Once in while, a guitarist comes along with a fresh, new style that expands the possibilities of the instrument. Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Jimi Hendrix are men who took the guitar into new territory, but among Folk guitarists, Joseph Spence is another pioneer who took the music forward. With a dazzling, virtuoso instrumental technique, and a unique vocal style of grumbles, hoots and bass singing, Joseph has been called ‘The Folk Thelonius Monk’, which is another way of saying ‘you’ve never heard anything like him’.
Joseph Spence was born at Fresh Creek, on the island of Andros in the Bahamas. The son of a pastor, Joseph learned to play guitar as a teenager, to entertain folks at local dances. He developed a repertoire of popular songs, Gospel tunes and Bahamian folk melodies, and also appeared with his uncle’s band. With very little work available on the island, Joseph spent most of the next 30 years in his nation’s capital, Nassau, working as a stonemason, a sponge-fisherman and at the docks, playing all the while. During the 40s, Joseph and his wife Louise spent two years in the southern States, working as farm-hands and no doubt picking up a flavour of the local Blues music. Joseph’s guitar style is bold yet complex: powerful lower string runs underlie a picking style that sounds like two people playing, and his deep, booming vocals typically have lots of unintelligible blustering, tuneful humming and strong repetitive lines.
‘Out on the Rolling Sea’ with some of Joseph’s family;
Sam Charters and his wife Ann recorded the 47 year-old Joseph on a field trip to the Bahamas in 1958. Anxious to avoid tourist-pleasing ditties and the Caribbean calypso style that was popular at the time, they were astonished at the originality of Joseph’s playing. The groundbreaking series of instrumentals that they recorded on a back porch were included as part of Folkways ‘Music of the Bahamas’, and Joseph’s refreshing style became very influential among young musicians like Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and Catfish Keith. A further album ‘Happy All the Time’ was released in 1964, and more of Joseph’s work appeared on ‘The Real Bahamas’, where he performed with his sister Edith, brother-in-law Raymond Pinder and their daughter Geneva.
Joseph Spence Discography
The original album is extended to 21 tracks, including several hymns, notably ‘Will the SERPENT Be Unbroken’ and a magnificent rendition of ‘Sloop John B’. Joseph’s weird singing is a matter of taste, but his guitar work is magnificent, passionate and unique.
This led to a series of Festival appearances all over America, but Joseph remained a Bahamian resident. Arhoolie recorded the album ‘Good Morning Mr. Walker’ in 1972, and Joseph toured The States several times during the 70s. Joseph passed away in Nassau in 1984, and his legacy includes his song ‘I Bid You Goodnight’, made famous by The Grateful Dead, and a tribute album to Joseph’s work included contributions from Taj Mahal, David Linley and Van Dyke Parks.