Friday, November 11, 2011

Part Four: 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 FOUR: Stardom in America, a Lucrative Offer Rejected and two Wartime bereavements

Some have said that William McEwan was ‘the world’s first gospel singer on record’. However there were a few others around the same era. Ira D Sankey (1840-1908) was of Scotch-Irish descent and was a pioneer ‘musical director’ in large-scale evangelism. He had recorded a series of cylinders (the technology which predated records) in the mid 1890s. You can listen to one of them here on

As far as records are concerned, William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, made four preaching records, with no singing or music, for Columbia in 1907.

English Evangelist Rodney “Gipsy” Smith recorded 13 hymns for Columbia Records around the same time as (and perhaps slightly earlier than) William McEwan - the two men were marketed together in Columbia’s sales catalogues. In America, Homer Rodeheaver made his first gospel records for the Victor label in 1913. Smith, Rodeheaver and McEwan would work together in evangelistic missions in the USA during their careers. So it might be fairer to say that all three – the Englishman Smith, the Scot McEwan, later followed by the American Rodeheaver – were the three pioneers of recorded popular gospel song.

With 24 records now under his belt, William, Jeanie and the three children returned to the USA where a fourth child, Charles Parker McEwan, was born in New York on 11 February 1912. The family returned to Scotland before the summer, onboard the SS California which sailed from New York to Glasgow via Londonderry – just 2 months after the sinking of RMS Titanic - arriving on 24 June 1912. William’s stay in Scotland was short - the passenger list for the SS Arabic included a 40 year old singer called William McEwan – she sailed from Liverpool to Boston, arriving on 13 August 1912.

America once again
While he waited for the family to arrive, Autumn 1912 saw William back in at the deep end of evangelistic missions. Homer Rodeheaver had been the musical director for Presbyterian evangelist Rev William E. Biederwolf of Indiana, but he had recently moved on to team up with the renowned Billy Sunday. (an obituary for Rodeheaver summarised their partnership as follows: “…they formed the most famous revival team of the century. They were destined to preach and sing to countless millions, win converts by the hundreds of thousands, to battle the liquor traffic until their very names struck terror into the hearts of brewers and distillers, to stir the nation to a spiritual quickening that packed the churches, purged cities of corruption, enthroned Christ in unnumbered thousands of homes across the nation. It was always a team of these two consecrated men, who complemented each other, both spectacular in performance, humble in spirit, both passionately in love with evangelism...” The same obituary described Rodeheaver’s childhood as “…boyhood days spent in the hills of Tennessee where he learned to play the guitar and banjo…”. He was reared in Newcomb, Campbell County, Tennessee, in the mountains close to the Kentucky state line. It seems to me that, despite his surname, Rodeheaver was culturally Scotch-Irish!)

William McEwan filled Rodeheaver’s shoes in the Biederwolf campaigns and introduced a new element to the meetings, where he would sing along with his own records. The newspaper The Daily Republican, of Rushville in Indiana, gave this account on 30 October 1912 in an article entitled ‘M’Ewan Tells His Life Story’:

“…The program was opened with ‘All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name’ by the choir. After a prayer by the Rev W. A. Wylie and the scripture reading by the Rev A.W. Jamieson, the choir sang ‘All Hail Immanuel’. McEwan sang ‘God Will Take Care of You’ and then ‘Shadows’ both of which were loudly applauded. The duet which McEwan sang with himself was the big hit of the evening. He sang with a record of his own voice on a Victrola, and the similarity between the two was very noticeable. After the choir sang again, McEwan played ‘My Ain Countree’ on the Victrola, and the resemblance of the record to the way McEwan has sung it here was very pronounced. McEwan thanked Robert A. Innis for the use of the Victrola and George C. Wyatt & Co. for the use of some extra records he played…”

The same newspaper, just 2 days earlier, recounted a conversation where McEwan said that his family roots were in Ayrshire. His star was rising fast, and he was selected to join what became known as the National Male Quartette, alongside James Heaton, E.C. Miller and LL Kemper. On Friday 29 November 1912 the newspaper The Republican News (of Hamilton, Ohio) printed a large article about the four men, along with a group photograph. They also included a large portrait of William McEwan surrounded by a graphical frame of thistles.


