Thursday, December 29, 2011

"...In speech, in character, in looks, the people become Scotch..."

I have some clients here in Northern Ireland who find that doing business in the Republic of Ireland can be difficult. Maybe because of the economic downturn there's an upsurge in people in the Republic choosing to buy goods and products which are made down there. There's a new Guaranteed Irish logo which many companies there now brand themselves with, to reinforce their provenance. What these clients find is that when some ROI customers take the time to read the small print, and they spot Northern Ireland addresses, they regard the client and their products as not really Irish at all, not 'proper Irish'. I've seen some pretty hostile emails which have been sent by angry customers - simply because the product they have bought says 'Irish' on the front of the packet, but on the back there's a Northern Ireland address.

You'd hope that in this day and age neighbourly relations and co-operation are the direction we're all heading in. And I support 100% the simple idea of buying local, wherever in the world you live. The regional cultural differences here are maybe less nowadays than they once were - we're all, to some extent, Westernised consumers now. But here are some significant quotes from a tourism book by prolific Dublin-born writer Katharine Tynan, published just over 100 years ago, in 1909:

"... that north-east corner of Ireland which no Celt looks upon as Ireland at all. In speech, in character, in looks, the people become Scotch and not Irish. One has crossed the border* and Celtic Ireland is left behind...

...there is nothing Irish about north-east Ulster except the country itself... his Scotch progenitors, he stands by the Bible. There is as much Bible-reading in the fine red-brick mansions of Belfast as there is in Scotland...

...the Belfast man has the Scottish love of education. He has many of the homespun Scottish virtues, and much less than the Scottish love of money...

...Finn, the Irish giant, invited a Scotch giant over to fight him... I believe that the Scottish giant came and stayed. You see his children all over North-East Ulster..."

However she does acknowledge some positive traits - "... I have known exiles of Dublin who went to Belfast in tears... when however, they came to know the man of the North - he takes a good deal of knowing - nothing would induce them to return to Dublin..."

* bear in mind there wasn't a political border in Ireland when this was written, but there must have been an evident cultural border to the writer.

From Peeps at Many Lands: Ireland by Katharine Tynan (London, 1909). Excerpts from Chapter VI, 'The North' (click here to read in full on

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Spurgeon and Cranmer on Christmas

Thanks to Wallace for this quote from Spurgeon:

"...This is the season of the year when, whether we wish it or not, we are compelled to think of the birth of Christ. I hold it to be one of the greatest absurdities under heaven to think that there is any religion in keeping Christmas Day. There are no probabilities whatever that our Saviour Jesus Christ was born on that day and the observance of it is purely of Popish origin; doubtless those who are Catholics have a right to hallow it, but I do not see how consistent Protestants can account it in the least sacred.

However, I wish there were ten or a dozen Christmas Days in the year; for there is work enough in the world, and a little more rest would not hurt labouring people. Christmas Day is really a boon to us, particularly as it enables us to assemble round the family hearth and meet our friends once more. Still, although we do not fall exactly in the track of other people, I see no harm in thinking of the incarnation and birth of the Lord Jesus..."


And I'm re-posting this from the blogger Archibishop Cranmer:

"...The birth of the Son of God was heralded by the Angel of the Lord, accompanied by the Shekinah, the Glory of God, followed by a multitude of the Heavenly Host singing praises. Hallelujah!

And for whose benefit was this magnificent display?

Kings? Presidents? Politicians? Religious leaders?

No, it was all for a few lowly shepherds – humble, poor, obscure and unnamed rustics of whom nothing more is heard in Scripture thereafter. While today’s puffed-up prelates court the wealthy, famous and influential, so today’s wealthy, famous and powerful seek out the privileged counsel, private chapels and cathedral pulpits of those same prelates for their displays of religiosity.

But not these shepherds. No, the Lord deemed them worthy because they were lowly. They were not body-beautiful celebrities, gifted orators, powerful decision makers or authoritative opinion formers; they were simply ordinary men, and the Lord chose them to be among the first to know that the Christ was born; that the Messiah had entered history; that the Son of God had come to redeem mankind - Immanuel.

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris'n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

The real deliverer and the real fulfilment of the needs of humanity is human, one of us, flesh of our flesh. He is born to rule, born to be a king, conceived of the house and lineage of David. His name is Wonderful – a mystery of divinity in humanity; Counsellor – the oracle of wisdom; the mighty God – the Word was not just with God, but was God; the Everlasting Father – not the same person as the Father, but of one substance with the Father; the Prince of Peace – bringing a peace that passes understanding..."


Thanks to all of you for visiting here at "The Burn" this year, and for those who have got in touch by email to encourage, to help, to improve, to share. But in picking through the wide range of stuff I post here, what matters most is Christ. Faith is not to be placed in a denomination, or an organised religion, or a system of morality, and not to be used to build a high horse from which to judge others. No-one deserves, or can earn, Amazing Grace. There is no "nice list" or "naughty list" with God. There's just sinful people... and then there's Christ in a category all of His own. My grandmother, long passed on, had these two verses hanging as a single text on her wall, from Matthew and the Song of Solomon:

"What think ye of Christ? He is altogether lovely".

Joy to the World. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Scottish independence comes to Northern Ireland

One country stands firm in opposing the global domination of Coca-Cola. That country is Scotland, where Irn Bru is the best-selling soft drink, with Coca-Cola second - everywhere else on the planet Coke is the top seller. The marketing people at Coca-Cola have even tried many ideas over the years to win this battle - including an attempt to invoke the spirit of Rabbie Burns.

