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.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Highland bog body of Loughries (1824) and the Scrabo elk's head (1832)

A trawl through the local newspapers of 1824 might give more detail than this short excerpt. Drowning in a bog sounds like a very unpleasant way to go. I wonder what happened to the costume? Finding an elk's head sounds a bit grisly too - like a scene from The Godfather! Both very interesting artefacts though - and surely culturally significant that the elk head ended up in Glasgow Museum. Click to enlarge:

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Comber whiskey label

Working away on the next instalment of the McEwan story; meanwhile here's a local gem:


Thursday, November 03, 2011

Part Three: 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 THREE: Conversion, Evangelism, America and the historic 1911 London recording sessions

Now back in Glasgow, alcohol was still playing a major role in William’s life, much to the concern of his father. It must have been a shock for the devout Covenanters James and Margaret McEwan (both now around 70 years old) to see what had become of their son during his time in America. Here is the only account I have found of William’s condition, and conversion, as reported by a writer with The Daily Republican newspaper of Rushville, Indiana, on 30 October 1912:

“…His father then lived in Scotland, and on one Saturday night he was to appear in a show there, and all his old friends were to turn out to give him a reception. After the show, he said, they all went out for a time. He said he was under the influence of drink when he got home that night and his father was very much put out about it. That night his father extracted a promise from him to attend church the next day.

He started, and met a crowd of his former friends singing on a street corner to attract people to the house of worship. He followed them to the church, but when the invitation was extended he didn’t have the nerve to go forward, he said, because he realized that he would have to break off with all his old life and associates. When the minister said the man who would not hold up his hand signifying that he wanted to be prayed for was a coward, he would not take that and held up his hand. He joined the church, and that night there was great rejoicing in his father’s house.

McEwan said he cancelled all engagements and became an evangelistic singer, and since that time offers had been coming to him and he did not have to seek them…”

The writer, or editor, seems to not understand the nuances of a conversion (conviction of sin > need of a Saviour > Christ as the only answer) and so the account above is a bit disjointed. However, after William’s conversion to Christ, he cancelled all of his musical engagements and took an ordinary job in a carpet factory, on what he later said was just “one tenth of his vaudeville salary”. The famous singer with a blue collar job among ordinary Glasgow folk? Yes. But (as all Christians will know full well) conversion does not mean perfection, and the ‘old nature’ wasn’t too far under the surface. Another newspaper reported that William’s workmates:

“… jollied ‘Mac’ about his religion in the factory and finally he soaked Fisher, one of the foremen, in the face and laid him out, and decided to go back to vaudeville… ”


“…there he believes God intervened, when he was about to slip and instead of going back to vaudeville he drifted into evangelistic singing work and has been at it ever since… ”

A BBC Radio Scotland programme in 2007 said this of MacEwan’s early gospel career on the streets of Glasgow:

“…William MacEwan who used his high penetrating tenor voice to gather a crowd on noisy Glasgow city streets, without the aid of any microphone. They can’t sing like that these days… ”

Frank Wappat wrote that:

"...he worked on the premise that 'more people can be reached by singing the gospel than by preaching it'. It is said that his voice could still an angry crowd - and the shrill piercing tenor could certainly penetrate a crowd. To the Saturday night drunks, he would sing 'My mother's prayers have followed me' - often reducing them to tears. Penitents would be led back to his religious Meeting Hall and many there were who professed to having been saved. Indeed, crowds would gather just to hear him sing. His singing style was moulded by appearing in the streets singing to vast crowds before microphones were invented..." My friend Joe in Ayrshire has told me that his father used to cycle up to Glasgow to listen to William McEwan sing.

The Return to America
The first decade of the 20th century was a formative one for William McEwan. I can find no more details just now of these early post-conversion years in Glasgow, but on 21 November 1908 the ship SS Hesperian left Glasgow carrying a 36 year old evangelist called William McEwan, whose race was stated as ‘Scotch’. The ship docked at Moville in Donegal before arriving in Boston on 4th December 1908. Having spent Christmas in America, in January and February 1909 William McEwan was in Boston with two of the world’s most famous evangelists, John Wilbur Chapman (of Indiana) and Charles McCallon Alexander (of east Tennessee).

