Joseph Spence Biography
Played Music on Sponge Fishing Trips, Learned American Pieces, Took Night Watchman Job, Selected discography
Guitarist and vocalist
Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence was a truly original stylist on his instrument. Never famous outside the Bahamas, or even inside that country with the exception of his home island, Spence nevertheless fascinated and influenced a number of prominent American and British guitarists, including slide virtuoso Ry Cooder and the eclectic bluesman Taj Mahal. The explanation for his influence was simple: Spence was a highly virtuosic player who didn't sound remotely like any other guitarist. He developed his style on his own and for most of his long life played for friends and other interested listeners, not worrying much about approval and not at all about commercial success. Fans and folklorists made several recordings of Spence, but he didn't own copies of any of them.
Spence was born in August of 1910 on Andros Island in the Bahamas. When he was nine, he was given a guitar by an uncle who lived in the United States, and the first steps in the formation of his distinctive style were taken as he taught himself to play it. Spence learned more about music at the feet of another uncle, this one in the Bahamas, who was a popular and highly regarded flute player. Along with two percussionists, uncle and nephew would play for dances on Andros Island. He recalled playing a variety of dance rhythms that included quadrilles, waltzes, polkas, and calypso pieces.
Played Music on Sponge Fishing Trips
From the age of 16 until he was 28, Spence made a living as a sponge fisherman. Sponge fishing, like other kinds of work among African-descended peoples, had music associated with it, and Spence would bring his guitar along on trips, wrapping it in a cloth and keeping it below deck when he wasn't using it to avoid having the strings rust in the salt air. It was partly among sponge fishermen that the Bahamian tradition of "rhyming" developed. An early ancestor of rap music, rhyming consisted of extemporized verses often based on hymns or Bible stories. Spence would later be heard on recordings performing in his own heavily guitar-influenced version of the style.
In 1938, a blight struck the sponges in the Bahamas' waters, and Spence was thrown out of work. Far from being discouraged, Spence interpreted the blight as a sign of divine intervention. "God destroy all the sponge," he explained to authors John Stropes and Justin Segel in their on-line article. "You see, when the spongers used to bring the boat to the merchant, sinking down loaded with sponge, when they sell the sponge they still left in debt. They don't hardly get nothing. So I figure the father say, 'Well, I see they're doing too much with this poor people having to kill these sponge. I better put them on something else.'"
Spence moved on to the Bahamian capital of Nassau, and during World War II he and his wife worked as migrant farmers in the southeastern United States, filling a need left by the departure of young Americans for the European and Pacific fronts. The two years Spence spent in the United States were crucial to his development as a guitarist, for he came into contact with a variety of American string traditions and incorporated bits and pieces of them into his own style. Performing often in places as musically diverse as Mountain City, Tennessee, and Belle Glade, Florida, Spence heard both blues and country music.
Learned American Pieces
"St. Louis Blues" became a staple of his repertory, but for the most part he absorbed American folk and popular music piecemeal, learning individual compositions and adapting them for himself rather than plunging headlong into American styles. Spence also deepened his knowledge of Christian hymns during this period, however, and they shaped his style more fundamentally. He learned to play a variety of music as if he were singlehandedly reproducing the sounds a church organ or choir might make. While most finger-style guitarists aim for picking out a bass line with the thumb and adding an elaborated melody line with the fingers, Spence inserted internal harmonies so that several lines of music would be heard at once, even as he kept up a full melody line.
It was no wonder that visiting musicians and folklorists, when they first heard Spence, were sometimes convinced that he had another musician hidden nearby to provide an accompaniment. He sounded like he was playing several guitars at once. Returning to Nassau in 1946, Spence worked as a stonemason by day and performed at hotels and on yachts at night. Gradually he gave that up. "The town gets so wicked, you know," he explained to Stropes and Segel, "and when I coming back home, them fellows know I have been to those boats, and they figure I make money, they try to knock me down."
By then, however, the outside world was beginning to discover Spence. Folklorist Alan Lomax met and recorded Spence in the 1930s, and blues historian Samuel Charters recorded three hours of Spence's playing in the late 1950s. These recordings were released on the Smithsonian Folkways label under the title Bahamian Folk Guitar in 1960. Rock and blues guitarists visited the Bahamas to seek Spence out, and many of them left with their own styles deeply enriched by the experience. Spence toured California in the late 1960s, staying at the home of his admirer Taj Mahal, and in 1972 he appeared along the eastern seaboard. He met Ry Cooder on that trip. In 1975 he turned down an offer to appear at New York's famed Carnegie Hall, saying that he didn't feel like traveling.
Took Night Watchman Job
In the mid-1970s Spence suffered a heart attack and took a less demanding job as an elementary school night watchman. At this advanced age he learned to play the piano at the school, creating a sound similar to his guitar style. He made several more recordings for the roots-oriented Arhoolie label, one of which, Good Morning Mr. Walker, contained a version of the 1960s pop hit "Sloop John B." Mostly Spence recorded religious music, sometimes joined by his wife Louise. His guttural voice served mostly as an accompanying percussion instrument, throwing in a word or taking a snatch of melody here and there; it was his guitar that carried the tune.
Spence's guitar—he always played in the key of D at this late date—sounded out-of-tune by conventional standards, but the sounds that came from it were consistent "There is no sloppiness in this," noted Jack Viertal in the liner notes to Good Morning Mr. Walker. "He tunes very precisely by playing the same figures over and over again until he is satisfied, and the guitar is always tuned to the same pitches." His playing was complicated and very difficult to imitate.
Spence died in Nassau on March 18, 1984, leaving many admirers and players he had influenced, but no real successors. In the words of Ry Cooder (quoted by Stropes and Segel), Spence was an example of "someone who breaks through whatever the dominant style or conventional approach might be, and makes a new statement." Joseph Spence was truly one of a kind.
Bahamian Folk Guitar (Music of the Bahamas, Vol. 1), Smithsonian Folkways, 1960.
Happy All the Time, Elektra, 1964 (reissued 2003).
Living on the Hallelujah Side, Rounder, 1987.
Good Morning Mr. Walker, Arhoolie, 1990.
Glory, Rounder, 1991.
Joseph Spence: The Complete Folkways Recordings, Smithsonian Folkways, 1992.
Guitar Player, September 2003, p. 87.
New York Times, June 12, 1960, p. 129.
"Joseph Spence," Musicians and Entertainers of the Bahamas, http://mail.vandercook.edu/~cjustilien/Artist/JosephSpence/spence_bio.html (November 30, 2004).
"Joseph Spence," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (November 30, 2004).
"Joshua Gone Barbados: A Joseph Spence Appreciation," Chris Smith Reference Materials, www.indiana.edu/~smithcj/cjsbvoi2.html (November 30, 2004).
Stropes, John, and Justin Segel, Joseph Spence / Fingerstyle Phenomenon, www.stropes.com/refdocs/spence.pdf (November 30, 2004).
Liner notes to Good Morning Mr. Walker, Arhoolie 1061, 1990.
—James M. Manheim