Genre: Folk/world (instrumental guitar)
Playing time: 51 minutes
Availability (out of 3): *
Related website(s): http://www.folkways.si.edu/joseph-spence-bahamian-master-guitarist/world/music/article/smithsonian
My rating: 9/10
I like… The sponataneity, the vibrancy, slightly exotic feel, variations and improvisations
I’m less keen on… The lack of polish won’t appeal to some (but doesn’t put me off – it’s simply the trade-off for spontaneity). The vocals need to be accepted rather than enjoyed.
The revival of interest in “folk” music in the 1950s – which embraced several acoustic genres – led to a search for some former great players and singers from the 1920s and 1930s, and also to widespread travel to capture “field recordings” in obscure places by local people who sang or played on a purely amateur basis.
The hope of those who undertook such journeys was, of course, to make a great discovery. Obviously, the search for great music from people hitherto unheard of was far more fickle. Huge amounts of music were captured, much of it interesting. Little of it was great, however.
Joseph Spence was one great exception.
To this day, despite some of his material being covered by some great players such as Woody Mann, Ry Cooder, John Renbourn and Ralph McTell, his spontaneity, vibrancy and improvisations have proved impossible to capture by others. I first came across his name in a guitar tutor book.
Joseph Spence was a manual labourer and sponge fisher from the Bahamas. He was born in 1910 and died in 1984. He was a self-taught acoustic steel-string guitar player and extremely innovative and accomplished. His best known piece is “Great Dream From Heaven” due to renditions of it by such luminaries as Ralph McTell, John Renbourn and Ry Cooder. Ry Cooder’s version (on the album “Into The Purple Valley”) is particularly delightful.
The notes to the album make a fascinating
read. They recount the expedition to the Bahamas – long before it became a significant tourist destination – by Sam Charters.
And Sam Charters’ dreams were completely fulfilled when he heard – or, more accurately, overheard – the playing of Joseph Spence.
The sleeve notes describe how Charters had heard some music from the Bahamas on an old record and decided to track down what authentic traditional music he could. At that time some of the islands were still impoverished, undiscovered by tourism, and isolated enough for their music to have retained its own identity as opposed to being fused with – or engulfed by – calypso music from nearby Trinidad. After capturing a few various recordings, Charters and his assistant went on an afternoon walk.
They approached a house under construction and heard guitar music – “some of the most exuberant, spontaneous and uninhibited guitar playing we had ever heard.” Such was the sound that Charters, seeing the seated Spence, then glanced around to see the second guitarist. There was none.
The recordings that Sam Charters captured created quite a stir back in the US. Other recordings were made, but they didn’t match these first ones. In part this was because although Joseph was a manual labourer, he was doing little such work at the time when Sam Charters first met him. His hands were less calloused and his playing more practiced as a result.
Secondly, he was out of his comfort zone on later recordings. Accompanied on the recordings – and on some tours – by the Pindar family, he was being pushed into a mold that didn’t suit him. He was at his best playing solo to a bunch of friends on a back porch or lounge than to a crowd in a formal setting. He was at his best, too, playing music and arrangements of his own choice than in a more vocal-driven gospel setting.
If checking out Joseph Spence’s music please bear in mind that some of the samples (for example on Youtube) don’t represent his best material. Also be aware that some are incorrectly titled!
This album, then, is the place to start for those interested in his playing!
comes in a good, old-fashioned jewel case and reproduced retro sleeve notes and art from the original vinyl. The notes are comprehensive and very informative, and are free from over-technicalities. To me they really do add to the listening pleasure as they describe Joseph’s discovery and an explanation of his limited commercial success.
The sound quality isn’t perfect and some tape “hiss” is evident, but not noticeable for much of the time. Hey, it’s a “field recording”, remember?!
Before commenting on some of the tracks in a little detail, I’ll make a few overall observations.
I think that those with a love of acoustic guitar music would enjoy Joseph Spence’s playing. Essentially he is a guitarist’s guitarist. It’s only fair to say that his playing has a rawness to it. It isn’t clean and polished, and Joseph also played his guitar considerably out of tune to enhance the sound (I’ve explained a little of how it does so in my post of “Big Bill Broonzy: The Bill Broonzy Story”). It doesn’t sound hugely discordant, but it does add to the rawness of the sound, and makes it sound bigger, too.
