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Hamish Henderson and Alan Lomax
It is not known where Jeannie Robertson was born but she did live at 90, Hilton Street in Aberdeen, where a plaque now commemorates her. Like many of the Scottish Travellers from Aberdeen, Glasgow and Ayrshire, she went to Blairgowrie to pick raspberries once a year. Hamish Henderson was born in Blairgowrie and tried to track down the best singers there. In 1953 he followed her reputation to her doorstep in Aberdeen. According to legend Jeannie was reluctant to let him in. She challenged him to tell her the opening line of Child ballad no 163, "The Battle of Harlaw", and he complied. In November of the same year she was staying in the London apartment of Alan Lomax. In preparation for a TV appearance, Jean Ritchie, Margaret Barry and Isla Cameron were also there. They swapped songs with each other, while the tape rolled. It is sometimes stated that she made the first recording of "The Battle of Harlaw" but this is not so. The first recording was made in 1936 by the Bothy Ballad singer Willie Kemp (for the Beltona label) and it may be from this that she learnt the song. Another of the songs she sang was "Andrew Lammie" ("Mill o' Tifty's Annie"), lasting over 13 minutes. At the end she told Alan Lomax about the parts of the story that she had not sung. Many of the 1953 recordings were issued as "The Queen Among the Heather" in 1975. They later reappeared along with other songs on a CD of the same name.
The television program was The Ballad Hunters, directed by David Attenborough, who later became director of BBC2 television. In 1958 Hamish Henderson recorded her in Edinburgh. Those recordings were issued as "Up the Dee and Doon The Don" on the Lismor label. The Traditional Music and Song Association founded the Blairgowrie Festival in 1965, during the fruit picking. The first festival saw Jeannie, plus Jimmy MacBeath and other valuable source singers, who learned folk songs without the influence of radios or books. Her 1968 appearance there was issued as part of an anthology on the Topic label. As well as classic ballads, she sang bawdy songs such as "Never Wed an Old Man". Jeannie was awarded the MBE in 1968 and died on 13 March 1975. Jeannie's most celebrated song is "I'm a man you don't meet every day", otherwise known as "Jock Stewart". It has been recorded by Archie Fisher, The Dubliners, The McCalmans, The Tannahill Weavers and The Pogues. Variants are known from the USA in the 1880s and Australia in the 1850s. It was to the 1990s what "The Wild Rover" was to the 1960s in folk clubs.
Related folk musicians
Jeannie's daughter Lizzie Higgins issued an album in 1975: Up and Awa' wi' the Laverock. Stanley Robertson, a storyteller, ballad singer and piper from Aberdeen, was Jeannie's nephew. Carmen Higgins, ex-fiddler with the Aberdeen folk band "Rock Salt and Nails", is closely related to Jeannie as well. Carmen Higgins has played with Old Blind Dogs, recorded a solo CD, and has appeared regularly on television, radio and in the press.
- Debra Kodish. Absent Gender, Silent Encounter, The Journal of American Folklore 100 (1987), 573-578, an article about the gender politics of Hamish Henderson's "discovery" of Jeannie Robertson