Friday, October 28, 2011

Part Two: The story of William MacEwan / McEwan of Glasgow (1871 - 1943) the 'World's Sweetest Gospel Singer'


Introduction: The story below has been assembled from a variety of online sources - newspapers, censuses, marriage certificates and ships passenger lists. If any readers know of errors here I would be pleased to hear from you. This is one of a series of posts to coincide with the 100th anniversary of William McEwan's first recording session in London in November 1911.


PART TWO: His first trip to America, Fame and Marriage

In June 1889, a 17 year old millworker called William McEwan, travelling alone and carrying just one bag, boarded the SS Nestorian in Glasgow. The ship stopped at Moville in Donegal, and Galway, before heading across the Atlantic, arriving in Boston on 18 June. He headed to Lawrence, New Jersey, a town of 100,000 people, half of whom were described in 1890 as ‘foreign born’.

The ‘Keith - Proctor Circuit’ was a coming together of two great American entertainment promoters. Benjamin Franklin Keith and Frederick Freeman Proctor owned a chain of highly popular all-day theatres in the booming immigrant cities of Boston, Philadelphia, Newark and New York. McEwan signed up with them and sang in theatres all along the eastern coast states.

[The renowned Irish traditional fiddle player Michael Coleman (1891-1945) also played for the Keith circuit between 1914 and 1917. Coleman recorded around 80 78rpm records in the USA from 1921-1936, which were sent back home to Ireland and had a phenomenal effect in reviving Irish traditional music. Coleman is described on a memorial near his birthplace in Sligo as the ‘Saviour of Irish traditional music’ whose legacy is still revered today. Samples of his music are available here.]

William McEwan returned to Scotland and on 26 December 1890 was married at Chalmers Street Hall in Calton, Glasgow. His bride was Jeanie Robinson, a handkerchief hemmer; they were both aged 19. Jeanie’s parents were Joseph Robinson (deceased) and Jeanie Robinson (maiden name Scott). The wedding was conducted by Rev James Gage, Minister of Great Hamilton Street Free Church and the newlyweds settled into married life at 88 Brook Street, Glasgow.

The Scottish Census of 1891 gives the McEwans’ address as being 171 Wolseley Street, Govan, Glasgow, and state that William was a handmill warper. However, the draw of higher pay on the stages of America was strong and soon William and Jeanie sailed for America. The passenger list of another voyage of the SS Nestorian (sailing from Glasgow and arriving in Boston on 22 October 1891) includes a William McEwan, a millhand aged 20 who had been to the USA before. As time went by, the McEwans, now settled in America, had their first child - a daughter, who they named Jeanie after her mother and maternal grandmother, was born in Massachusetts around late 1892.

William certainly made more money in America, but the life of a professional entertainer brought him under other influences too:

“…(William McEwan) came to America when a young man, did a little concert work and returned to his native land where he found his sweetheart, as he put it. He was married and returned to America where he engaged in light opera and vaudeville work because it offered more lucrative wages.

McEwan said life ‘on the road’ was hardly conducive to Christianity. He declared people on the stage got together each Sunday and sang ‘Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight
[which was written by Robert Lowry, who was born in Pennsylvania of Ulster parents] and thought they were right with God until next Sunday. That’s all the religion, he declared, that is to be found among stage folks.

While on the stage, the chorister said, he learned to drink. Although he was never a drunkard, he said, he had been under the influence of drink. His wife traveled with him continually and after their first child was born, Mrs McEwan had a desire to return home. McEwan said he took her to New York and put her on a steamship. His desire was so great to return that he could not overcome it, and the next day he left on a boat sailing from Boston, arriving home a day after his wife…”

So whether it was just homesickness, or perhaps a young wife and mother struggling to cope with her husband’s lifestyle, Jeanie headed back to Scotland, taking their only child with her. The passenger records for the SS Circassia, sailing from New York to Glasgow, include a Mrs J McEwan aged 22 and Jeanie McEwan aged 17 months. They set foot on Scottish soil on 26 April 1894.

William followed them the next day. Now a married man with responsibilities, and back home in Scotland, William McEwan took a job as an insurance agent. They had another child, this time a son who they named William, born around 1899. The 1901 Scotland Census records that William and Jeanie McEwan, both aged 29, were living at 59 Landressy St, Greenhead, Glasgow, with their daughter Jeanie, aged 8, and their son William Jr., aged 2. And around 1902 a second daughter, Mary, was born.

McEwan's teenage years as a 'wandering boy', sailing twice from Glasgow to America and back again, may have seemed like the last and only opportunity he would have to become a world famous singer. Yet music was never far away, and William carried on singing on the stages of Scotland...

...but the biggest change in William McEwan’s life was yet to come.