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...



Unknown said...

Hi, I have come across a leathet bound Columbia records case with what looks like most of William McEwans gospel recordings.

Looking to sell them if you are interested.



Mark Thompson said...

Hi Chris - yes am potentially interested – can you email me?