Incoming: Newly Discovered Music from Joseph Spence

An overdue "Encore" from the legendary Bahamian guitarist and singer

After consuming a steady diet of high-gloss productions and inexplicably hyped Internet sensations, it sometimes becomes necessary to return to the basics. To music that exists as a simple, direct communication of spirit, beyond the easily manipulated metrics of the music business. Something austere, free of contrivance, earthbound.

For a long time, one of my go-to restorative records has been Bahaman Folk Guitar, the debut of guitarist and vocalist Joseph Spence. It’s just a man on a porch, playing carefully articulated lines that sometimes sound like the work of two guitarists. Keeping aggressive time with his foot. Singing Sunday school songs and sea chanties in a loose, beguiling way that emphasizes the melodies over the words.

The Folkways album was recorded by musicologist Sam Charters in 1958, on a trip to Andros island (and other remote islands of the Bahamas) in search of folk music unaltered by tourism. Spence, then in his late ‘40s, had developed an approach that started with Bahamian folk songs – some with rhyme schemes used by the country’s sponge fishermen in the early 20th century. He used alternate tunings to extend the guitar’s range, and added traces of calypso, playground chants and church music, and (later, after some U.S. touring) elements of blues.

The guitarist and music critic Elijah Wald characterized Spence’s music this way in an instructional DVD called The Guitar of Joseph Spence: “To my way of thinking, Spence's style is like a language,” with its own grammer and syntax. While many folk and blues guitarists have studied Spence’s approach, very few have been able to imitate it, much less assimilate its nuances.

Championed by Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and others, Spence went on to record several frighteningly strong records – including Good Morning Mr. Walker (1971) and Living On the Hallelujah Side (1980), which includes his memorably ad-libbed version of “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.”

Since Spence died, in 1984, his work has been re-issued and anthologized; the last release, in 1992, did not include any vault treasures. But in July, Smithsonian Folkways will put out Encore: Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing, devoted entirely to unreleased material. Recorded in 1965, it features Spence alone and accompanying the singing of his sister and members of her family. The only available advance track, “Run Come See Jerusalem” captures his bright spirit as well as his fitful, spearing, unorthodox approach to the guitar.

Encore will be released July 16, 2021.

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