Alex McEwen, Folk singer
BORN: 16 May, 1935, in Polwarth, Berwickshire. Died: 6 December, 2008, in Colmonell, Ayrshire, aged 73.
ALEX McEwen was an unlikely candidate to be a folk and blues singer. An old Etonian, he was the son of Scottish laird and Tory MP Sir John McEwen, and he had a French governess as a child. But as soon as he finished his national service with the Cameron Highlanders, "Eck" abandoned the family estate around Marchmont House, Berwickshire, and headed for the United States with his big brother, Rory, guitars under their arms.
Their aim was to seek out some of their folk and blues heroes, such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Leadbelly, but the duo, calling themselves simply Rory and Alex McEwen, ended up taking the US by storm in 1955 with their poignant Scottish ballads.
Scots and Irish music had permeated North America since the previous century with the influx of immigrants but had largely metamorphosed into uniquely American music – country, bluegrass, hillbilly and the like. Here was a duo fresh in from Scotland, with the traditional ballads and real Scottish accents (they naturally dropped the Etonian influence when singing). Instead of just meeting their American heroes, they made their own mark, and their ballads and delivery influenced not only Seeger and his generation, but also young folk wannabes such as Bob Dylan, who put his own lyrics to numerous melodies "borrowed" from such Scots ballads as The Road to Dundee. Dylan's melody for the breakthrough The Times They are a'Changin' had more than a hint of the 51st Highland Division's Farewell to Sicily.
During a later tour by the duo, the young Dylan, under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt, backed them on harmonica in New York's Greenwich village, and he remained a friend and admirer of the two Scots.
During their original stay in the US, from 1955-57, the McEwens were aided by the fact that many of the domestic folk singers, including Seeger and Guthrie, had been blacklisted for "un-American activities" – branded as communists. Being foreigners, the McEwens were free to perform anywhere. As they toured the US, word spread and they were soon hired to cut two albums for the renowned Folkways label.
On Great Scottish Ballads (1956), the songs included The Twa' Sisters, later picked up (though sometimes known as The Wind and Rain) by artists including Pentangle, Jerry Garcia and Dylan himself. The brothers found themselves appearing on the most popular US TV programme of the time, the Ed Sullivan Show, two nights in a row, as well as the Arthur Godfrey Show, with an audience of 40 million.
Their second album, Scottish Songs and Ballads (1957), featured such classics as Jock o' Hazeldean and Leezy Lindsay, and became an inspiration to future generations of folk singers including the Corries and the early Billy Connolly.
After Rory returned to the UK, his brother stayed on in New York, where he learned finger-picking, Mississippi Delta-style blues in Harlem from the legendary Rev Gary Davis.
By the early 1960s, Rory had become famous in the UK for his satirical calypsos, jointly written with the journalist Bernard Levin, on the BBC's Tonight show. Eck also appeared regularly with his brother on the show. While it was a news programme, Tonight's satirical content inspired the breakthrough That Was The Week That Was, including calypsos by Lance Percival.
McEwen also played with his brother on the ATV folk and blues series Hullabaloo, presented by Rory, a concept that would eventually inspire Rory's son-in law, Jools Holland, for his Later with … show.
From 1961-65, Eck had his own show, Alex Awhile, on STV, but he continued to sing with his brother in clubs around the UK, notably in London's Ballads and Blues Club on Wardour Street, as well as at the Edinburgh Festival and the Keele Folk Festival.
In 1960, Eck McEwen married into European royalty, having met the London-born Austrian Countess Cecilia von Weikersheim, a distant relative of Queen Victoria, while skiing in the Alps. With Rory married to Romana von Hofmannsthal, the daughter of the New York socialite Alice Astor, the McEwen brothers became part of a party scene on both sides of the Atlantic that included Princess Margaret and such 1960s icons as Dylan, supermodel Jean Shrimpton, Beatle George Harrison and actor Terence Stamp.
As a musician, Eck McEwen had always been happiest playing with his brother and he never launched a solo career after Rory decided to focus on painting and became one of the UK's leading botanical artists. While most might say Eck had the sweeter voice, Rory had been the extrovert, the born performer of the two.
In 1965, when folk gave way to the Mersey sound and Dylan went electric, Eck abruptly changed careers. He joined the Edinburgh-founded booksellers and newsagent John Menzies, starting at the bottom by selling newspapers and ending up as personnel director. He retired to become a farmer in 1985, first to Whiteside, Berwickshire, then as laird of the family's remaining estate, Bardrochat in Ayrshire (Marchmont having been sold), where he farmed, bought and sold art, notably Scottish watercolourists, indulged his passion for fishing and paid some bills by allowing photo shoots by magazines such as Vogue.
After selling up five years ago, he spent his latter years at Colmonell, Ayrshire, where he fished salmon on the river Stinchar until he died.
Alexander Dundas McEwen was born in the family seat, the 18th-century Marchmont House, one of six brothers and a sister, Kisty, who would become the well-known historian and hostess the Dowager Lady Hesketh (she died in 2006). As boys, he and Rory would chase butterflies, stalk deer, "guddle" – tickle and catch fish with their hands – and, when unsupervised, shoot salmon with their .22 rifles.
When Rory died in 1982, throwing himself in front of a London Tube train in South Kensington after suffering from a brain tumour, his brother was devastated. He only ever sang again for family and friends. Four of his other five brothers also died before him.
He is survived by his wife, Cecilia, sons Hugo and Alexander, daughter Sophie, brother John and five grandchildren.
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