Wednesday 6 January 2016



William MacEwan (sometimes spelled McEwan) was one of the first Gospel recording artists in the world, recording for Columbia Records in November 1911. Glasgow-born, he became a superstar in America, and sold a colossal 250,000 copies of The Old Rugged Cross in Britain alone. He has no known biography. This blog is an attempt to piece his remarkable story together.

Please Note: the content of this blog is currently undergoing an editing process, in both content and presentation. The dates for the recording sessions are from the late Frank Wappat’s work, who proposed that MacEwan’s famous first London recording session was in November 1911, with 82 recordings. However my friend Stuart Eydmann of recently directed me towards another respected discographer who proposes different dates for MacEwan's sessions, beginning c. December 1904, with 120 recordings.Regards, Mark Thompson, January 2016.

BACK IN THE EARLY 1990s during my student days at the Art College in Belfast, Northern Ireland, I did a fair bit of hoking in old second hand bookshops and junk shops around Smithfield Market and other places. This was at the tail end of 'The Troubles', but before the IRA ceasefire and therefore before the prosperity bubble of the late 90s/early 2000s. It was still fairly easy to find remnants of bygone days. The best shops are all now gone.

Digging through boxes and stacks of brittle old 78rpm records, one name appeared over and over again - William MacEwan. It seemed that nearly every charity shop had some of his records, discarded by people who had forgotten him, a once-household name who had been left behind by shifting tastes and the 'progress' of advances like the LP, the audio cassette and the CD.

Around this time an audio cassette triple box-set of all 82 of McEwan's known recordings was issued, on a limited-edition private release by the late Frank Wappat (1930–2014) of BBC North in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. A few years later I learned that McEwan's recording of the Scots language piece My Ain Countree had been one of my late grandfather's favourite songs, it's words found among his personal effects after he died, written in my grandfather's handwriting on two pages of spiral-bound lined paper. I still have the pages. And the 78.

In 2007 a version of My Ain Countree appeared on Smithsonian Folkways CD Sound Neighbours, performed by the band my brother and I were then in, the Low Country Boys. We played it a few times at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that year, but more importantly over the years Graeme and I have managed to bring it back to popular attention here at home, and in Scotland, re-introducing people to a slice of heritage that was almost lost.

Despite William MacEwan's obvious popularity and commercial success, I have never been able to find a definitive biography of him and so I had no idea of the sheer scale of his musical achievements. Throughout 2011 I gathered up as much information about him as I could find. These blog posts are my attempt to piece together something of his story and to give him his place back for our globally-connected digital generation, in the hope that this is of some help to others. These posts were originally published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his first recording session, for Columbia Records in London, in November 1911.

This is the story of how a poor Glasgow boy, of Ayrshire parents and an Ireland-born grandfather, became one of the biggest musical names in the world.