Thursday, January 11, 2018

William McEwan (The World's Sweetest Gospel Singer) - the Joe Nabney recordings, wartime service, and obituary

Exactly 100 years ago William McEwan was training American soldiers to sing, having been inspired by seeing the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders parading through Glasgow in full voice, on their way to the Second Boer War in South Africa, around 1900. Apparently American soldiers didn’t sing, they were known as the ‘silent army’, and William McEwan’s task was to change that. He had them smiling, whistling, and singing, often in quartet style harmonies!

I think I’m now pretty much finished with McEwan’s story, having posted some articles about him here in 2011, then collating and tidying those up into a blog of their own in 2016, and now recently having located a few missing pieces in the puzzle. Hopefully some biographer or broadcast producer can now pick up on it and do something more professional with him (hint hint).

What gee’d me up to finish McEwan was finding, on Apple Music, the Joe Nabney tribute album from apparently 1978, but I thought was a fair bit older than that, which you can listen online here. I am pretty sure Nabney was from Belfast, perhaps somebody out there can let me know more about him, I am familiar with him from my parents having talked about him.1200x630bb

I had known that McEwan enlisted with the US Army, but nothing more. I've now found out that he was recruited to be a singing instructor to help with morale, firstly at training camps in the USA and then in France. His son William had enlisted as a medic on 21 July 1917, just a few months after the USA entered the Great War. By 1st August William senior was marching squads of men around training yards, singing their hearts out. A month later he was off to France. There are some brilliant stories about his time in the army from digitised newspapers. I’ve added a complete page to the McEwan blog here.

Below: from The Leaf-Chronicle (Clarksville, Tennessee), 29 August 1917

McEwan Lauder


Here is his obituary from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, 24 June 1943. OBIT

Advert from The York Daily newspaper from York, Pennsylvania, from 19 November 1915 below. Gospel music, and popular hymnwriting, is/was a combination of the spiritual (in the words – but some of course legitimately view them as ‘uninspired’ when compared with the Psalms), the secular (maybe again in the words, but definitely in the melodies, tunes, tempos, songwriting approaches and instrumentation) and the commercial (because publishing houses, copyright firms and record companies all make money). That 'tension' leads to some interesting discussions even still today. 1915