Jeannie Robertson

Emergent Singer, Transformative Voice

  • Author(s): Porter, James, and Herschel Gower
  • Series:
  • Imprint: Univ Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 1995-12-15
  • Status: Active
  • Available in Hardcover - Cloth: Price $48.00 | Buy Now

Publications of the American Folklore Society, New Series

Combining biography, folklore, oral history, and ethnomusicology, this book explores the life and repertoire of the Scottish traditional singer Jeannie Robertson (1908–1975)—an artist whom Alan Lomax hailed as “a monumental figure in twentieth-century folksong.”

Utilizing numerous quotations from Robertson’s own oral accounts of her life, James Porter and Herschel Gower trace her career as a member of the marginal nomadic group in Northeast Scotland known as “travellers,” whose origin is obscure. They explain the importance of traditional song in Robertson’s family and community and include eighty of her songs, complete with musical notation.

The book is grounded in the notion of “transformation,” as it shows how a practitioner from an oral tradition adapts to the modern world. In this process, the authors contend, the song is transformed by the singer and the singer by the song—which in turn profoundly affects the audience, the performance, and the social structure of the performer/audience relationship. Building on recent works in performance theory, the authors demonstrate how Jeannie Robertson, as a leading exponent of the traveler culture, revised the folksong tradition with each new performance. In the end, the book not only brings one singer’s work into sharp focus, but it carries broad implications for the study of traditional music and those who perform it.

The Authors: James Porter is chairman of the Department of Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Traditional Music of Britain and Ireland: A Research and Information Guide and numerous scholarly articles on folksong and traditional music.

Herschel Gower is professor emeritus of English at Vanderbilt University. He is a recognized biographer, historian, literary critic, and editor of The Hawk’s Done Gone and Other Stories by Mildred Haun.