Irn Bru are currently raising their profile in Northern Ireland and were recently announced as the new sponsors for football's Irish League Cup. Irn-Bru already sponsor the lower football leagues in Scotland and Super League rugby.

Here's Irn Bru's brilliant parody of the dire The Snowman nonsense which pollutes tv here in the UK every Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Part Ten: 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 Ten: Epilogue

This series of blog posts is as far as I can take the story of William MacEwan. Others more skilled than I should feel free to get in touch with me if they want to use these blog postings as a basis for more detailed research. I would hope that some of William’s descendants might even have an archive of his diaries, newspaper clippings, family photographs and other artefacts which one day could be published to tell his story with more accuracy than I have been able to. If you are a descendant of his I would love to hear from you. However, if all of these things are long-dumped then I hope that this ten part series is a useful memorial for readers.

During my researches I have found another recording, unlisted in any of Frank Wappat's releases, so perhaps it was one of the originally unissued and unnamed tracks from December 1929 or February 1930. It is "He Hideth My Soul" (written by Co Tyrone born William James Kirkpatrick), Columbia issue number 81511. Listen to it here, and to MacEwan rolling his "r"s in good Scots style:

• He Hideth My Soul (click the black arrow to download to your computer)


For me the story is personal, in that William MacEwan’s records were part of everyday life here in Northern Ireland, among the evangelical Protestant communities that I, my parents and my grandparents grew up in and are still part of. He did more than any other to give ordinary folk the ability to have recorded gospel music in their homes in the era when the gramophone was cutting-edge technology, and established a whole new collection of hymns in the hearts of the people, many of which are still sung today. The songs he recorded, whilst classics to us nowadays, were modern and contemporary for his times. It is a shame that his recordings are now so hard to find, all out of circulation and unavailable to be bought and enjoyed.

Many Scottish evangelists and gospel singers have had a close relationship with the Ulster-Scots folk of Northern Ireland over the generations. There are many more whose lives deserve to be remembered today. Perhaps there are a few other projects like this one which will emerge in future years.

Meanwhile, with Christmas coming, here are two of William MacEwan’s Christmas recordings for you to enjoy, from his London recordings of August 1927.

• Angels Song (labeled “a Christmas number" - click the black arrow to download to your computer)
(words and music by Robert Lowry, whose parents were from Killinchy in Co Down; date of publication unknown)


• Crown Him King of Kings (labeled “a Christmas number” - click the black arrow to download to your computer)
(words and music by Eben E Rexford, published 1912)


William MacEwan, the son of Ayrshire weavers, the grandson of a man from Ireland, the boy who grew up in a Psalms-only Covenanter congregation in Glasgow, became one of the most influential voices in gospel music across the western world. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to give me positive and constructive feedback on this series. Please feel free to get in touch.

Mark Thompson,
Ballyhalbert, Northern Ireland,
December 2011

Part Nine: 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 Nine: The Frank Wappat releases

Over the years since William MacEwan’s death in 1943, his legacy has lived on in the record collections and memories of the older generation. However as the gramophone and 78s were superceded by LPs, there have been only a few re-releases of his music. I am indebted to Frank Wappat, formerly of BBC Radio North in Newcastle Upon Tyne, for the work he did over the years in making MacEwan’s music available again in three different formats in the 1980s and 1990s as audio technology developed:

1) a 13 track LP in the mid 1980s (released by Mawson & Wareham Music, Newcastle Upon Tyne, catalogue no MWM1029, in a shocking pink sleeve!)




2) an 82 track triple cassette box set in the late 1980s / early 1990s (released by Frank’s own FWM label),




3) a 20 track CD (released by Lismor Recordings of Glasgow in 1994 as part of their “Scotland’s Stars on 78” series, catalogue no LCOM 5235).


Sadly all of these are now out of production and are hard to find. Frank’s notes on the insert of the cassette box set have been my single source of meticulous information about MacEwan’s recording sessions; his notes on the LP sleeve and the CD booklet have also given me more insights. I have been in touch with Frank directly to thank him, but sadly his health is poor at present. I wish him a speedy recovery and would like to take this opportunity to publicly acknowledge his work is carrying on an interest in the recordings of William MacEwan.

Below are pics of the albums which his early 78s were sold in, one with a portrait photo (this is probably the 'fine art album' referred to in the Columbia catalogue here) and the other a black leather Columbia one which Joe from Ayrshire loaned to me earlier this year. I have since tracked down another one of these for myself, which had exactly the same selection of MacEwan records in it as Joe's does).





Finally, a sheet music book from the early 1940s:


To be continued

Part Eight: 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 Eight: The final (London) recordings, death in 1943 and posthumous recognition in 1973

By the end of January 1931 William MacEwan’s American recordings were all completed. The last sea journey I can find for him is on board the SS Auranta on 27 April 1931, apparently alone, sailing from New York to Glasgow. He is listed as a singer aged 59, with the address 9 Leyden Street, Maryhill, Glasgow.

