Okay, before we get going here — and pretend you haven’t read the heading above or noticed the album cover art right there <—. Here’s a short quote from the publicity for this release: “He directly influenced key guitarists in the 1960s like Richard Thompson, John Renbourn, Taj Mahal, and Martin Carthy, and his songs were covered by The Grateful Dead, The Incredible String Band, and more.” So who are we talking about? Until I got the advance of this album, I wouldn’t have had a clue. Joseph Spence passed away in 1984, but he continues to influence musicians around the world. Previously known mostly through field recordings, Smithsonian Folkways presents him at the height of his powers and recorded with then state-of-the-art equipment on Encore: Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing.
In addition to the musicians mentioned above, if Spence wasn’t influential on the vocal styles of Steve Weber, Peter Stampfel and Baby Gramps, I’ll eat my hat.
Spence was one of the last of the Bahamian rhyming gospel singers. Bahamian rhyming is a unique style that incorporates call-and-response and other styles in creative ways. It usually features three vocalists — the main rhymer, a bass and a falsetto. The singers sing the verse and chorus together, creating a three-way counterpoint that can sound chaotic at first but begins to make sense as you get into the spirit. On some of the songs here, like “Out On The Rolling Sea,” Spence has one or more vocal accompanists and the singers plus Spence’s guitar mimic the Bahamian rhyming style.
This style is also on display in the closing track, a reworking of the gospel hymn “That Glad Reunion Day.” In others, Spence sings the main vocal line and uses his guitar alone to capture the bass and falsetto lines, as well as mirror or comment on vocals — that’s the style that would be influential to Carthy, Thompson, Cooder, Renbourn and others. In addition, Spence’s vocal interjections — growls, trills, scatting, verbal asides and more — add color and commentary to the song. The opening track “Won’t That Be A Happy Time?” originally a shape note hymn, is one example.
Some of these songs are simply charming, like “Brown Skin Girl” and “The Crow,” both of which sound like they’re being improvised on the spot. “Brown Skin Girl” is another track that features just Spence and his guitar. They’re also examples of how Spence’s mind was endlessly fascinated by everything around him, and how he worked it all into his music.
“There’s a playfulness to his music, that’s who he was!” says Peter Siegel, the legendary engineer, documentarian and producer who recorded these songs in 1965 in New York City and the Bahamas. “Having met him and known him, he was like that. He’d get fascinated by something and have a unique thing to say about it.”
Others are more serious in tone. “Death And The Woman” is a reworking of the Appalachian standard “O Death,” “Great God What Do I See” finds him wondering at the Creation, and then there’s “Run Come See Jerusalem.” It’s a folk song about the sinking of the ship Pretoria in 1929 in the Bahamas. Spence didn’t write it — it was written by Bahamian singer John Roberts — but he was actually there during the sinking of the ship, pulling bodies from the water. This was his only recording of the ballad, which was made famous in the ’60s by Pete Seeger and The Weavers, and Odetta.
Island music, folk music, gospel, a bit of the blues and more, Joseph Spence rolled them all into his utterly unique music. It’s otherworldly yet accessible. I promise you, you won’t hear anything else like Joseph Spence’s Encore this year.
(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2021)