Joseph Spence: Encore

This is an unexpected release of ‘new’ recordings by the late Joseph Spence whose guitar playing has influenced generations of roots musicians around the world. Encore is subtitled Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing, and it captures Spence in 1965 when he was still at the peak of his powers.

The live recordings were made in New York City when Spence appeared in concert along with other artists from the Bahamas. The show was taped by producer and engineer Peter Siegel who looked after Spence on his visit, and there are two further tracks made in Siegel’s own apartment. Soon after, Siegel visited the Bahamas to make field recordings at Spence’s home in Nassau. These three sources make up the 13 tracks on this album. 

Listening to Spence is a strange experience for the newcomer. His voice is anything but smooth and it makes Tom Waits sound like an angel by comparison. The press release puts it likes this: “As he sang, lyrics tumbled over exclamations, swaying between guttural interjection and fast-rhyming patter.”

It’s hard to identify exactly where he’s coming from as there are musical influences from a number of different places with everything underpinned by his inimitable acoustic guitar playing. He’s not quite blues, but he sings gospel, and at times he sounds almost Hawaiian – but the one constant is that he is always playfully experimental.

The album includes hymns he grew up with on the islands, as well as the fishermen’s songs he came to know well, and other pieces from further afield. Much of Spence’s work is grounded in the rare vocal traditions of the Bahamas and of the original Bahamian rhyming groups of which he was a part, while the guitar playing is always nimble and wonderfully expressive.

Joseph Spence (Photo: Guy Droussart)

There are classic Spence songs such as ‘Out on the Rolling Sea’, ‘Bimini Gal’, and ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’. One of the most powerful is ‘Run Come See Jerusalem’ which tells the harrowing story of the sinking of the ship Pretoria in 1929 when the Bahamas was hit by a hurricane. Spence was just 19 at the time but remembers running to help and pulling bodies from the water.

Echoes of his legacy can be heard in many contemporary guitarists, from Richard Thompson to Michael Chapman to Sunny War. But no-one was quite like Joseph Spence, the most brilliant guitarist and interpreter of traditional song. His creativity lives on in these recordings.

Encore will be released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings on 23rd July. The CD booklet has more than 30 pages with notes on each of the songs, essays, and rare photos. A vinyl LP release will follow in October 2021.

Explore posts in the same categories: Roots Music from Out There

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