Graded on a Curve: Joseph Spence,
Bahaman Folk Guitar: Music from the Bahamas, Vol. 1

There are a few utterly joyful experiences in this world, and one of them is the music of Joseph Spence. In 1958 while on a field recording expedition in the Bahamas, Samuel Charters captured Spence’s unique guitar playing and idiosyncratic singing; the combination is amongst the most infectious entries in the folk canon. Those tapes comprise Bahaman Folk Guitar: Music from the Bahamas, Vol. 1, first issued by Folkways in ’59, and has received a welcome reissue by the label, tucked into an old-school tip-on jacket with the original liner notes.

From Andros Island in the Bahamas and a stonemason by trade, Joseph Spence is one of folk music’s true originals. The notes to this reissue emphasize the importance of the guitar to Bahaman life during the period of its recording, and amongst no shortage of talent on the instrument, Spence was acknowledged as the best around. He tapped into the three threads of song popular in the island nation at that time; the older “anthem” songs, southern USA-derived spirituals, and the “folk songs” that accompanied dancing and enlivened parties.

When Charters first heard him, playing for workers as they built a house, the folklorist was convinced a second guitarist was accompanying him nearby. Later that day, on the other side of the settlement of Fresh Creek, Charters recorded Spence entertaining a small gathered audience. This LP offers the bulk of that impromptu session, a landmark in personal folk expression that resulted in subsequent releases on Elektra, Arhoolie, and Rounder.

I first read of Joseph Spence in Byron Coley’s “Underground” column in SPIN magazine, the April 1988 issue in fact, though by the time I caught up with it, that edition was about a year old. It took me good while longer than that to hear the guy’s stuff, as the store racks turned up nothing, and the same with the libraries in my area. Of the locals I consulted who were affirmative of Spence’s stature, none were record collectors. Those were the days.

Attempting to special order Bahamian Guitarist: Good Morning Mr. Walker on vinyl proved a study in frustration, but in 1990, Arhoolie issued it on CD. I had no idea. It was in ’92, when Folkways, now in team with the Smithsonian, reissued all of the Charters material as The Complete Folkways Recordings 1958, that my mind was belatedly blown.

After purchasing, the disc remained in heavy rotation for weeks, and I even took it along to play during my once-a-week shift at a local bookshop. In an attempt to take a healthy break from the music, I left it at the store; the following week, my friend the owner had left me a note: “borrowed the Spence for home listening.” It’s that kind of thing.

It’s also the kind of thing that registers as more fitting for 1968 or even the early ’70s than its actual date of origin, in part because the casualness of setting was conducive to stretching out (the original vinyl, and this reissue, holds only six tracks), but more so due to the total lack of folk quaintness on display. Instead, the playing is urgent and advanced, with the use of Drop-D tuning imbuing the experience with heft as the music simultaneously glides and offers exquisite note clusters.

Spence has been described as the Thelonious Monk of the folk guitar, and while that’s not a connection I likely would’ve ever made on my own, the assessment is right on the money. But Music from the Bahamas is more than a guitar experience. Beaucoup foot tap heightens matters, but it’s the singing, deep and growly but jubilant and only occasionally cohering into words, that makes Spence’s music so singular. Comprehending what he’s saying is frankly tough. However, understanding what he’s about is a snap. All it takes is a listen.

Each side of he LP opens with a showcase of his approach at its most grooving, “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer” and “I’m Going To Live that Life” respectively, and it’s the latter that brings his vocals into sharpest focus, with Spence engaging in some gleeful scatting and tongue trilling. But if grooving, his playing is never rudimentary, and returning to his music after some distance always reemphasizes why he’s a folk guitar hero’s guitar hero.

Spence’s relaxed funkiness never really gets displaced here, but the other four tracks effectively drive home his versatility as a song interpreter, both spiritual (“There Will Be a Happy Meeting in Glory,” “Face To Face that I Shall Know Him”) and secular (“Brownskin Gal,” “Jump in the Line”). Underlined by the spirit of human curiosity that took Charters to the Bahamas, it’s an indispensable gem for any wide-ranging record collection.

To return to my long-ago CD purchase, my book store pal brought it back a couple weeks later, telling me his wife demanded he get it out of the house. It seems the combination of digital tech, constant play, and the three extra tracks (originally issued on compilations) ultimately became too much of a good thing. That’s the danger with Spence’s brand of folk infectiousness, and it makes this vinyl reissue all the more spiff.

In the privacy of your listening den, Music from the Bahamas, Vol. 1 can be spun as many times as you like, but the LP sides are perfect for sharing in moderation. Work it into rotation at a party, and it’s a safe bet that everybody will be happy. Happy All the Time? Friends, that’s the title of another Joseph Spence album, one that hopefully sees reissue soon.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text