William McEwan: The Feisty Scot that Pioneered American Gospel Recording

I have been working close to eight years now on a project involving early Gospel recordings with some friends, and for the moment that is about all that I can say about it. However, it will be very comprehensive in regard to Gospel recording up through 1900.  Homer Rodeheaver’s recording career opened up a new chapter in Gospel recording and transformed it from a limited, occasional undertaking to part of the regular diet of the record companies. But Homer did not set foot into recording studio until 1913; what of the singers that were recording Gospel between Sankey’s last cylinder — circa 1900 — and Homer’s first test?

A couple of weeks ago Rebecca and I went to New York’s City College to deliver a talk on bandleader Hal Kemp, sponsored by the ARSC New York Chapter. On my way back, we stopped in Western Pennsylvania and picked up right around a hundred records, ranging from Uncle Josh to The Monkees. I was thinking of featuring many of them here, but Rebecca warned that sometimes the small projects that I undertake take time away from the big ones, and that she feels sometimes that I do them in order to avoid the big ones. It’s a wise observation, and I feel I should temper my enthusiasm about our finds with a sense of knowing what’s really important.

This one does, I think, pass muster:

William McEwan, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" in its American release, recorded in London November 1911.
William McEwan, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in its American release, recorded in London November 1911.

William McEwan — Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1911)

I had never heard of William McEwan, despite all of the years that I have put into studying early Gospel records. McEwan was a Scottish singer who took over for Homer Rodeheaver in the William E. Biederwulf campaigns in 1909 when Rody joined Billy Sunday that year. McEwan also beat Rody into the studio by nearly two years, recording several of the same hymns Rody himself would do starting in 1913. Finding him, at first, proved a difficult matter. Rebecca — who is of Scottish extraction, and would know — told me that the name “William McEwan” was rather common among the Scots, and my first candidate was a brewer, born in the 1820s, and certainly not my guy. The Scottish folksinger Mark Thompson, however, has posted a blog that contains most of McEwan’s story:

100 Years of William McEwan

I say “most of” as it breaks off just before McEwan enters into the studio for the second time in 1922; he is said to have made 82 recordings, which have been compiled onto cassettes or CDs already in some form. As the first 24 of them were waxed in 1911 then the remaining 58 must’ve been made from 1922-1942.

Gipsy Smith in his Salvation Army uniform. Dismissed in 1882, he went on as a traveling evangelist for another 65 (!) years.
Gypsy Smith in his Salvation Army uniform. Dismissed in 1882, he went on as a traveling evangelist for another 65 (!) years.

This is not designed to be a long blog post, and before I close I wanted to address some of the claims Thompson makes in regard to Gospel recording between Sankey and Rodeheaver. General William Booth’s few recordings, made in 1905, are notable, but not musical. Gipsy Smith (1860-1947) recorded 13 sides for Columbia in 1910 and, like McEwan, made no more until 1922; four additional titles for Columbia, followed by five more at the Richmond, Indiana Starr Piano Company studio in a 1923 session probably set up by Homer Rodeheaver. I know of no more recordings of Gipsy Smith, though if anyone knows of more I would be happy to hear about them.

There are two figures that Thompson leaves out that are worth mentioning. First is singer Henry Burr (1882-1941), the most prolific recording artist in world history, narrowly edging out Bollywood playback singer Lata Mangheshkar. Homer Rodeheaver credited Burr with being his inspiration and acknowledged him as his direct forerunner in recording Gospel songs. Although some may have trouble distinguishing the significance of Burr’s sacred output from the thousands of other recordings he made, I think Rody is right here. One thing we have learned from the project that I mentioned at the start of this post is that the early record industry maintained a rather cool attitude towards Gospel and didn’t go out of its way to embrace it, despite ample public sentiment in favor of it. Burr’s persistence in recording Gospel was significant, and it paid off, eventually; he began making records in 1902 and made sacred records from the very beginning. Homer’s own battered copy of “Throw Out the Lifeline” featuring Burr and Frank C. Stanley — on Standard, and from 1908 — still resides at the Winona History Center. Burr had basically retired from recording when Rodeheaver persuaded him to join in on a session in 1927; though Burr would go on to a long career singing on the WLS National Barn Dance in his last years, this duet with Rodeheaver and organist Mark Andrews was his ca. 14,000th and final commercial recording.

Henry Burr's last record, with Homer Rodeheaver, 1927
Henry Burr’s last record, with Homer Rodeheaver, 1927

Homer Rodeheaver & Henry Burr: Where the Gates Swing Outward Never (1927)

Note that both audio selections, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Where the Gates Swing Outward Never” were composed by Charles H. Gabriel (1856-1932). Rodeheaver recorded “Where the Gates” several times with Gabriel himself as the second voice for Rainbow, but alas, never made an electrical recording of it with Gabriel as he did with Burr.

Finally there is the matter of Charles M. Alexander (1867-1920), whose scant output of recording I have long known about, thanks to my friend Norman Field’s website.

Charles Alexander

By rights we ought not to have Alexander’s voice at all, despite his importance in evangelism; he didn’t really accept recording with enthusiasm, and most of what he did was not published. However, as with General Booth, what little we have we ought to be grateful for, as I am grateful now to know of William McEwan and his place among early Gospel recordists.

— Uncle Dave Lewis Hamiton, OH 6-30-2015

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One thought on “William McEwan: The Feisty Scot that Pioneered American Gospel Recording

  1. Dear Mr Lewis – in searching for Gypsy Smith information this evening I found this page. You might be interested to know that I’m refreshing those old William MacEwan blog posts, improving the writing, correcting some errors, and adding nuance where necessary. They really are just a scrapbook rather than proper scholarship. They now live at this dedicated blog: http://williammacewangospelmusic.blogspot.co.uk

    Best Regards,
    Mark Thompson
    Northern Ireland

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