The Ninth Recording Session, London, December 1931
William’s ninth recording session was back in London in December 1931 at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster. Backed by a pipe organ and violin he recorded these six pieces:

• God be with you till we meet again
(words by Jeremiah Rankin, music by William Tomer, published 1880)

• When the roll is called up yonder
(words and music by James Black, published 1893)

• O Love that Wilt not let me go
(words by George Matheson, Music by Albert Peace, published 1882)

• Some time we’ll understand
(words by Maxwell Cornelius, music by James McGranahan, published 1891)

There were three other tracks recorded at this session, two by an ensemble called the “Savoy Hotel Orpheans” and one other simply called “test record”.

The Tenth and Final Recordings, London, March 1932
His last ever recording session was back at Christ Church on Westminster Bridge Road in London, around March 1932, again backed by pipe organ and violin. This time an entire gospel service was recorded. The Rev Harold Dixon Longbottom (1886 – 1962) prayed and gave the Bible reading.

(Note of interest to Ulster readers: HD Longbottom had been assistant minister of “Protestant Reformers Memorial Church” in Liverpool since 1913. He was also a leading Orangeman and local Councillor in the city. He was Leader of the now-defunct Liverpool Protestant Party from 1927 – 1964, and was Mayor of Liverpool in 1950-51. “Protestant Reformers Memorial Church” joined the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster in 1982. I am not suggesting that MacEwan shared Longbottom’s views or interests.)

The service was released as a double sided 12” record and included MacEwan singing:

• God Will Take Care of You
(words by Civilla Martin, music by Walter Martin, published 1904)

• The Old Rugged Cross
(words and music by George Bennard, published 1913)

• My Mother’s Prayer
(J.W. Van de Venter - written 1895)

• I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say
(Words: Horatius Bonar, 1846. Music: John Dykes, 1868)

• We will talk it o’er together bye and bye
(words and music by Mrs C H Morris, published c. 1914)

• Abide With Me
(Words: Henry Lyte, 1847. Music: William Monk, 1861)

William’s voice was never again recorded, although I have no doubt that he would have continued to sing at public events as he had done throughout his life. There is now a gap of 11 years where at this point I have no other information about him.

Death in New York, 23 June 1943
The final document I have found is his death certificate; it says that he died of cancer on 23 June 1943 at 1.15am, at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, aged 71. He had been hospitalized for 6 days. The certificate is signed by his daughter Jean McEwan Roche and it seems that William had been living with Jean before he went into hospital – his final address is that same as Jean’s given address – 69 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, New York. Today the building is Academy Restaurant - pic below from Google Maps Street View.


His trade/occupation is stated as singer/evangelist. Interestingly his first wife Jeanie, who had died about 20 years earlier, is stated as being his spouse – rather than his still-living second wife Mabel. Perhaps that is because the certificate was filled in by his daughter Jean, whose mother was Jeanie.

William MacEwan was buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. I have emailed the cemetery office to see if they can trace his grave and send me a photo of his gravestone, but have had no reply as yet.

Mabel seems to have lived to a ripe old age; I have found a death record for her dated February 1972 which gives her last residence at 10530 Hartsdale, Westchester, New York, SSN 451-38-7893. She was aged 78.

Royal recognition in Scotland
The following year, in September 1973, 30 years after his death, William MacEwan was officially recognised by the Crown when the Lord Lyon King of Arms in Edinburgh issued a Letters Patent and a new Coat of Arms to William’s daughter in law, bearing the motto “Crescendo”.

To be continued

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Part Seven: 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 Seven: The 1930s and the last American recordings
As time goes on, the sources seem to dry up. I'm not sure if it's because, now almost 60 years of age, William MacEwan's career was slowing down, or whether his fame was waning, or if the news agenda had just moved on. It might also be that, at the point of writing this in December 2011, only some historical newspapers have been digitised - and therefore in future years as more come online then more information about him will become available. So far I've concentrated on US newspapers, so there may be additional information in British newspapers and evangelical publications of the time. Here are a few newspaper references from early 1930:

“…Mr William McEwan, of Long Island, N.Y., who is the evangelistic singer at the Methodist Church during the special meetings being held, entertained by a number of Scotch stories and also with some of his songs. Mr McEwan is a Scotchman, being born at Glasgow, Scotland, and he can tell a Scotch story…”
- ‘Five Visitors Attend Mt Union Rotary Club’; The Daily News, Huntingdon, 27.01.1930

“… he is now a gospel singer and has sung all over the world. He has sung in a large portion of the world with Chapman, Torrey, Beiderwolf, Gypsy Smith and Billie Sunday. He is an exclusive Columbia artist and his gospel song records may be bought at Laird’s drug store…”
- ‘Meeting Success in Evangelistic Work in Mt. Union”; The Daily News, Huntingdon, 28.01.1930

“…William McEwan of Long Island, N.Y., who is the evangelistic singer at the First Methodist Church during the special meetings in progress last week and this entertained with a number of Scotch stories and also with several Scotch songs. Mr McEwan is a Scotchman, being born in Glasgow, Scotland, and he is adept at telling stories of his mother country…”
- 1930, Jan 29, The Altoona Mirror (Pennsylvania)

The Seventh Recording Session, New York, Feb 1930
His seventh recording session came in February 1930, just two months after his sixth session, when he recorded three pieces with a harmonium and violin:

• Sunrise
(words by William C Poole, music by B D Ackley, published 1924)

• Throw out the Lifeline
(words by Edwin S Ufford, music by George C Stebbins, published 1890)

• Pull for the Shore
(words and music by Philip Bliss)

As with his sixth session, a fourth piece was recorded as well, but its title is unknown as it was never released as a record. For what it's worth, I think that "Pull For the Shore" is one of his strongest recordings, a popular hymn written in a sea shanty style by Philip Bliss (see here for background information on I have digitised it below for you to listen:

Light in the darkness, sailor, day is at hand!
See o’er the foaming billows fair haven’s land,
Drear was the voyage, sailor, now almost o’er,
Safe within the life boat, sailor, pull for the shore.


