How the Windrush Generation laid the foundation for UK gospel music by Roy Francis

Author Roy Francis gives insight into the role music played in the lives and worship styles of the Windrush Generation.

On 22nd June 1948, an old troop carrier, The Empire Windrush, slipped into the Docks at Tilbury in the East End of London, once the principal port for handling goods and grain coming into the UK. On board the old carrier were 492 West Indians who had travelled 8,000 miles to get to Britain. 

They had come because work was plentiful, and because they saw it as their patriotic duty to ‘go and help rebuild the Mother Country’… or at least that’s what the poster said back home. This incident – and those West Indians who subsequently came in the 1950s and 60s – marked the beginning of a wave of migration from the Caribbean, bringing people who are now called the ‘Windrush Generation’. 

It is against this background that West Indian Christians also came to Britain. Many were regular churchgoers in their homeland, and belonged to many of the established churches there. Others were Pentecostals, who were part of the network of independent churches that had been operating in the West Indies since the turn of the century. 

It is now well documented how badly the indigenous Christians reacted, and how badly they treated West Indian Christians when they turned up for Sunday services in their localities. What is not so well known is how those who were Pentecostal fared. What Pentecostals did when they arrived in Britain, mainly in the 1960s, was to look for other Pentecostals like themselves, and they started to hold ‘prayer meetings’ in each other’s homes. At first, these meetings were in secret – so as not to attract attention – and they were usually held after work, on either a Wednesday or a Friday evening. From people’s homes, these groups went on to rent church halls to hold their services and, as a church, began to put down roots to develop and grow. 

Churches back then didn’t have any instruments to accompany their singing – perhaps only a tambourine – and they would sing their hymns and choruses, clap their hands, and stamp their feet, which Joel Edwards, in his book, Let’s Praise Him Again, described as songs that incorporate ‘a bold simplicity and urgency, conveyed by repetitive and uncompromising directness.’

At first, hymns were central to this group of West Indians and, although both the New Testament Church of God, the Church of God of Prophecy and the Seventh-Day Adventists had their own hymn books, most churches used one of two hymn books: Sacred Songs and Solos by Ira D. Sankey or The Redemption Hymnal, published by the Elim Pentecostal Church in 1951. Apart from hymns, songs that people brought with them from the West Indies played their part in West Indian worship. Hymns were sung in three- or four-part harmonies, and each singer was expected to find their own ‘voice’ (harmony) as a hymn progressed. Hymns were ‘tracked’, which allowed everyone to join in, even if they couldn’t read or didn’t have a hymn book. 

‘Tracking a hymn’ has long been associated with the Southern States of America, where it’s called ‘lining’, but it is thought to have originated in Scotland, taken to the Southern States of America and, in the 1780s, found its way into Jamaica. Tracking a hymn is when a member of a congregation reads aloud the words of a hymn, line by line as it’s being sung, with the congregation joining in, singing each line simultaneously, which continues until the end of the hymn.

As West Indian churches settled and became established in Britain, they began to add instruments to their services. Almost anyone who had an instrument could join in and play in a church service. All they had to do was bring along their instrument, set themselves up alongside the existing players, and join in and play. Musicians then played ‘by ear’, which meant that they played without notes and played as they heard the music. But it’s in the singing of choruses that the true identity of West Indian church music finds its true expression – a time when voices, music, hands clapping, feet stomping and tambourine playing become one in a moment of a unique expression of joy and praise. There’s nothing like it! Donnie McClurkin’s ‘Caribbean Medley’ on his Live in London CD is a good example of this, and comes very close.

Until 1966, West Indian church music remained a closed affair, until it came into contact with the songs of the Billy Graham Crusade. This influenced Black Christians and left a lasting impression. Although in 1966 the West Indian community in Britain was still relatively small, many West Indian Christians went to the Earl’s Court Crusade. They enjoyed this national public display of evangelical Christianity, and returned to their churches spiritually uplifted and fulfilled. Crucially they took away with them the free song book with all the songs they’d learnt at the Crusade. Soon they were singing ‘Blessed Assurance’, ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, ‘I Am Thine, O Lord’, ‘Love Lifted Me’ and ‘How Great Thou Art’, which they had learnt at the Crusade. Over time, many of these and other Crusade songs became part of West Indian church music, and have remained so ever since.

The next big change in West Indian church music came with the emergence of groups like The Soul Seekers, The Singing Stewarts, The Harmonisers, The Persuaders and other church groups, who were leading the way to a new form of West Indian church music. This was a complete break from the past, but still within accepted West Indian church music limits; it was accepted and not rejected. Moreover, because it also incorporated many of the new sounds coming out of the 1960s, it appealed to the young people in the church, who championed it. 

Another significant change in West Indian church music came with the music of Jim Reeves and Tennessee Ernie Ford. These were two American country music singers, whose music became very popular in West Indian church circles. In fact, every West Indian home in the 60s and 70s had a Jim Reeves record, and even those who didn’t attend church would always play his gospel songs on Sundays. ‘We Thank Thee’ is perhaps Jim Reeves’ best loved gospel album and, of the 12 tracks on this album, half of them, including ‘Never Grow Old’, ‘I’ll Fly Away’, ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus Than Silver or Gold’, ‘Across the Bridge’, ‘Have Thine Own Way, Lord’, ‘Where Do I Go From Here?’ and ‘This World is Not My Home’, were all sung regularly in West Indian churches. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s songs were also very popular and, because it had a mid-tempo beat, his songs could easily be turned into choruses. Examples of these are: ‘When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart’, ‘I Can Tell You the Time’, ‘I Can Take You to the Place’ and ‘Have a Little Talk with Jesus’.

Unfortunately, many of the songs West Indians brought over with them to Britain – the songs of Jim Reeves and Tennessee Ernie Ford – and those sung at the Billy Graham Crusade are now hardly ever heard. What has endured, however, are the main West Indian churches that started in people’s front rooms and are still going and very much a part of Britain’s religious life. These are the Church of God in Christ, the New Testament Church of God, the Church of God of Prophecy, and my own father’s church, the International Pentecostal Church of the First-Born.    

Roy Francis is a music consultant/gospel music promoter/agent, who has just released his debut book, How to Make Gospel Music Work For You. 

To purchase a copy, visit www.rfproductions.co.uk.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *