, and Maria would later go on to remarry, with James Higgins becoming Jeannie's new stepfather.
The music, song and stories that form a core part of the Travelling lifestyle were to play a particularly profound role for Jeannie's family when both her stepfather James and all but one of her brothers were called to serve in the army at the outbreak of the First World War. Maria, who by now was running a general store in Aberdeen's Gallowgate area, was so fraught with worry for the safety of her husband and sons that singing became both a useful distraction and a way to strengthen the bonds of family during a time of great challenge.
As Caroline Macafee notes, this was one of the key learning moments for Jeannie, who would ask her mother to sing songs over and over until she could recall them fully. Maria provided careful feedback on the singing and made sure that Jeannie could also tell the story of the song as Maria did; this was just as important a part of the Traveller idiom as being able to recall and sing the song itself, as it provided a context for the song that helped convey Traveller and family history, worldviews, values and life lessons.
Maria taught Jeannie ten of her classic ballads (aka 'Child ballads') including 'Willie's Fate' (Child 255), 'The Golden Victory' (Child 286) and 'The Beggar Man' (Child 279), as well as some of her lighter songs, including 'The Gallowa Hills' and 'Oh Jeannie My Dear'. It was very important to Maria that Jeannie pass on her songs:
'My mither said t' me before she died: "Sing my songs tae everybody," she says, "I want the warld 't' hear them." ... I says, "What way am I gien t' let the warld hear them, mither? I'm askit t' sing at nae place, but the hoose here. Or maybe amang wir ain people." Funny idea, she had, an' she said, "Will ye sing my songs, min', Jeannie?" she says. An' I promised her that day. I said, "I'll sing them to the best o' my ability - whenever anybody requires t' hear them."' (from track 18111)
In her subsequent childhood years, Jeannie would hear songs from other Travellers at campsites, such as 'The Bonnie Hoose o Airlie' (Child 199), and from other children in her school playground, and would even obtain songs from print sources, including old song books her family acquired in house clearances. Later still, she absorbed the popular songs of the music hall and gramophone, providing some of her repertoire's comic songs, such as Harry Lauder's 'Stop yer tickling, Jock'.
At the age of nineteen, Jeannie defied her family to elope with Donald Higgins and was married shortly thereafter. The following year saw the birth of the couple's son, Jeemsie, with daughter Lizzie following in 1929. The family lived hand-to-mouth in the lean 1930s, though theirs was a happy household, which included Uncle Isaac Higgins; both Donald and Uncle Isaac were worthy pipers.
Jeannie was a firm believer in second sight, and herself experienced premonitions and visions from a young age. This was not always a pleasant experience, especially when it occurred shortly before the tragic death of eight-year-old Jeemsie from meningitis, which left the family devastated. Jeannie carried the grief with her for the rest of her life, and this shaped her singing. As a case in point, Jeannie's magnum opus, the classic ballad 'My Son David' (Child 13), which deals with a mother's lament for the death of one of her sons and the imminent suicide of the other, developed over decades from a jaunty-paced narrative song, to an emotive, measured rendering that left audiences both spell-bound and deeply moved.
Jeannie's life was to change forever one day in 1953, when a young Hamish Henderson arrived at her door enquiring after old songs and ballads. What happened next has become part of folk revival mythology: Hamish relates that he had been given Jeannie's name and address by another Traveller, and on knocking on her door, managed to overcome Jeannie's suspicion of his intentions by singing the opening verse of 'The Battle of Harlaw' (Child 163), after which Jeannie gladly spent the whole day singing for him indoors, saying she had to teach Hamish the right way to sing that ballad. Jeannie's telling of the event differs slightly, in that she had already had an exhausting day looking after children, and was in no mood to sing. However, she felt she could not disappoint Hamish and eventually agreed to record some songs for him. Regardless, Henderson knew at that moment that the tradition of Scottish ballad singing was not only alive, but flourishing. He regarded his 'discovery' of Jeannie Robertson as "the most important, single achievement of my life", and he consequently worked hard to bring her to wider public attention.
Only a matter of weeks after their first encounter, Hamish brought Jeannie to perform at the third People's Festival Ceilidh in Edinburgh (track 26555), where she appeared alongside Jimmy MacBeath and Annie Arnott, among others. In November the same year, Jeannie travelled to London to be recorded by the renowned American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Hamish himself embarked on a decades-long collaboration with Jeannie and her family, documenting her life, her singing and stories, and much besides, for the School of Scottish Studies. As a result, Jeannie, whom Lomax regarded as "a monumental figure in twentieth-century folksong" has over 500 tracks on Tobar an Dualchais, including many recorded by several other members of staff and students from the School.
