Wednesday, October 26, 2011

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


Introduction: Back in the early 1990s during my student days at the Art College in Belfast, I did a fair bit of hoking in old second hand bookshops and junk shops around Smithfield and other places. This was before the prosperity bubble of the late 90s/early 2000s, and so it was still fairly easy to find remnants of bygone days. Digging through the piles of old 78rpm records, one name appeared over and over again - William McEwan. It seemed that every shop had some of his records, dumped by people who had forgotten him, a once-household name who had been left behind by the 'progress' of advances like the LP, the audio cassette and the CD. Around this time an audio cassette triple box-set of all 82 of McEwan's known recordings came out, on a limited-edition private release by Frank Wappat of BBC North in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. A few years later I learned that McEwan's recording of the Scots language piece 'My Ain Countrie' had been one of my late grandfather's favourite songs.

Yet, despite William McEwan's apparent popularity and commercial success, I have never been able to find a definitive biography of him and so I had no idea of the scale of his musical achievements. Over recent months I have gathered up as much information about him as I could find. These blog posts are my attempt to piece together something of his story and to give him his place back for our generation - coinciding with the 100th anniversary of his first recording session, for Columbia Records in London, in November 1911.

This is the story of how a poor Glasgow boy, of Ayrshire parents, became one of the biggest musical names in the world.


PART ONE: Ayrshire Roots, Glasgow upbringing and early talent

William McEwan, the man who would be called ‘The World’s Sweetest Gospel Singer’, was born on 11th December 1871, in the Bridgeton area of Glasgow. William later described his upbringing as having been ‘of poor parentage’ and that his father was a hand loom weaver or pattern worker.

His parents were James and Margaret McEwen (maiden name McGhie); they had been married in the thriving fishing port of Girvan in Ayrshire on Hogmanay (31 December) 1858, aged 22 and 17 respectively and moved into a house in Wilson Street. James had been born in Girvan in 1837; James's father, also called James, had been born in Ireland (no precise location that I know of) in 1801. In an interview in the USA in 1912, William McEwan said that his family roots were in Ayrshire.

Some time between 1858 and 1871 (during the time of the society-transforming 1859 evangelical revivals in both Scotland and Ulster) the McEwen / McEwan family moved to Glasgow, where they attended First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Great Hamilton Street, a congregation which proudly traced its origins to the times of the Covenanters. William McEwan confirmed in later life that he had been raised in the ‘Reformed Presbyterian church’ and that “…he never knew what it was to sing a Gospel hymn in his boyhood days because the church to which he went always sang the Psalms…” (This is a distinction which is a factor in present-day growth of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland over the past few months).

However, his parents recognised that young William had great singing talent:

“…In early life his parents discovered that he had a sweet voice and his father’s ambition for him to succeed was so great that he contrived to arrange for him to study under one of Scotland’s great music masters. He learned fast, became a concert singer and won instantaneous success… ”

“… he studied music at an early age under the famous Baillie (George) Taggart of Glasgow and later received a certificate from the Royal Academy of Music in London. He traveled for years on the Keith-Proctor Circuit and later in Scotland where he traveled in Vaudeville…”

George Taggart was a shrewd choice by William's father - Taggart was the conductor of the Glasgow Select Choir, and also of Glasgow Glee and Catch Club. His daughter, Jenny Taggart, went on to become a famous soprano; another daughter, Rena, was a violinist. George Taggart is known to have taken Glaswegian artists to tour in North America and he may well have recommended the poor but brilliantly talented young McEwan to some of his contacts on the other side of the Atlantic.

Sometime around the years 1887 - 1890 the teenage William McEwan, a hand-loom warper from Bridgeton, was bound for the stages and concert halls of America.



Majestatic said...

1911 recording of his