The article includes this short autobiographical piece ‘A Song that Helped, by Wm McEwan’:

“…Several years ago a great spirit of disappointment came over me as in looking over my Gospel Singing career I could not possibly call to my remembrance a single person what had been won to Christ through my singing. The more I thought of it the more miserable I got, until I waited on God to give me a sign that some one had been blest through my ministry of song. The answer came in a very unexpected way. The evangelist I was with (Rev H D Sheldon) that night for some reason or another asked those who had been won for Christ in the meetings to tell what had awakened them to a consciousness of their need of a Saviour. One young man stood up and with tears in his eyes said that he was awakened through Mr McEwan’s singing of ‘He Died of a Broken Heart’. I almost felt like shouting for joy when I realised that I had an answer to my prayer. I learned the lesson then to go on and sing with grace in my heart unto the Lord knowing that he will use the song if sung to His glory…”

Jeanie and the four children had stayed at home in Scotland since the summer, and they travelled to America to join William just before Christmas, sailing from Glasgow to New York on the SS Columbia, arriving on 18 December 1912.

"Nervous Breakdown"
However, the strain of constant travel, evangelism and fame seems to have taken its toll on William. The Binghamton Press of 18 June 1913 recorded that he had suffered what it termed a ‘nervous breakdown’:

“… M’Ewan is Greatly Improved in Health : William McEwan, choirmaster of the Dr W E Biederwolf evangelistic party, who has been on a vacation in the Adirondack Mountains for three weeks returned home on Sunday much improved in health. Mr McEwan has been suffering from a nervous breakdown and heamorrhage of the lung, brought about by the strain of constant singing…”

Just a few weeks later, he was back on stage, but this time it was to perform in a benefit concert to raise money to enable him to go back to Scotland. The Gazette and Bulletin (Williamsport, Pennsylvania) of 25 July 1913 included this article, showing that McEwan wasn't just a singer, he was an imaginative 'multi-media' communicator:

“…Sings Duet with himself – William McEwen introduces this feature in his benefit concert tonight: William McEwen the Scotch tenor who conducted the music of the recent Biederwolf campaign arrived in Williamsport yesterday morning to complete arrangements for his concert in the Airdome tonight. The Biederwolf chorus will assist. Those who have heard Mr McEwen sing his many sacred songs will be more than pleased to have this opportunity to hear him sing some of the folks songs of 'his ain countrie'.

Several of his songs will be sung with steroptican illustrations, and those who have seen Mr McEwan's slides at the rehearsals declare that they are extraordinary in beauty and in breadth of collection. Mr McEwan has brought his own operator and there can be no difficulty in showing the slides to the best advantage.

The feature of the evening will be the strikingly unique performance of hearing a man sing a duet with himself. Mr McEwen sings a duet with himself and one or two intimates in this city have heard him do it, and they take oath that it is one of the most interesting and melodious bits of singing they have ever heard. Those who recall the hit Mr McEwen made during the campaign when he told the vast crowd that his chorus was so familiar with a certain song that they could sign it backward, and straightaway had them do so, are prepared to believe that the little man has more than ordinary powers to perform astounding feats.

Some of Mr McEwen's songs will be sung with an accompaniment of humming by the chorus that is very effective. To vary the concert some of the tenor's records of his own songs sung by himself will be played on the grafanola.

The concert to be given tonight by Mr McEwen and the Biederwolf chorus is for the benefit of the singer himself, the proceeds to be used to defray his expenses to Scotland, where he hopes to regain his health. It was stated yesterday that F W Vandersloot would accompany him on the journey. W.E. Biederwolf will also be one of the party. The concert in the Airdome tonight will begin at 8 o'clock. Following is the complete program:

"Steadily Marching On" - Williamsport Chorus Choir
"Clinging" - Williamsport Chorus Choir
Solo - "My Ain Countrie" - William McEwan
"Sextette from Lucia"- Williamsport Chorus Choir
Duet - "I've Tried In Vain" - McEwan with himself
Solo illustrated - "Memories of Mother" - William McEwan
"Master the Tempest" - Williamsport Chorus Choir
"The Old and New Home" - Rev and Mrs Dorsey N Miller
"Gospel Bells" - Grafanola selections
"Some Day" - William McEwan
Solo obligato - "From Every Stormy Wind" - William McEwan and Choir
"His Word Shall Stand" - Williamsport Chorus Choir
Solo illustrated - "The Broken Heart" - William McEwan
"Lead Me Gently" - Williamsport Chorus Choir
"The Bridal Procession" - Rev and Mrs Dorsey N Miller
Solo illustrated - "I Wonder How the Old Folks are at Home" - William McEwan
"All Hail Immanuel" - Chorus Choir
"Auld Lang Syne" - William McEwan ..."

But even though William McEwan was heading back to Scotland, his voice could still be enjoyed in the USA thanks to the latest technology of the 10" 78rpm record which could be played on a 'talking machine' gramophone. The advert below offers what must have been the 1913 equivalent of an iPod and an iTunes voucher - a McEwan-endorsed Victrola and 12 songs - in a newspaper dated 14 November 1913.


#alttext#'M'Ewan's Song Evangel' is published
William recuperated and returned to America, sailing on the SS Cameronia from Glasgow on 6th September 1913 and arriving in New York on the 14th. The following year, 1914, saw William McEwan’s first publication. ‘McEwan’s Song Evangel – a Choice Selection of the very latest Gospel songs, specially adapted for solo singers, choirs, etc.’ contained 236 hymns and gospel songs. The collection, which was a music edition with full notation for every piece, was compiled by Wm McEwan and edited by E O Excell, with William Biederwolf providing a short foreword. The copy I have seen was published in Glasgow by the Scottish Bible & Book Society (R.L. Allan & Son) and in London by The London Book and Bible Saloon (Alfred Holness), with no American publisher stated.

‘McEwan’s Song Evangel’ featured hundreds of standard pieces, but also a selection which McEwan had either written or co-written. These were: The Glad New Song, Keep on Praising, To The Field, Still Wave the Gospel Flag, I Believe, He First Loved Me, My Mother’s Songs, One By One We’re Passing Over and With You Always. None of these are widely known today.

'My Mothers Songs' is no 138 in the book, and was written by McEwan as a medley of three older famous hymns - Abide With Me, Jesus Lover of My Soul, and Safe In The Arms of Jesus - connected by a sentimental narrative which was "Dedicated to Evangelist W.E. Biederwolf's Sainted Mother". It is available to listen here, courtesy of

For the Gospel, not the Money: McEwan turns down $350 and accepts $20
The family continued to expand - Clayton Edward McEwan was born in New York on on 23rd October 1914. And William’s audiences expanded too. His talent and popularity had not gone unnoticed in the secular entertainment world. Big-money offers came in. The Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton, Illinois) of 1 Feb 1915 reported that William Sauvage, the owner of three theatres in Alton, had publicly offered the National Male Quartette residency in his Hippodrome theatre for a fee of $350 per week (this roughly equates to $8000 / £5000 a week in today’s money!!) and that William McEwan had been made an additional ‘special offer’ of an unspecified amount. McEwan turned it down flat:

"...Sauvage would hire male quartette; makes good proposition to members which has not been accepted... the members of the party do all their vocal work in connection with evangelistic meetings. Their voices are of high quality and their work as singers is such as would command very high prices if they were travelling about the country appearing in theatres. Mr McEwan, as a soloist, has a wide reputation, and but for the fact that he never sings anything but such songs as would be popular in a revival, he too would be starring in the amusement world..."

McEwan was not interested in 'amusement', fame, wealth or celebrity. What little fame he had was only as a result of his first love and conviction, singing the message of Jesus Christ.

Just nine days later, the same newspaper in its 10 Feb 1915 edition gave an insight into William McEwan’s talents and astonishing popularity (and therefore his commercial potential which had led to Sauvage's offer). In terms of public popularity, the article's headline said that McEwan was second only to former US President Theodore Roosevelt! :

"Mac's Night F-I-N-E; send off G-R-E-A-T: Was big joy party: Tabernacle crowded beyond capacity and only Teddy Roosevelt skinned Mac's crowd at station: "All ready - Sing!" "F-I-N-E!, F-I-N-E!" Right in these words you get the sentiment of Mac's big choir concert up at the tabernacle, everybody had sing in their hearts and fine, fine in their minds and Mac's farewell party was altogether one of the happiest affairs ever held in Alton.

By six o'clock the tabernacle was half full and before seven o'clock the seats were almost gone and shortly after that hour standing room was at a premium.

The choir presented a beautiful appearance, the lady singers all dressed in white and the male singers all being dressed in black and they were arranged on the platform so that it looked like one mass of black and white so regular were the lines. It was an inspiring sight and Mac was more tickled about it than anybody and was as proud of his choir when he got them all seated as a boy could be of a new baseball.

Mac bragged on his choir and said that it was a wonderful choir and then he had them sing the 'Awakening Chorus' that was sung when the meetings first opened. After this, Director William McEwan, for Mac was up and full of business now, mounted a chair and directed the choir in singing 'When We All Get to Heaven'. He had them sing it again and keep time clapping their hands, presenting a beautiful sight. Then he announced they would sing it backwards, they knew it so well, and the choir members turned backs on the audience and sang it backwards. The choir sung 'The Victory Song', 'All Hail Immanuel', 'The Awakening Chorus' and 'All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name'. McEwan sung a duet with himself sitting alongside the phonograph and singing with one of his own records. Mrs Abbott Blair sand a sweet song to the air of 'Last Night the Nightingale' and for an encore sang 'Just as I Am' and her audience was wonderfully well pleased.

At this point Prof R C Richardson came from the choir to the stage and McEwan, somewhat perturbed and anxious, thought he had a mutiny on his hands and tried to push Prof Richardson. But he pressed on and took the floor. Mr Richardson said he represented the choir whom Mac had berated and jumped on and yelled 'Sing!' and 'Fine!' and that they would now get even and he handed the jovial little choir director a box. Prof Richardson said that when the great choir was formed in Heaven, when all the thousands of singers McEwan has directed on both continents were gathered there that he expected, when he arose to sing in that great chorus, to see a little rotund good natured director mount a chair, raise his baton and looking over the great heavenly chorus shout 'Sing!'.

Mac didn't say much right then, there were some tears in his eyes and his voice wouldn't work right so he unwrapped the box which was a watch box. In it was a picture of a gold watch that didn't have a picture of a chain to it but under the picture was a twenty dollar gold piece of pure golden yellow, and expression of esteem of the members of the choir for their director. When Mac got his voice back he told the choir members that he would look on that gold piece every time he was hard up and that whatever he bought with it he would always keep in remembrance of one of the best choirs he had ever handled, the one in Alton...

... Mac announced that a solo would be sung by Mr William McEwan and coming forward he sang 'The Holy City', this being the last solo thousands of friends of the tabernacle meetings heard the choir leader sing. Mac told his story, the story of his life, and you could have heard a pin drop... Mac says he loves to sing; he loves to sing the gospel hymns; he loves the work of Jesus Christ and that his work is a joy and fun for him. Then the audience sang the Doxology, everybody raised their clasped hands into the air as a farewell handshake to Mac. The little singer got his bass drum, pulled his cap down over his eyes and the procession started off for the train to see Mac off, and the tabernacle meetings were over. And the great throng was not glad; they were sorry and many tears were seen trickling down cheeks of strong men and women. It was distinctly Mac's own night.

The little singer who is such a big man was sent out of town Tuesday night by such a large delegation of people that the stranger passing through the town might have thought it was a mob, but for the fact that everybody appeared happy and smiling and was singing religious songs. From the tabernacle they followed Little Mac as the sometimes dignified, always efficient, William McEwan, tenor soloist, gospel evangelist, is popularly known. They lined up in great parade - somewhere in the neighbourhood of four thousand of his devoted admirers. They escorted him down the streets singing songs they had learned to sing under Mr McEwan's tuition. It was a great night for Mac. The hero of the hour wore a smile that extended from the rising to the setting sun, so to speak of his facial sphere. He was in high fettle. The drum corps led the way and played to keep the marchers in step. And down the street swept the throng filling the street almost from curb to curb and blocking street car traffic which the procession was moving. At Union Depot, the destination, they flocked around the station, blocked the platform, and they cheered for Mac and they sand and between songs and cheers everybody smiled broadly and chuckled. Never did a man get such a send off in leaving the city of Alton, and never was there more happiness in a throng that in that gospel singing, cheer-giving, surging crowd.

