Playing music for the angels
For 79 years Elizabeth Gumbs has been a fixture on the organ at First Church of God, Angle Street.
In her early days, shortly after the Second World War started, she had to remember to pump the instrument with her foot so that the music could be heard.
“The one I played on had foot pedals like a car,” the 96-year-old said. “The more you pumped the pedals the louder it got.”
Her parents, James and Drusilla Robinson, noticed her passion for music when she was ten.
“My father always had the radio tuned to this one channel,” she recalled. “No one was allowed to change it. When I heard piano music playing on that channel my fingers would tap along like I was playing.”
The family didn’t have a lot of money for luxuries. Mr Robinson ran a farm on what is now The Glebe Road in Pembroke; his wife had plenty of work to do at home.
“I was the ninth of 21 children,” Ms Gumbs said. “Not all of my mother’s babies survived. In those days, babies died just catching a cold.”
Her parents paid for her organ lessons with Agatha Henderson in chickens, a practice common in the 1930s. “Everyone wanted to take lessons with her,” Ms Gumbs said.
In between classes, she practised on her father’s guitar until he won a piano in a raffle.
Ms Henderson would often sit at the piano, send her out of the room and strike a note.
“She would [then] sing out, ‘What key am I playing?’ and I would tell her,” Ms Gumbs said. “She would strike several keys and I would tell her. I just had a good listening ear when it came to music. I knew the sound and I knew the key that was being played.”
Perhaps because of that skill, she was never content to play a song exactly as it was written.
“[Ms Henderson] would smack my hand and say, ‘That is not in the book!’ I would say, ‘But that doesn’t sound right!’ She couldn’t get me to play it as it was.”
She did the same when she took exams with the Royal Academy of Music at 12.
“The man giving the examination was laughing, but I passed,” Ms Gumbs said.
Her music teacher later insisted that she was a composer at heart.
“Everyone who is born in this world is born with a gift,” Ms Gumbs said. “That was mine. I like to make it sound nice.”
Her lessons at the Central School did not go as well. A shy, quiet child, she was often bullied by her classmates.
“I remember they would put a sandwich in my desk then tell the teacher that I was a sandwich thief,” she said, recalling how she would then be spanked with a cane.
She left school to work as a maid at 13. Then singing in the choir at First Church of God, she met Joseph Nathaniel Gumbs who she married four years later.
“I used to sing his favourite song, Make Me A Blessing,” she said.
In December 1978, she went to a youth conference in Ohio. Impressed by her skills as an organist, the minister there asked her to stay on. For three years she played the organ for weddings, funerals and other church events.
Her husband remained in Bermuda. And then in 1982, he called, wanting her to come home.
“He said he was sick,” she said.
She didn’t remember him having a sick day in his life, so she went back.
“I’m glad I did because he died a year later,” she said. “He had cancer on his lungs.”
She returned to play at First Church of God although she no longer sits at the organ every week.
Until recently, she would practise on a small keyboard in her home.
“Unfortunately, someone put the wrong adapter in it,” she said. “When I went to plug it in, the keyboard blew up. It went boom. The plug in the wall was on fire. I pulled it out of the wall with the cord.”
Ms Gumbs has four children, ten grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
She is proud that many of them are also musical.
• Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Tuesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or email@example.com with their full name, contact details and the reason you are suggesting them
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