Elizabeth Stewart, a folk singer, pianist, and composer who contributed to the musical heritage of her family and the Scottish Traveler culture through her recordings, performances, and musicology, passed away on October 13 in the Scottish community of Kemnay, close to Aberdeen. She was 83.
She belonged to a Scottish Traveller musical family that contributed to the national folk revival and impacted its American counterpart.
The death was confirmed by Thomas A. McKean, head of the University of Aberdeen’s Elphinstone Institute, a center for the study of folklore and ethnology. No reason was given.
The extended family of Ms. Stewart belongs to the Travellers, a community with a unique culture and history, and they are connected with the Aberdeenshire village of Fetterangus. Although many Travelers lead nomadic lives, the Stewart family was a “settled” Traveler family with a secondhand goods shop in 1954 when Scottish folklorist Hamish Henderson visited and started recording the family’s extensive musical history.
He noted Elizabeth’s aunt Lucy Stewart, and soon after that Charles Joyner and Kenneth S. Goldstein, two American folklorists made the same journey. Although Mr. Goldstein published an album in 1961 with Lucy Stewart singing a number of the classic songs referred to as Child ballads, she rarely gave performances for paying audiences or made any other kind of self-promotional efforts.
Elizabeth Stewart was left to carry on the family’s musical history by singing the old hymns about love, ghosts, war, and adversity that she had grown up listening to.
“Elizabeth was a peerless singer, pianist, storyteller, teacher, dealer, and raconteur, as well as a unique player of Scottish traditional music on the piano,” Dr. McKean said by email.
“Behind her,” he added, “she had centuries of folk music tradition: the songs and ballads carried so well by Traveller communities across Scotland and further afield, the dance music and piping traditions of reels, strathspeys, jigs, and marches.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, she participated in the Scottish folk music revival by performing in hotels, dance halls, and later, folk festivals. The Stewarts and other artists from northeast Scotland influenced North American music at the same time as the United States was going through its own folk revival.
Elizabeth Stewart’s early life and family.
She was one of four children born in a “settled” traveler family in 1939 in a croft on “the Dukker” — Duke Street in Fetterangus. The women in particular were strong personalities and important tradition-bearers. While everyone in the family was steeped in balladry and lore, her aunt Lucy Stewart had a particularly rich store of it. Her mother, Jean Stewart, was a trained musician, a teacher, and a well-known accordionist and dance band leader in Aberdeenshire.
A male lineage of distinguished military pipers, some of whom died in the First World War, was also included in this musical genealogy.
Her grandmother “Auld Betty” Stewart, her husband Jimmy Stewart, and his father “Auld Crichie” Donald, all distinguished pipers and fiddlers, stood behind them all. With the help of rag-gathering and hawking, Betty raised a family of 14 while paying for music tuition.