Review of British Black Gospel, by Steve Alexander Smith (Monarch Books, 2009)

Cover Photo of British Black Gospel by Steve Alexander-Smith

The Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir is proud to be a part of the British gospel scene, and at eleven years of age has some claim to venerability, having worked with many of the “greats” of UK gospel in some very august venues. Therefore I was embarrassed to be reading Steve Alexander Smith’s eye-opening and (in parts) heart-moving history of gospel music in the UK a full seven years after it was published in 2009. But as I read, it occurred to me that Smith’s book is just like the music about which he writes: worthy of a much wider audience.

It also brought back distant memories of Ian Carr’s “Music Outside”, a similarly pioneering chronicle of jazz in Britain written in the 1960’s, which I also read almost ten years after publication. So many of the themes and frustrations are common to both books: in a genre invented and dominated by an African-American juggernaut, what role is there for British musicians? Is there a specifically British sound, or is this a global genre in which the status of British artists is no different from Texan, Californian or Jamaican artists? And how to persuade the British audience, mesmerised by big American stars and buying their tickets and their recordings, that the music produced on their own doorstep is just as fine?

But there is of course much more to the story of British gospel than how to co-exist with its colossal American progenitor. Smith traces Britain’s contact with American gospel music back into the nineteenth century (“Queen Victoria listened to…Steal Away To Jesus and Go Down Moses…and was moved…”). For me the most ear-opening part of the book deals with immigration from the Caribbean after the War and into the 1950’s and 1960’s, because I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of Otis Wright or Wilfrid “Jackie” Edwards and listened to their music online as I read about them (Otis Wright’s 1969 Man from Galilee is a thing of beauty).

I was also very struck by how most British gospel artists of the 1970’s and 1980’s had had to struggle for acceptance within their church communities – naively I assumed that since these were their points of origin, they must have been welcome there. Smith deals masterfully and tactfully with those old chestnuts of Christian church music: is the music of the secular world “the devil’s music”, or is it just music, which like most things can be given over for the praise and service of Jesus? And once music, or the musician, is placed at Jesus’s service, should it (or he or she) go out into the secular world? Does that cheapen the music, or is it bringing the good news of Christ into the world?

In contrast to the plethora of talented singers and players who have emerged in the UK, Smith’s chronicle also underlined how crucial the vision and tenacity of a few key individuals - choir directors, band leaders, producers and entrepreneurs alike - has been to the growth and integrity of British gospel. For example, he highlights the contribution of the leader of the LCGC, Basil Meade, “without doubt the godfather of British Gospel music…who should be given credit for bringing Gospel to the attention of the general public.” Truly the genre in Britain would be a shadow of its present self without the relentless efforts of a handful of dedicated builders (among them, John Francis, Delroy Powell, Karen Gibson and Noel Robinson). And, it has to be said, the foresight of the Greenbelt Festival in promoting British gospel music in the early 1980’s.

Smith touches relatively briefly on the African contribution to gospel in Britain: if he were to write a follow-up in 2019 I suspect a much larger proportion of the book would be dedicated to those of African, especially Nigerian, extraction, who are now numerically dominant in British black-majority churches and very influential in their music. My private sadness is that those sounds I associate with the Caribbean, of Otis Wright for example, are quite difficult to detect in most modern British gospel music (on the CD included in Smith’s book, only one song out of thirteen is obviously West Indian in feel, Spanna’s Mummy’s Prayer). Perhaps this is because the relationship between the Christian church and reggae is even more fraught than that between the Christian church and soul or funk – I desperately wanted Smith to unpack that. And I’d have loved some of Mark Beswick’s Caribbean-tinged praise music on the CD.

My impression is that sounds one associates with Africa are much more present in British gospel music today (I counted three distinctly African tracks on the CD), and my guess is that this trend will continue in the coming decades. But let’s not be ashamed or disappointed that most gospel music, like almost every other kind of music in the world today, sounds American. What matters is that it glorifies God, and sounds good.  

Miko Giedroyc (July 28, 2016)

British Black Gospel: The Foundations of This Vibrant UK Sound by Steve Alexander Smith et al. is available from Amazon and other good booksellers.