Pull for the shore, sailor, pull for the shore!
Heed not the rolling waves, but bend to the oar;
Safe in the life boat, sailor, cling to self no more!
Leave the poor old stranded wreck, and pull for the shore.

Trust in the life boat, sailor, all else will fail,
Stronger the surges dash and fiercer the gale,
Heed not the stormy winds, though loudly they roar;
Watch the “bright and morning Star,” and pull for the shore!

Bright gleams the morning, sailor, uplift the eye;
Clouds and darkness disappearing, glory is nigh!
Safe in the life boat, sailor, sing evermore;
“Glory, glory, hallelujah!” pull for the shore.

Philip Bliss's tragic death in 1876, trying to save his wife from a burning train wreck, had become world-famous in evangelical circles; here is a present-day video production about him:

The 1930 US Census
On 1st April 1930, the US Census recorded these details about the MacEwan household (who were living at no. 40, 3728 Brooklyn, New York) :
• William McEwan aged 59, first married at age 20, a "WW" veteran
• Mabel McEwan, born New York, first married at 18, now aged 36 (Mabel was his second wife)
• Charles McEwan, son, aged 19, born Scotland
• Clayton McEwan, son, aged 17, born Scotland.

The Eighth Recording Session, New York, Jan 1931
In January 1931 he completed eighth recording session, which were to be his last American recordings. Now aged 60, and accompanied with a harmonium and violin he recorded:

• God Is With Us
(words and music by Lewis E Jones, published 1923)

• Merrily Sing
(words by Haldor Lillenas, published circa 1921)

• I Would Be Like Jesus
(words by James Rowe, music by B D Ackley, published 1911)

• What A Day of Victory
(words and music by James Rowe, published 1917)

• Pardoning Grace
(words by A H Ackley, music by B D Ackley, published 1914)

• Sweetest Song
(words and music by A H Ackley, published 1913)

To be continued...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hirsel / hirsle

It's that time of year when folk get a few sneezes and sniffles. Earlier today my mother said that she had a hirsel. It's a word I hadn't heard in donkeys years, but according to The Concise Scots Dictionary it's "a wheeze or catarrhal sound in the chest la19-". and is "a wheezing cough" in The Hamely Tongue, where it is spelled as hirsle. A big mug of ginger cordial with boiling water is required. These folk in Bangor make a tasty, a bit sweeter than normal, version.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ann Tree, the East Grinstead Martyr, 1556

Whilst in England visiting family over the summer I found a local Sussex magazine with an article about the martyrdom of Ann Tree, Thomas Dungate and John Foreman who were burned at the stake in East Grinstead in July 1556. East Grinstead is about 25 miles south of London, and is today an affluent part of the commuter belt. I tracked down their memorial in St Swithun's Churchyard which is just off the high street - however due to budget cuts the town museum was closed when I visited and so didn't get to buy the booklet which a local author has written about their story. The inscription which runs across the three stones read:

“Beneath these stones are interred (as is believed) the ashes of Thomas Dungate, Anne Tree, and John Forman, who were burned to death in High St, East Grinstead, in 1556 for adherence to the Reformed Faith. FIDELES USQUE AD MORTEM”.

• the East Grinstead martyrs are mentioned here on the Lewes Bonfire Celebrations website (if you think Northern Ireland does bonfires well, you should see Lewes in November.)

• the local Council records their story on its website here

• a good summary here at the Tudor Stuff blog

Here's a version of the old hymn "Where the Soul of Man Never Dies" by English folk singer Kate Rusby. (Thanks to Bob Kelim for sending this to me a while ago). It seems apt to have an English female voice singing this song for this posting.

(NB: the brass plaque shown at the bottom is inside the parish church of nearby West Hoathly, and was installed in 1940. It is about a foot tall, and is a beautiful, simple depiction)






Saturday, December 10, 2011

So here it is, merry Christmas

Something to get you in the mood; a new arrangement of the original tune of Away in a Manger by (I think Scotsman) James Murray, and a fresh take on 'O Come All Ye Faithful" - both by The Lower Lights.

The Lower Lights: Come Let Us Adore Him from The Lower Lights on Vimeo.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Living, breathing, singing - authentic tradition.

Within the past few days I've had contact with some significant people. Significant in that they are just plain ordinary folk, who are the living examples of the things I've been blogging about here over the years.

Firstly a man in his 80s who I met on Sunday night at the Iron Hall, who is a big William MacEwan fan and who still sings solos of MacEwan's recordings around the wee halls of Belfast. Another man at the Iron Hall spoken to me enthusiastically about going to see Seth and Bessie Sykes in Belfast during the 1940s and early 1950s. A phone call yesterday from a lady who lives near Hillsborough, who as a girl attended every single night of a Sykes mission in a rural mission hall in the vicinity and who was trying to trace more copies of "McEwan's Mission Songs" and found my blog thanks to Mr Google. She then found my phone number and we had a great conversation yesterday for about 25 minutes. And last night I had a call from a lady whose parents and older siblings were all Ards people, but she was born where they settled in Corby in England (Corby has a huge Scottish community even today). She was trying to fill in some family tree gaps.

You can make up entertainment, but you can't invent authentic tradition. If it doesn't exist in the lives or memories of the older generation then it's probably rubbish. If the older generation are ignored, then honest tradition is on the scrapheap. Plenty of folk have told me over the years that I was born about 100 years too late - I take that as a compliment! I'll be 40 in January, but learn more from older people, and am more enthused by older people, all the time.

Part Six: 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 Six: 32 more recordings in the 1920s

William MacEwan was soon bound once again for Britain, for his fourth recording session for Columbia which took place in London in August 1927. Just before he left the USA, the 19 April 1927 edition of The Clearfield Progress (Pennsylvania) printed this article:

Farewell to Wm MacEwan

During the special Easter season services held at Trinity Methodist Church, the pastor, Dr E R Heckman was assisted by Mr William MacEwan, the Scottish Gospel tenor. He conducted the singing and introduced many catchy hymns from the hymnal ‘Faith Inspiring Songs’. Mr MacEwan enjoys a wide reputation having toured the British Isles and the Continent and America with all the great evangelists for the last twenty years. His solo work was most favorably received too.

Last evening the service took the nature of a farewell to this noted singer and the church was filled to express its appreciation of his work and its admiration for him. He sang two solos with much feeling and expression – 'My Ain Countree' and 'Annie Laurie'. He accompanied one of his own records on the Victrola, 'My Mother’s Prayers', and had the audience weeping. Mr Albert Adams rendered two very beautiful solos on the violin, which were very heartily received. The Booster Chorus, a band of boys and girls of the Sunday school, whom Mr MacEwan trained during his stay, sang two of his popular choruses. The children’s work met with great appreciation and showed the effect of the director’s good training.

To add colour to the evening, Mr MacEwan was dressed in his native Scotch kilts and he certainly looked the Scotchman that he was.

He leaves today for Richmond, Virginia, and then after his engagement in that southern city will make a tour of Scotland and Wales. Come again Mr MacEwan, Clearfield will always extend to you the welcome hand.

The Fourth Recording Session, August 1927
On 3rd June 1927 he boarded the SS Caronia in New York, bound for Plymouth. Presumably he completed his intended tour of Scotland and Wales during the summer before going back into the studio in London in August. The list of 18 hymns he recorded was:

• Tell it Wherever You Go
(words by Johnson Oatman Jr, music by William Edie Marks, published 1907)

• Will the Circle be Unbroken? (remake)
(Habershon / Gabriel - written 1907)

• God Will Take Care of You (remake)
(Martin / Martin - written 1905)

• My Father Knows
(words and music by Sarepta M I Henry, published 1909)

• Softly and Tenderly (remake)
(Will L Thompson - written 1880)

• Carry Your Cross with a Smile
(words by Ina D Ogdon, music by C H Gabriel, published 1916)

• Gospel Bells (remake)
(Martin / Sankey - written 1895)

• Mother’s Prayers have Followed Me
(words by Lizzie De Armond, music by Bentley D Ackley, published 1912)

• Only a Sinner (remake)
(Gray / Towner - written 1905)

• Angels Song (labeled “a Christmas number”)
(words and music by Robert Lowry; date of publication unknown)

• My Mother’s Prayer (remake)
(J.W. Van de Venter - written 1895)

• Crown Him King of Kings (labeled “a Christmas number”)
(words and music by Eben E Rexford, published 1912)

• Thou Remainest (remake)
(Whittle / McGranahan - written 1884)

• His Eye is On the Sparrow (remake)
(Martin / Gabriel - written 1905)

• He Lifted Me (remake)
(Gabriel - written 1905)

• Broken Heart (remake)
(Dennis / McKinney - written early 1900s)

• Sweeter as the Years Go By
(words and music by Leila N Morris, published 1912)

• All Hail Immanuel
(words by D R Van Sickle, music by C H Gabriel, published 1910)

#alttext#The Fifth Recording Session, October 1928
Just over a year later he was back in London. In October 1928 he completed his fifth recording session - this time in a church rather than a recording studio - at Christ Church, Lambeth (shown left). It was then a Congregational chapel, but just 12 years later it would be very badly damaged during the blitz of WW2; today only the spire remains. Accompanied by a pipe organ and violin he recorded this selection of hymns, two of which were remakes:

• By and By
(words by Fanny Crosby, music by Bentley D Ackley, published 1915)

• I Need Jesus
(words by George Webster, music by CH Gabriel, published 1924)

• Behold I Stand at the Door
(author and date unknown)

• Your Best Friend is Always Near (remake)
(words by Isabel Allam, music by Edwin Excell, published 1916)

• In My Heart there Rings a Melody
(words and music by Elton Roth, published 1924)

• I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say
(words by Horatius Bonar, published 1846)

• Satisfied
(words and music by Alfred H Ackley, published 1910)

• Lead Me to Calvary
(words by Jennie Hussey, music by W J Kirkpatrick, published 1921)

• Sail On
(words and music by C H Gabriel, published 1908)

• Wonderful Story (remake)
(words and music by C H Gabriel, published 1897)

William McEwan, now aged 56, headed back to his family in America. He sailed onboard the SS Leviathan from Southampton on 14 December 1928 and arrived in New York on 20 December, just in time for Christmas. The passenger records give his address as 938 East 31st Street Brooklyn.