After McEwan had procured his tickets and was already to take the train there was still some time and there was an impromptu program. Four big stout men seized the short statured choir leader and raised him to their shoulders. There on the improvised platform McEwan gave the word and with his had waved the time while the throng sang various songs that had been so powerful in giving 'the invitation' in the tabernacle. The crowd sang in unison, and in harmony, following the wave of their leader. The four stout men never complained about the weight they bore and the continued to hold McEwan aloft until the train came in. Then McEwan made a run to get aboard. The crowd did not cease singing then. The long train of sleepers had many roused passengers in it as it pulled through the station and curtains were raised by people in their right clothes who peered out to see what was going on.

It was when Mac left that the guiding hand was missed. The singing kept on, just as it was going before, with the important difference that it was choppy. The wave of McEwan's hand was always sufficient to prevent little waves of song detaching themselves from other song waves and beating against each other. When William McEwan climbed on the train the songs travelled in waves. But the finale was when the train pulled through and McEwan was standing on the rear platform. He was the duplicate of the old and original, blown in the bottle 'Sunny Jim'. He could not have had a happier expression on his face as the still singing crowd caught sight of him and as he ran through them on the rear platform, he waved to them and they broke into a cheer of farewell. It was a remarkable exhibition of attachment for the little-big man who had worked his way into the hearts of Alton people."

Later that year, news of a tragic loss reached William. War was raging in Europe and his nephew, John McEwan, was serving with the 9th Service Battalion of the Black Watch Royal Highlanders. The Gazette and Bulletin (Williamsport Pennsylvania) of 26 November 1915 reported that:

“…Prof. William McEwan… received a letter Wednesday from his native home in Glasgow, Scotland, stating that his nephew, John McEwan, also of Glasgow, had been instantly killed in the battle of Loos in the department of Nord, France, while fighting with the ‘Black Watch’ regiment of the British Army. The letter was written by ‘Mac’s brother, Thomas McEwan who writes that his nephew was one of the first to mount the parapet of the trenches and was first shot in the wrist. It was while this wound was being bandaged the Scotchman writes, that a shrapnel shell from the German lines burst, striking his nephew in the head and instantly killed him…”

William McEwan enlists
Details are scant, but sometime after April 1916 (the New Brunswick Times says McEwan was assisting with a Biederwolf mission there that month, leading a 1000 voice choir and incorporating a solo piper, Major Peter McInnon) William McEwan swapped the stage and auditorium for the khaki uniform and trenches - he enlisted with the army and served in World War One. Maybe this was inspired by the death of his nephew, or just through a sense of patriotic duty. His entry in the 1930 US Census, and also his death certificate of 1943, state that he was a veteran of WW1. At this point I have no further details, and don’t know if he joined the British Army or if he was with the US Army (the US entered WW1 on 6th April 1917.) While he was fighting in Europe, his records were still selling in the USA, as shown by the detail from the 1916/1917 Columbia Records catalogue below:


(NB - I have two of the 'fine art albums' mentioned in the catalogue description)

Death of Jeanie McEwan
Another mystery is that the last traces I can find of William’s wife, Jeanie McEwan, are onboard the SS Columbia, arriving in the USA on 18 December 1912, and of course at the birth of Clayton McEwan on 23 October 1914. But by 1920 she had died. In the 1920 US Census William McEwan is recorded as being a 48 year old widower, living with his children Geanie aged 27, William Jr. aged 21, Mary aged 18 and Charles P aged 8 (no mention of Clayton). I do not know if Jeanie McEwan died in the USA or one of the family's many trips back to Scotland.

The Second Recording Session
It was now the “Roaring Twenties”. More than a decade after his first (and so far only) recordings, the 50 year old William McEwan was still in great demand. The advert below is from an Ohio newspaper dated 30th April 1920 – McEwan’s name features here alongside Rodeheaver as well as Al Jolson (once described as ‘The World’s Greatest Entertainer’) and the French Symphony Orchestra.

Columbia arranged for new recording sessions to take place, back in London, in June 1922. But William McEwan would arrive back in Britain as a naturalised US citizen.