Sunday 29 March 2009

Joseph Spence

These two dapper gentlemen are Joseph Spence (left) and Raymond Pinder, photographed in Nassau in 1978 by Guy Droussart. Joseph Spence (1910-1984) was a Bahamian guitarist and vocalist whose career took him from the island of Andros to New York and California, where in his fifties, he performed his simple repertoire of sacred and folk songs to enthusiastic audiences. Raymond Pinder was Spence’s brother-in-law and fellow vocalist. Sam Charters, famous folklorist was the first to record Spence on his own back porch in 1958 and an album was released on the Folkways label in 1959. His eccentric and relaxed vocals and a hypnotic but melodious acoustic guitar style produced heartfelt and beguilingly unaffected music. An improvised, semi-coherent chuntering growl from Spence is an almost constant accompaniment and his vocals slide in and out of the background. Lyrics were diced and chopped and re-sequenced, while the rhythm was supplied by energetic foot tapping. The end of each tune was marked by a sequence of crashing chords and a brief explosion of joviality and a little gentle repartee with his fellow performers.

The Folkways recordings attracted the interest of Californian musician Ry Cooder who included songs by Spence on several albums. Others were quick to respond to the freshness and distinctive quality including the Grateful Dead for whom the song I Bid You Goodnight became something of a signature. Most of Spence’s available recordings were made in and around his home on Andros and have a corresponding rural feel to them. Andros is the largest island in the Bahamas but has a small population of less than 8,000. Nowhere on the island is more than 20 miles from the sea and song lyrics reflect this with an abundance of maritime imagery. The lack of tourist development helped greatly to keep local traditions alive and the sense of uncomplicated lives, lived at an unhurried pace, pervades Bahamian music.

The special flavour of Bahamian music is due to a number of factors. The African population tended to be more tribally homogenous than elsewhere in the Caribbean leading to unique musical forms. Another factor was the influx of loyalist settlers from the Carolinas, accompanied by their slave populations who brought another distinctive musical tradition. Alan Lomax made the first field recordings in 1935, when Spence was a young man of 25, and was followed at intervals by other musicologists with the result that there is much raw material for the researcher to examine. Lomax’s recordings are still available on the Rounder label.

The 10th. anniversary of Spence’s death in 1994 was commemorated with the release of a tribute album, Out on the Rolling Sea, on Green Linnet Records. A wonderfully diverse range of performers interpreted selected items from the Spence discography with flair and sensitivity. The Nassau Guardian published a lengthy account of Spence and his music to mark the 20th. anniversary of his death in 2004. March 18th. 2009 was the 25th. anniversary and it shouldn’t pass without some recognition of this remarkable musician and the modest but enduring contribution he made to the richness of our musical heritage.

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