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February 18, 2008

Joseph Spence - Bahamian Guitarist

There's no one quite like Joseph Spence. His music is utterly his own. It consumes folk, blues, jazz, calypso, hymns, sea chanties, children's game songs, and tin pan alley pop, emerging an idiosyncratic entity in the form of insanely syncopated guitar and vocal meanderings. No matter the source of the song, it always comes out sounding like Joseph Spence and only Joseph Spence.

As near as anyone can tell, he had no teachers and no followers. That is, unless you count as followers all those slack-jawed guitarists slowing down his records and trying to fathom how one man with a guitar could make those sounds. Elijah Wald has made an instructional dvd about his guitar style, but Spence remains even more inimitable than fellow innovative jaw-droppers Django Reinhardt and Doc Watson. His music cannot be captured because he was in a constant state of improvisation. Not to mention his melodic counterpoint, startling rhythmic variation, and vocal technique which falls somewhere between singing, grunting, scat, and freestyle rap.

His first recordings were made by Sam Charters, who was recording an album of Bahamian Folksongs in the 50s, and saw Spence playing in the street. Charters walked over to him and stuck out a microphone, and Spence continued playing like it was nothing. The recordings for this album were made much the same way, coming from an afternoon of one-takes in an apartment, and from a concert that evening.

What can I say about this music? It's very quirky, sharp and unexpected, but warm and surprisingly danceable. Like Louis Armstrong, Joseph Spence had the ability to mutate an old sentimental song into something totally warped, anti-histrionic, and wonderful. Spence and his music are informal, eccentric, and completely uninhibited. At one point he interrupted the concert to have a conversation with a 4-year old (not included on the album). He freely admits "I don't know none of the words to these songs, so I just sing 'la dee dee dee' ...," in part because most of them he picked up off the radio and reconstructed from memory. But his gravelly and garbled grumblings become a remarkable second instrument that plays off his guitar like a marble off an earthquake.

Joseph Spence - Bahamian Guitarist: Good Morning Mr. Walker
Label: Arhoolie
Year: 1972 & 1990

Get it here

also, get his Complete Folkways Recordings at El Diablo Tun Tun
for you guitar players, check out Elijah Wald's instructional dvd


brokedownengine said...

nice share irate. i had only heard the folkways recordings of Spence's before. sounding good on my end.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I know the G Dead did 'Bid You Goodnight' so I'm interested in hearing this....

Botched Surgery said...

Many, many thanks for this. Really love your blog and thanks for sharing.