His Atlantic-hopping continued; he made a quick return to Britain, and on June 19th 1929 William MacEwan once again sailed back to America, from Southampton to New York on the SS Olympic, arriving on June 25th. The passenger list gives his address as 119 Schermerham St Brooklyn NY.

The Sixth Recording Session, December 1929
His sixth recording session was just six months later, in December 1929 in New York, accompanied by a harmonium and violin:

• He Must Reign
(words and music by C Austin Miles, published 1926)

• March On
(words by Elsie D Yale, music by J Lincoln Hall, published 1917)

• I Walk With the King
(words by James Rowe, music by Bentley D Ackley, published 1913)

A fourth piece was recorded, but its title is unknown as it was never released as a record. As the 1920s drew to a close, William MacEwan was approaching 60 years of age. He was at the prime of his career and was one of the world’s most accomplished recording artists.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Part Five: 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 FIVE: American citizen, London recordings

#alttext#With his war service now over, MacEwan completed his time with the Biederwolf campaign and some time around 1922 he joined up with Columbia Records labelmate the English Methodist evangelist Rodney ‘Gipsy” Smith. It was during a major gospel campaign of April that the Syracuse Herald of 11.04.1922 reported that:

“…William McEwan, chorister, wasn’t there. He was in Newark, N.J., his home city, yesterday, completing his naturalization as an American citizen…”

The next day the same paper reported:

“ It was American night at the Arena last night. William McEwan, Gipsy Smith’s choir leader, returned yesterday from Newark N.J. where he received his final papers as an American citizen on Monday. As he entered the building last night, the choir, led by Prof. Hugh M Tilroe (?), arose to sing ‘America’. The audience stood and sang also. When Gipsy Smith had announced the benediction at the close of the meeting, the choir sang ‘The Star Spangled Banner”. With the exception of three persons in the east balcony, everybody arose again. This time Mr McEwan was leading. “Stand up” he shouted to those three persons, as loud as the cold he had contracted at Newark would permit him. “Whenever you hear that tune you stand.”

“Oh but America is a great country,” announced McEwan as he reached the platform.

“Yes, but you can’t sing like you could when you were a Britisher” returned Gipsy Smith.

The 20 April 1922 edition of the Syracuse Herald records that MacEwan and Smith held a “patriotic night” at the Arena aimed at war veterans – Smith told the story of his own military service during WW1 (his 1918 book "Your Boys" is available here on at a special evening entitled ‘Three and One-Half Years in the Trenches'. He and fellow veteran MacEwan sang the parting solos.

The second recording session – London, June 1922
Shortly after the campaign was finished, William headed back to Britain. He recorded a selection of six pieces, accompanied by what sounds like a very good Salvation Army band, or perhaps a small orchestra, for Columbia in London in June 1922. The songs were:

• Jesus, Blessed Jesus
(words and music by C H Gabriel, published 1906)

• Oh it is wonderful
(words and music by C H Gabriel, published 1898)

• Wonderful Story
(words and music by C H Gabriel, published 1897)

• Your best friend is always near
(words by Isabel C Allam, music Edwin O Excell, published 1916)

• Wonderful peace
(words and music by Haldor Lillenas, published 1914)

• Little bit of love
(words and music by Edwin O Excell, published 1904)

He returned to America, alone, onboard the SS Berengaria which sailed from Southampton to New York on 8th July 1922. And in October of the same year, the MacEwans returned to Scotland. The passenger list for the SS Algeria, sailing from New York to Glasgow via Moville in Donegal and arriving on 2 October 1922, includes this list:

William McEwan, 3 Glencairn Drive, Pollokshields, Glasgow (singer) aged 50
Mabel A McEwan housewife aged 29
Mary Miller McEwan student aged 21
Charles P McEwan student aged 10
Clayton McEwan student aged 8

I’m not sure when William and Mabel got married, but it seems that she already had a daughter, Mary. Other records say that Mabel Alice McEwan was born in New York on 6th July 1893.

William remained in Scotland until April 1923. The passenger list for the SS Aquitania, dated 6 April 1923, and sailing from Southampton to New York includes Mabel Alice McEwan was born in New York on 6th July 1893 ; a 21 year old daughter, Mary M McEwan ; Charles Parker was 12 years old, born 11 Feb 1912 in New York ; Clayton Edward was 9 years old, born 23 October 1914 in New York.

'McEwan's Mission Songs' published
Around this time, MacEwan's name was ascribed to another hymnbook. "McEwan's Mission Songs - a Choice Collection of Solo, Duet, Quartet and Choir Numbers" was a selection of 54 hymns. It was published by R.L. Allan & Son in Glasgow, and Oliphants in London. It had a foreword written by Rev Samuel MacAuley Lindsay the Pastor of First Baptist Church in Brookline, Massachussetts.

Covers of the first and revised editions:

Advert inside the revised edition:

But William was back in Scotland again in 1924; his passport application of 4th August 1924 states his reason for traveling was “visit father” James MacEwan in Glasgow. He sailed from Montreal to Southampton onboard the SS Majestic on 12 September. He returned to New York just a month later – the passenger list for the SS Lancastria which sailed on October 15th from Southampton to New York includes a 52 year old William McEwan from Brooklyn.