Then there’s the singing. Joseph was adamant that he couldn’t sing. Some of the ladies from his town were baffled by this. How could a person with a mouth and functioning vocal chords be incapable of singing? This album is the evidence! His singing is more like growling, and as the accompanying notes state, it gives the impression that it was more for his ownn benefit, to enable him to keep track of where he was up to in the tune.
Why on earth buy this album, then? Quite simply, the guitar playing is astounding. It’s vibrant. It’s packed with variations and improvisations and isn’t repetitive. The most remarkable thing of all is that this self-taught player knew his guitar inside out and back to front.
Many players play the melody mainly on the higher strings,using the middle and lower strings to provide a bass accompaniment. Joseph Spence played the melody line on the middle and lower strings as well. It’s a technique often used in jazz guitar, but it’s unusual in a self-taught folk player. It’s also technically more demanding, as it is all too easy to strike an adjacent string accidentally!
There’s also a slightly exotic feel to the sound. It’s more accessible than some world music is, but to me it exudes a warmth and a sunny, feel-good mood.
Some of the tracks
Coming In On A Wing And A Prayer
An American song from World War Two, Joseph launches into this by playing a few bars, pausing, repeating and then establishing a definite groove. The improvisational style is more akin to jazz than to folk music. It is brilliant, and what it lacks in finesse and polish are more than compensated for by its joyful feel and sound.
There Will Be A Happy Meeting (In Glory Some Day)
The melody of this is the same as “Great Dream” referred to above, though this is played at a faster tempo. Some notes are sounded out slightly staccato for emphasis. As with all the tunes on the album, I find it hard not to tap my foot along with Joseph on this one.
As with most the other tunes on the album there are enough variations here to prevent the tune becoming tedious. It really is splendid.
Better than trying to describe this tune, here is a Youtube clip that Smithsonian Folkways themselves have kindly placed on the web. There’s not much I can add!
Jump In The Line; Bimini Gal
Both these tunes have a great groove to them, and again Joseph works a real magic on his guitar.
A version of “Jump In The Line” was used as incidental music in one episode of the fabulous BBC TV “Death in Paradise”, though I can’t remember which episode, and the rendition sadly wasn’t Joseph’s.
“Bimini Gal” is, to me, the highlight of the album after “Wing And A Prayer”. It seems to ooze tropical sunshine and sounds at one and the same time exotic yet accessible.
The other tunes are all great, based on “spirituals” or hymns, though I doubt that you ever heard “The Lord’s My Shepherd” arranged quite like this version. “Face To Face That I Shall Know Him” is my favourite of these.
I love this album, but the growling vocals and unpolished guitar sound won’t be to all tastes. As mentioned above, I think that Joseph Spence is a guitarist’s delight, and any lover of acoustic guitar really should check him out. To me any drawbacks are more than outweighed by the exuberance of his playing, punctuated at times by chuckles of delight from the man himself. Whilst allowing for the album not being to all tastes...
My rating: 9/10
Please note – this is not a money-making blog and I am simply trying to share my enjoyment of music or other media. However I am anxious to credit any images included in my posts.
1 (Joseph Spence and guitar): ttps://uk.images.search.yahoo.com/search/images;_ylt=A9mSs3WnpYtYp7sAzJ5LBQx.;_ylu=X3oDMTB0ZTgxN3Q0BGNvbG8DaXIyBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNwaXZz?p=joseph+spence&fr=mcafee&fr2=piv-web#id=8&iurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.folkways.si.edu%2Fimages%2Fexplore_folkways%2Ffeatured_artists%2Fjoseph1.jpg&action=click
2 (Joseph Spence and informal audience): https://uk.images.search.yahoo.com/search/images;_ylt=A9mSs3WnpYtYp7sAzJ5LBQx.;_ylu=X3oDMTB0ZTgxN3Q0BGNvbG8DaXIyBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNwaXZz?p=joseph+spence&fr=mcafee&fr2=piv-web#id=66&iurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.folkways.si.edu%2Fimages%2Fexplore_folkways%2Ffeatured_artists%2Fjoseph_friends_large.jpg&action=click