The burgeoning folk revival of the 1950s, in which Jeannie became a central figure, saw record labels become increasingly interested in releasing commercial recordings of folk music. In 1954, the American jazz label Riverside released a dozen tracks of Jeannie singing, 'Songs of a Scots Tinker Lady', as part of its folklore series, a co-production between Hamish Henderson and American folklorist, Kenneth Goldstein. Jeannie would go on to make many more singles, EPs, and albums for HMV, Collector Records, Topic Records, and Prestige Records during her lifetime, usually unaccompanied.
In addition to her public performances at folk clubs and festivals, and on television and radio, Jeannie played a key role in fostering young singers and folk music scholars, welcoming them to her home in Aberdeen. Some of these young folk, including Ray Fisher, Andy Hunter, and Jean Redpath, spent so much time at Jeannie's home, that they effectively became part of the household; Andy Hunter relates:
'Jeannie's house was a ceilidh house, a house where one was sure to find music, entertainment and hospitality. Young people were especially welcome and many of my contemporaries shared with me the pleasure which was so generously given […].'
Just as important was Jeannie's imparting of the family tradition of singing and storytelling to her daughter Lizzie Higgins and her nephew Stanley Robertson. While Lizzie remained somewhat timid during Jeannie's lifetime with regard to her own singing, she would thereafter emerge as a confident and interesting tradition bearer in her own right, merging her mother's songs with her father's piping-style to create a unique voice. Stanley would also become an important tradition bearer, particularly with regard to traditional tales, and even became the Key Worker for a Traveller project at the University of Aberdeen.
Jeannie made history in 1968, becoming the first folksinger - and first Traveller - to be awarded an MBE for her services to folk music. She continued to perform for a number of years until ill health eventually took its toll, and she passed away three years after her husband Donald, in 1975. Andy Hunter was with the family the night she died, and later remarked:
'She knew she was dying. […] Yet on her death bed she was talking about getting more songs on tape and recorded for posterity. She was absolutely committed to the world of poetry and song.'
Jeannie left an incredible legacy of song and story, and new generations of listeners, scholars, singers and storytellers continue to enjoy and learn from her recordings.
References and Further Reading:
Gower, Herschel, 'Analyzing the Revival: The Influence of Jeannie Robertson', in 'The Ballad Image: Essays Presented to Bertrand Harris Bronson', ed. by James Porter (Los Angeles: Center for the Study of Comparative Mythology, University of California, 1983), pp. 131-47.
⸻, 'Jeannie Robertson: Portrait of a Traditional Singer', in 'Scottish Studies' 12 (1968), 113-26.
⸻, and James Porter, 'Jeannie Robertson: Emergent Singer, Transformative Voice' (East Linton: Tuckwell, 1995) pp.3, 80, 88, 93, 275.
Henderson, Hamish, 'Jeannie Robertson as a Storyteller', in 'Tocher' 6 (1972), 169-78.
⸻, 'Jeannie Robertson Talking', in 'Tocher' 32/33 (1979), 113-21, 196-201.
Hunter, Andrew, 'Editor's Introduction, in 'The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection', Volume 4, eds. Patrick Shuldham-Shaw, Emily B. Lyle and Andrew R. Hunter (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1990), xvii-xviii.
Long, Eleanor R., and John D. Niles, 'Context and Loss in Scottish Ballad Tradition', in 'Western Folklore, Vol. 45, No. 2, The Ballad in Context: Paradigms of Meaning' (April 1986), pp. 83-109.
Kodish, Debora, 'Absent Gender, Silent Encounter', in 'Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 100, No. 398, Folklore and Feminism' (October-December 1987), 573-578.
Macafee, Caroline, 'Scots Folk Singers and their Sources' (Leiden: Brill, 2021), pp. 54-55, 73.
Means, Andrew, and Sara Gray Means, 'Jeannie Robertson: More Than a Myth', in 'Sing Out!' 24 (3) (1975), 22-23, 27.
Munro, Ailie, 'Jeannie Robertson, 1908-1975', in 'Folk Music Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, Music of the Travelling People' (1975), 93-94.
Neat, Timothy, 'Hamish Henderson: A Biography, Volume 2: Poetry Becomes People' (1952-2002) (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2009), p.16.
Porter, James, 'Jeannie Robertson's My Son David: A Conceptual Performance Model', in 'Journal of American Folklore', Vol. 89, No. 351 (January-March 1976), 7-26.