The Third Recording Session, New York 1926
William’s next recording session was in New York in May 1926. These are said to be the first recordings in the world to use an electrical microphone. By now aged 54, he was accompanied by a simple harmonium and violin. The six pieces were:

• We will talk it o’er together bye and bye
(words and music by Mrs C H Morris, published c. 1914)

• Song in the heart (Wonderful Wonderful Jesus)
(words by Anna B Russell, music by Ernest O Sellers, published 1921)

• In the Garden
(words and music by C Austin Miles, published 1912)

• When they ring the golden bells
(words and music by Daniel de Marbelle, published 1887)

• The Old Rugged Cross
(words and music by George Bennard, published 1913)

• I’m going through Jesus
(words and music by Herbert Buffum, published 1914)

The Voice of "The Old Rugged Cross"
It was MacEwan's recording of “The Old Rugged Cross” that really captured the public imagination. Many years later, in the October 1940 edition of The Gramophone, Herbert C Ridout, the former publicity manager of the Columbia Graphophone Company (London), wrote this glowing retrospective:

“…A Scots-American singing evangelist named William MacEwan had persuaded Sterling that there was a large public here interested in his gospel songs to such an extent that it would be worth while recording twenty-four titles and putting up the twelve records in an album. It was a bold thing to do, for sacred records had only represented a modest, if steady, share of the total sales.

But we had an agreeable surprise, for the MacEwan records not only sold handsomely all round, but there was one title that stood out as a tremendous favourite. Yet to the average man, who, whether religiously-minded or not, knows most of the well-known hymns, it was completely unknown. This was a hymn called "The Old Rugged Cross," written by the Rev. George Bennard. It had been largely used in the revival campaigns in this country and America.

Hundreds of thousands of "The Old Rugged Cross" records must have been sold, and until recently William MacEwan was the only record-exponent of it. You'll find this, and a number of others, in addition to the original dozen in this MacEwan series made in 1911 (since rerecorded electrically, of course), still in the catalogue serving its public.

In my experience I have never known any other hymn record to equal "The Old Rugged Cross" in sales — that's why I mention it as a landmark of its kind…”

Quite some accolade, and gives us an insight into the enormous impact of William MacEwan. This website says that "...Within thirty years of its initial publication in 1913, more than twenty million copies of "The Old Rugged Cross" had been sold, outselling every other musical composition of any kind published to that date...". Some research is definitely needed to confirm these statistics.

[ Note - it was around this time, in April 1927, that a New York record company executive called Ralph Peer travelled into the Appalachian Mountains to set up an impromptu recording studio in Bristol, Tennessee. The "Bristol Sessions" as they became known included obscure hillbilly performers who would become world-famous, such as The Carter Family, who later recorded countryfied, acoustic, three-part harmony versions of some of the hymns William MacEwan had recorded and popularised, including "The Old Rugged Cross". Johnny Cash would later marry one of the Carters - here is a video of Cash and June Carter singing "The Old Rugged Cross" at a packed football stadium in the 1970s/80s, possibly part of a Billy Graham campaign. Cash introduces it as being "the biggest selling sheet music in the last 100 years":


The Fourth Recording Session – London, August 1927
Perhaps the meteoric success of The Old Rugged Cross inspired Columbia to dust-down the MacEwan back catalogue. In August 1927 he recorded 18 songs, 12 of which were remakes of songs he had recorded before.

{ To be continued }


The three cultural traditions of Ulster

"I do not wonder the Gospel runs so swiftly in these parts. The people in general have the finest natural tempers which I ever knew; they have the softness and courtesy of the Irish, the seriousness of the Scots and the openness of the English" - John Wesley, from The Journal of the Rev John Wesley, April 1767

#alttext# We can dispute the characteristics he describes, but it's clear from this excerpt that John Wesley fully understood the triple cultural blend (of Irish, English and Scottish) which makes up the people of Ulster. If only our present-day beloved media and public institutions would take a leaf out of his book - get rid of their 'Troubles-tinged' * political glasses and stop perpetuating the "two tribes" political stereotype as if it is the only viewpoint. More about this in a future posting.

* 'Troubles-tinged' is great expression I heard first from a friend recently, whose identity I will keep anonymous. I don't want him to think I am claiming it as my own.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

"Our quarrel is with the Government alone" - Edward Carson, February 1914

With 2012 being the centenary of the Ulster Covenant, I thought that this poster would be of interest to some readers. Edward Carson raised the Ulster Volunteers in January 1913, which became the 36th Ulster Division of the British Army on the outbreak of World War One in August 1914. Earlier that year, on 24th February, Edward Carson felt the need to issue this poster, the message of which seems to be to reassure Catholics and Nationalists of the objectives of the (Protestant and Unionist) Volunteers:

"As rumours have been sedulously circulated to the effect that the Ulster Volunteer Force has been organized with an object hostile to those of our fellow-countrymen in Ulster who differ from us, I desire that it should be made plain on all occasions that the sole object of the ULSTER VOLUNTEER FORCE is to make it impossible for the Government to compel us to submit to a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin. Our quarrel is with the Government alone, and we desire that the RELIGIOUS and POLITICAL views of our opponents should be everywhere respected. We fight for equal justice for all under the Government of the United Kingdom.


