New Joseph Spence collection is full of never-before-seen folk guitar treasures

Extract from the November / December 2021 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Greg Cahill

There have always been singer-songwriters whose vocals are an acquired taste: Bob Dylan, Joanna Newsom and Leon Redbone come to mind. And then there’s Joseph Spence, the late Bahamian folk artist (1910-1984) who possessed a gritty, mumbling vocal style. But behind the idiosyncratic singing lies the joy, a free and primitive style of fingerpicking, and a unique blend of folk, blues, gospel and calypso influences. Among those who have paid tribute to him over the years are Richard Thompson, the Grateful Dead, Martin Carthy, the Incredible String Band, Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal.

Cover of Joseph Spence's album for Encore: Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing

Folk archivists Sam and Ann Charters first recorded Spence in 1958 during fieldwork in a remote Bahamian fishing village on Andros Island. Producer and engineer Peter Siegel recorded these unreleased recordings in 1965 in New York and the Bahamas. Unlike, for example, Mississippi blues artist John Hurt, who was steeped in the guitar style of a particular region, Spence drew inspiration from various styles of Bahamian songs, especially call songs. and syncopated response to the fast paced local fishermen. You can hear this influence in its unique bass tracks, which forgo the alternation of bass notes commonly heard in country blues and bluegrass to replicate a vocal bass.

The tracks on Encore: unreleased recordings of guitar and vocals from the Bahamas include familiar Spence songs like “Out on the Rolling Sea”, “Bimini Gal” and “Give Me That Old-Time Religion”, as well as the ballad “Run Come See Jerusalem”, “Death and the Woman” (a version of the old anthem “O Death”), and the bubbling “Won’t That Be a Happy Time”.

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