Alex (Eck) McEwen

b. 1935    d. 2008

Willy’s Rare

From the record Folksong Jubilee EMI CLP 1220 1958.

From The Scotsman, 16 December 2008, by Phil Davidson:

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

From The Carrick Gazette, 17 December 2008:

Battle o’er for musician Eck : Burial at family home for friend of the Royals

A LONE piper played the lament beneath a cold, leaden sky, as one of Colmonell’s best-known sons, Alex ‘Eck’ McEwen, embarked on his final journey this week. Musician and businessman Mr McEwen, once of Bardrochat House, was buried in a private family plot outside the village on Monday having suffered a fatal heart attack last week, aged 73.

As part of a duo with his late elder brother Rory, he was a highly regarded exponent of Scottish folk music, achieving international acclaim during the 1950s and 1960s. He was also a noted blues guitarist and singer. Later, the brothers made regular appearances on BBC1’s Tonight programme, with Mr McEwen eventually hosting the Scottish Television show, Alex Awhile. The son of Sir John and Lady Bridget McEwen, he was educated at Eton, did his National Service in the Cameron Highlanders and married an Austrian princess – Cecilia, of Weikersham, by whom he is survived, along with daughter Sophie, sons Alexander and Hugo and five grandchildren.

Alex McEwen’s list of friends and associates includes many of the leading lights of the Swinging Sixties – ranging from fellow musicians such as Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Pete Seeger, Van Morrison, Jules Holland and Joan Baez, to comedian Billy Connolly. Members of the Royal family were among his eclectic inner circle.

He was also a highly successful businessman and, in later life, devoted much of his time to farming and fishing.

Monday’s Requiem Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Girvan, conducted by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, was a private affair. Only the large number of expensive, luxury cars – Bentleys, Jaguars, a Maserati, Range Rovers – among the 20-plus vehicles in the cortege and a discreet police presence nearby indicated anything out of the ordinary.

One of the most easily identifiable mourners was Princess of Michael of Kent who, with a smile and wave to a Carrick Gazette reporter and photographer, drove off at the wheel of a modest red Volvo estate, with a lady-in-waiting occupying the front passenger seat.

Piper Jamie Fraser, who had accompanied the coffin while playing Oft in the Still Night, concluded with The Battle’s O’er which, he said, had been requested by Mr McEwen.

Then the procession travelled to Bardrochat House, now owned by a son of the Duke of Wellington, where assembled mourners – royal, aristocrats and commoners alike – were ferried by tractor and trailer to the graveside for their last farewells.

From The Telegraph, 8 January 2009:

Alex McEwen, Aristocratic folk singer who took lessons in Harlem and found fame on both sides of the Atlantic.

Alex McEwen, who has died aged 73, was the 6th Laird of Bardrochat in Carrick and enjoyed a successful career as a folk singer in the 1950s and early 1960s.

As young men, McEwen and his older brother Rory travelled around the United States, paying their way as guitar-playing folk singers. They were rewarded with two appearances (in which they sang traditional Scottish songs) on the Ed Sullivan Show, an accolade accorded to only a few artists, among them Elvis Presley and The Beatles.

On their return to Britain the brothers attained national celebrity as folk singers; Billy Connolly and Van Morrison are just two of those who have acknowledged the McEwens as formative influences.

Alexander Dundas McEwen was born on May 16 1935, the fifth of seven children, at his family’s principal home, Marchmont, in Berwickshire. His father, Captain JHF McEwen, was a poet, translator and local Tory MP who subsequently became Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and was created a baronet. The McEwens were Roman Catholics; Alex’s father was a convert, while his mother had been born into the faith as a granddaughter on the distaff side of the 14th Lord Lovat.

At Eton, Alex was a sporting man, playing fullback for the school rugby XV. Influenced by their father’s love of traditional Scottish and French songs and their eldest brother Jamie’s passion for jazz and blues, Alex and Rory decided to learn the guitar. It was the blend of Scottish ballads, courtly French songs, sea shanties and the blues which gave the McEwen brothers their distinctive repertoire. They presented themselves as troubadours, tying silk ribbons to their instruments. On completing his National Service as an officer in the Cameron Highlanders, his father’s regiment, where his bomb-defusing technique showed a distinct disdain for danger, Alex declined a place at Cambridge to join Rory on their tour of the United States.

On arriving in New York they were put up by a family friend, Alice Astor, and were immediately welcomed into the world of her daughter, Romana von Hofmannsthal, destined to marry Rory.

Through the network of these new friends they managed to pay their way playing as a duo at parties and at some well-known New York venues, including the Blue Angel. They then travelled across the country, for much of the way accompanied by Karl Miller, later the founder of the London Review of Books, and his wife Jane.

When Rory returned home in 1957 to establish himself on the BBC’s peak-time evening television programme Tonight, Alex stayed in New York. He transformed his guitar technique by taking lessons from the Rev “Blind” Gary Davis, the “Harlem street singer” who influenced Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. Alex McEwen and Dylan are even thought to have played together at one gig. Once back in England in 1958, Alex joined the rota of singers on Tonight.

McEwen was, however, a countryman at heart; and in order to take over one of the Marchmont farms he studied agriculture at Moulton College, Northamptonshire. In 1960 he married Countess Cecilia Weikersheim, daughter of Prince Franz Weikersheim, of the imperial house of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, and Princess Irma Windisch-Grätz. After the wedding Alex and Cecilia settled at Whiteside on the Marchmont estate, and he combined farming with a flourishing musical career. He had a successful series on STV, Alex Awhile; a subsequent series on Border TV; and he headed the cast with Rory in their sell-out concert shows at successive Edinburgh Festivals. Among their guests were Martin Carthy, Bob Davenport, “Ramblin’’ Jack Elliott, Carolyne Hester, George Melly and the fiddler Dave Swarbrick (later of Fairport Convention).

Alex McEwen also appeared regularly on Rory’s late night music show Hullabaloo for independent television, a forerunner of Later with Jools Holland – the connection was reinforced when Jools Holland married Rory’s youngest daughter, Christabel.

With the fashion for pop music and the electric guitar replacing that for folk and jazz, and with three children to support, McEwen started a career with John Menzies in Edinburgh, whose chairman, Johnny Menzies, was a Berwickshire friend and neighbour. He was soon promoted to the board as personnel manager, a position he held until he took early retirement in 1985.

Music was not McEwen’s only artistic talent. He sculpted and carved with skill for his own amusement, wrote poems and had an eye for pictures which he put to use as a private dealer after he retired from Menzies. The parties he and Cecilia gave were famous, and invariably ended with a guitar session and rousing audience participation. Over the years many well-known faces were to be seen, from Terence Stamp and Jean Shrimpton in the 1960s to Drue Heinz (who gave McEwen a parrot which he cherished), Stephen Fry and Jools Holland.

McEwen was proud to be a Scots laird and a member of the Royal Company of Archers, the Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland. He loved the Scottish countryside and was a crack shot as well as a deft fly fisherman. On Bardrochat’s notoriously terrible grouse shoots, guests walked miles for no reward and loved it because of the spirit and humour of their host.

Alex McEwen, who died on December 4, is survived by his wife, his daughter and two sons.