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 }