[Note: Chapman and Alexander organised revival missions in Britain from February - June 1903, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Belfast. See here for a full account. They may well have met William McEwan during this time. Certainly there must have been some connection for William to be whisked across the Atlantic to take part in their US campaigns of 1909]

During the Chapman-Alexander revival campaign William’s role was to lead the singing in ‘Group Five – Roxbury North’ and at Dudley Street Baptist Church. In April McEwan was in Florence, Alabama, and was greeted by The Florence Times report of April 16th with considerable enthusiasm:

“…William McEwan, the noted Gospel soloist who will lead the music in the series of union services to be commenced in the Presbyterian church in this city on the 27th, has had a remarkable career. He was distinguished as an opera singer, and sang in nearly all the large cities of this country and England. He became converted at a gospel meeting in his old home, Glasgow, Scotland, and since then has devoted his rare talents to the work of his Master. A Massachusetts paper in speaking of him says 'William McEwan sings like an opera singer, and this is what he was before he became an evangelist. It is fair to say, too, that no sweeter gospel singer ever lived than this man.' His coming to Florence will be an event indeed…”

November 1909 saw McEwan in the city of Sault Sainte Marie in Michigan, where he worked with New York evangelist Rev Henry Davidson "H.D." Sheldon, an associate of Chapman. A newspaper report of the time said:

“…Mr McEwan will lead the big choir, and will also tell the story of his conversion. This story has interested many in the past, and will doubtless be one of the features to cause the auditorium to be packed on Saturday night… ”

The Evening News of 13 November 1909 reported that:

"...Previous to his conversion Mr McEwan was for seven years an opera singer in the old country... Mr McEwan came to this country a year ago this month after singing the gospel for 12 years in all the principal cities of England, Scotland and Wales. He arrived in Boston in time to assist Dr Chapman in the great campaign in January when he created a wonderful sensation and at once sang his way into the hearts of the people of that city..."

As the Sheldon revival campaign continued, The Decatur Daily Review (Illinois) of 13th February 1910 said that:

“…Mr McEwan is known in many places as ‘The Scotch Sankey’. He has no superior in his line. His voice is a clear tenor, with an unusual range. He sings with a feeling that often brings tears to the eyes of those who hear him. His is listened to with rapt attention…”

Just a few days later, on 19th February, the same paper gave a review of the campaign:

“… the leader of the music, Mr McEwan, won his way with both choir and people. He has a delightful Scotch accent and a warm heart with plenty of the Scotch variety of wit. The people did not sing heartily enough to suit him at first so he admonished them with ‘I am just a common Scotchman; sing, don’t look at me.’ He pleaded that the singing should be full of worship. Mr McEwan has been called the Scotch Sankey. Mr Chapman says that his work is second to none in the field of the singing evangelist…”

In March 1910 he was still in Decatur, Illinois. The Daily Review of March 4 1910 reported that:

“…The service will be conducted by William McEwan who is directing the choir at that church. … by request Mr McEwan will repeat ‘My Ain Country’. As the closing feature of this service, and not the least interesting Mr McEwan will tell the story of his conversion, how he was persuaded to abandon his profession as a singer of light opera and take up religious work as a gospel singer…”

Alongside the article was the notation of McEwan’s self-written hymn “Keep On Praising”. While he was travelling, the family seems to have stayed in Brooklyn, New York City. The 1910 US Census for Brooklyn (dated April 15th) records a traveling evangelist called William McEwan, aged 38, who first came to USA in 1890; his wife Jeanie, aged 38, born Scotland, who first came to USA in 1890; a daughter Jeanie S, aged 17, born in Massachussetts; a son William Jr, aged 11, born in Scotland; and a daughter Mary M, aged 8, born in Scotland.

As the year went on, his popularity soared. On 24th October 1910 The Paducah Evening Sun of Kentucky headlined an article as “Greatest Crowd Attends Revival on Sunday Night - Mr William McEwan sang two songs”.

In December 1910 McEwan was with famous evangelist Dr Reuben Torrey (a colleague of DL Moody, and who had been in Britain with Chapman & Alexander back in 1903), assisting with the music in a revival campaign at Saint John in New Brunswick, Canada. Thousands attended the campaign. They then moved to a three week mission in January 1911 in Windsor, Nova Scotia – crowds as large as 1200 people flocked to the meetings. The Boston Daily Globe reported on 6 February 1911: "...he was assisted by William MacEwan , tenor soloist, who was in Boston with Chapman and Alexander two years ago, and is now associated with Rev Dr R A Torrey…”

So from December 1908 – February 1911, William McEwan made an astonishing impact upon the evangelical world in the United States, singing in at least 6 states, and also in Canada. He was now a musical phenomenon, and just the man whose voice should be captured by the latest in audio technology. William McEwan was bound for London to record his singing for the iPod of its day, the new wind-up 'talking machine' gramophone.

The first recording session
In November 1911, while Chapman and Alexander were conducting a revival mission in Bangor, County Down, William McEwan travelled to London.The Columbia Phonograph Company had opened an office in London in 1900, initially in a five storey building at 122 Oxford Street but later moved to larger premises at 89 Great Eastern Street. They built a disc factory at Bendon Valley, Wandsworth in 1906 to manufacture both records and record players.