24th February 1914"

You can decide for yourself, and with the benefit of 100 years of hindsight, whether his sentiment was sincere. Regardless, it makes for interesting reading.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

BBC Northern Ireland - Plandáil - 1. Settlement to Covenant

(Thanks to Geoff!) I was sent a BBC iPlayer link to this new Irish language series earlier this evening, telling the story of the early Scots settlements in Ulster in the 1600s. Some nuancing here and there could have been improved (the description of Hamilton & Montgomery as 'thugs' is bizarre to the point of being almost laughable) but in the main I must give credit to the producers. They've taken time to understand the stories and have put them across with far more sensitivity and respect than most other programmes (and organisations) tend to.

You can watch the programme by clicking here - as it's in Irish, be prepared for 40 minutes of caption reading, apart from some contributions from non-Irish speakers. I would be interested in readers' comments. And yes, my name is mentioned in the credits at the end, because I supplied a few still images to the production company a while ago. It is perhaps a wee bit dry and slow in places for some viewers, but overall I definitely prefer accuracy and quiet respect over entertainment any day.

I am glad that Hamilton & Montgomery, and the early Presbyterian ministers, are increasingly an accepted part of Ulster's cultural narrative. Just six years ago, in 2005, hardly anybody outside of devotees had a baldy notion about them. 2006 was the 400th anniversary of the start of their settlement here, and I am thankful to everyone who helped me to tell that story during my first full year as Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency, and also those who worked hard with me on 'The Covenanters in Ulster' project during 2008. I am also glad that through this new programme, the Irish language community has had an opportunity to better understand the first generation Scots' experience in 1600s Ulster.

I'm looking forward to seeing future episodes of this series - I hope they are as strong as this first one.

(ps - shame about the mistaken 'Robert Hamilton' reference, which should of course have been Rev James Hamilton)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

William MacEwan in 2011

Another man who has been a big help and inspiration to me over recent years is Joe from near Beith in Ayrshire. Earlier this year, and after about 18 months of emailing each other back and forth, I met up with Joe, his wife Jean, and their two grandchildren in Lisburn - they were en route to the west of Ireland to meet up with one of their sons. Joe was kind enough to bring me a load of Ayrshire bricks - and ALL of his William MacEwan 78s. I digitised them all, and on my visit to Scotland in June I returned them all to Joe, and gave him a CD of the digitised versions, and enjoyed the best part of a Saturday with him and Jean. Joe's grandfather used to cycle to Glasgow to listen to William MacEwan sing. So Joe is another man whose influence has driven me to try to tell William MacEwan's story.

Just the other day, Joe sent me an email to tell me about another singer, a Canadian called Henry Burr, who recorded a version of 'My Ain Countrie' in 1911 (the same year MacEwan had recorded it). Here is a link to the Burr recording. Burr went on to join the Peerless Quartet, another group whose gospel 78s I have seen in a few collections here in Ulster. Burr was reared in New Brunswick in Canada, and a quick look at his biography shows that it's very likely he and William MacEwan would have known of each other. Burr recorded 159 cylinders for various record companies between 1904 - 1919. You can listen to them all here.

Back to more MacEwan soon.

Seth Sykes "Scotch Evangelists, Composers and Singers" and the Ulster link

Every now and again you meet people who are inspirational. One of these is a retired man from Shotts in Lanarkshire (I'll keep him anonymous) who shares all of my interests in old Scottish evangelists and their connections with Ulster. Earlier this year he sent me a box packed with records, books and home-made CDs of old 78s he has digitised, a brilliant collection. One of the things he sent me was a book entitled 'A Great Little Man - A biography of evangelist Seth Sykes', published in 1958. I have met people over the years who remember Seth and Bessie Sykes on their many trips to Ulster, especially to the Shankill Mission and other parts of urban Belfast. They were from Springburn in Glasgow; the famed Jeremiah Meneely of Kells in County Antrim held a tent mission in Springburn in 1884, the aftermath of which saw a number of gospel halls being established in Springburn. Some of the Sykes' songs still resonate with folk of my vintage and mission hall upbringing:

In the sweet bye and bye, in the sweet bye and bye
I have a mansion so bright and so fair
Won't it be lovely when I get there?
In the sweet bye and bye, in the sweet bye and bye
When the battle is done and we hear the 'Well done'
In the sweet bye and bye

Their chorus 'Thank You Lord for Saving My Soul' became world-famous. Their hymn book 'Songs of Salvation' includes the brilliant 'My Sins are A' Awa'. I am told there was a display of some of the Sykes' artefacts, including Bessie's portable pump organ, at the now sadly-closed Springburn Museum in Glasgow.

'A Great Little Man - A biography of evangelist Seth Sykes' has a marvellous photograph of the Sykes' in action at Largs in 1949, and also features two songs they composed specifically for their Ulster missions: 'He's My All in All' for the Shankill Mission, and 'Just Look Up (The Lisburn Chorus)'. It was getting this package from Shotts which drove me to start work on a similar biography of William MacEwan which I've been publishing here.

I have a fair amount of old items about the Skyes' - like the invitation below, showing that the old 'magic lantern' technology was a big part of their work. I think Derg Street was just off the Crumlin Road. Maybe when I get MacEwan out of my system I'll move on to the Sykes next!


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gillian Kyle - Scottish giftware


I have mentioned Gillian Kyle here before. Her website has been overhauled and new products have been added. I can't think of a better example of someone using heritage-based imagery in a creative way for today's world. Visit here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It is old but it is beautiful...

I found this trio of pics today, taken on my trip around Scotland back in June. These are on a doorway on George VI Bridge in Edinburgh. Beautiful layering of lettering, peeling back the years. Click the photos to enlarge.

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.