‘Encore’ Captures Bahamian Guitarist Joseph Spence Enjoying His Music and Himself
Joseph Spence enjoyed himself immensely. His own improvising cracked him up, and his lyrical forgetfulness was also a source of amusement to him as well as to his listeners. Lines and often whole paragraphs would drop out of Spence’s renditions of folk and gospel tunes, but it just made it more fun to listen to see where he would go next and how he was going to get out of his memory hole.
A stone mason by trade on his tiny native Bahamian hometown of Small Hope on Andros Island, Spence was first recorded by folklorist Sam Charters, who followed his ears to a house under construction where Spence was entertaining some of his peers on guitar, aided by a bottle of shared rum. Music of the Bahamas Vol. 1: Bahamian Folk Guitar introduced Spence’s mind-boggling guitar skills and eccentric delivery to a worldwide audience in 1959. Ry Cooder became a rabid fan, covering “Coming In on a Wing and a Prayer” for his 1972 release Boomers Story.
Spence, who died in 1984, employed the technique that earned Robert Johnson his devilish accolades that many say originated with Charley Patton, but Spence brought a little something extra to the mix, sort of a Calypsonian version of the Carter scratch that involved the middle strings as well. Add Spence’s bigfoot beat-keeping interspersed with unearthly growls, grunts, and unintelligible exclamations for a big-time throw down that sounds impossible for one man to accomplish.
The tunes presented on Encore are from a 1965 concert in New York City organized by the Newport Folk Foundation. A couple have been released previously: “There Will Be a Happy Meeting in Glory,” presented here as “That Glad Reunion Day,” and “Brown Skin Girl” are both covered on Music of the Bahamas Vol. 1, re-released on vinyl in 2018. But any Spence output is worth multiple outings —there’s so much going on that something previously unnoticed usually jumps out at each re-hearing.
Spence’s joy is contagious, stirring up all your appendages to wave, flutter, stomp, and wiggle enthusiastically and as simultaneously as possible according to your abilities.
“Give Me That Old Time Religion” never sounded like this in a house of worship. Spence gets lyrically lost early on but carries on manfully with some low-down scat more fit for juke-joint wigglery than churchy worshipfulness while his guitar explores realms where few mortals have gone before.
“Out on the Rolling Sea” has Spence speaking in tongues with sister Edith helping out on background vocals as Spence speaks to Jesus in a language only he can understand.
Brownie and Sonny would be lost trying to find their way to the waterfront on “Down by the Riverside.” Spence leaves a little scrap of melody floating on the current, but otherwise he’s paddling away, grunting with the effort of single-handedly navigating uncharted waters.
Great stuff here, always a pleasure to come across Spence’s goodies from the vaults to tantalize and tickle the ear canals.