Louis Sterling became manager of Columbia (London) in 1909; his strategy for the label was that "they got hold of some of the best voices and instrumentalists in the kingdom and their productions had a great vogue..." (from The Talking Machine Industry by Ogilvie Mitchell, 1924). It is said that by 1913 one third of British households owned a gramophone.

The inlay card for the 1994 Lismor CD sampler ‘William MacEwan – the Original Glasgow Street Singer-Evangelist’ tells the story like this:

“…In 1911 he traveled to London to persuade the Columbia-Rena Record Company to record him singing gospel songs for the working class people. Such were his powers of persuasion that the surprised, but convinced, record company signed him up to record 24 gospel songs at his first session shortly afterwards. With only harmonium for accompaniment, this amazing Scotsman made the world’s first set of gospel songs using the primitive recording apparatus of the day. Microphones had not been invented, so the recordings were made by MacEwan singing into a tin horn attached to which was a rubber tube leading to a cutting needle, etching his voice into a 3/4" thick warmed platter of wax. The harmonium was housed on a platform four feet above the ground and placed near the recording horn…”

The 24 songs were as follows:

Will the Circle Be Unbroken
(Habershon / Gabriel - written 1907) Issue No 1842

Memories of Mother
(Morris / Harkness - written 1910) Issue No 1843

He Lifted Me
(Gabriel - written 1905) Issue No 1844

He Died of A Broken Heart
(Dennis / McKinney - written early 1900s) Issue No 1841

God Will Take Care of You
(Martin / Martin - written 1905) Issue No 1852

My Father Knows
(Henry / Martin - written 1897) Issue No 1849

Some Day
(Staley / Gabriel - written 1911) Issue No 1848

My Ain Countrie
(Demarest - written 1861) Issue No 1850

Only A Sinner
(Gray / Towner - written 1905) Issue No 1842

We Shall Shine as Stars
(J.W. Van de Venter - written 1899) Issue No 1851

Somebody (Did a Golden Deed)
(John R Clements / W.S. Weeden - written 1901) Issue No 1843

His Eye is On the Sparrow
(Martin / Gabriel - written 1905) Issue No 1852

Sometime We’ll Understand
(Cornelius/McGranahan - written 1891) Issue No 1850

My Mother’s Prayer
(J.W. Van de Venter - written 1895) Issue No 1849

All Hail Emmanuel
(Van Sickle / Gabriel - written 1910) Issue No 1845

Gospel Bells
(Martin / Sankey - written 1895) Issue No 1841

Nothing Satisfies but Jesus
(Morris - written 1905) Issue No 1848

Thou Remainest
(Whittle / McGranahan - written 1884) Issue No 1845

Softly & Tenderly
(Will L Thompson - written 1880) Issue No 1844

Nor Silver Nor Gold
(Gray / Towner - written 1900) Issue No 1851

He Will Hold Me Fast
(Habershon / Harkness - written 1906) Issue No 1846

(Harkness - written 1906) Issue No 1847

In Jesus
(Procter / Harkness - written 1903) Issue No 1846

Christ Returneth
(Turner / McGranahan - written 1906) Issue No 1847

Looking back on this track listing exactly 100 years later, to us these are all old, old songs which many readers here will have been familiar with from childhood - if not from McEwan’s original recordings then certainly from other versions recorded later in the 20th century by other gospel singers, or from popular hymnbooks. But in 1911, most of these were fresh, new pieces, written by people who were the Stuart Townends and Keith Gettys of that era. The oldest by quite some distance is the Scots language hymn ‘My Ain Countrie’, which had become something of a signature piece for William McEwan. It's also important to remember that 'popular hymns' were a relatively recent phenomenon, and not without controversy (as the life of hymnwriter Horatius Bonar demonstrates). It was the 1859 revivals in Scotland, Ulster and America that transformed the world of sacred song.

This set of recordings gave McEwan the title of “The World’s First Great Gospel Singer on Record”, and led Columbia to market him as “The World’s Sweetest Gospel Singer”. With the recording completed the 5' 2" McEwan went back to America, sailing on the SS Baltic from Liverpool on 20th December 1911 and arriving in New York on 7th January. He became a megastar.

“…William McEwan is held to be the first gospel tenor in America. In the advertisement of the Columbia Phonograph Co, who have the exclusive right to the records produced from his voice, he is called the world’s sweetest gospel singer… about four years ago he came to this country, where he has become loved as well as famed, for his quaint Scotch ways, his devout piety and pleasant face, as well as a lovely voice…”
- from The Hamilton Daily Republican (Ohio) 29 November 1912

America was now William McEwan's oyster. But war was coming...