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) possessed a gravelly, mumbling vocal style. But behind the idiosyncratic singing lay joy, a freewheeling and primitive fingerpicking style, and a unique blend of folk, blues, gospel, and calypso influences. Among those who have paid tribute to him through the years are Richard Thompson, the Grateful Dead, Martin Carthy, the Incredible String Band, Ry Cooder, and Taj Mahal.
The folk archivists Sam and Ann Charters first recorded Spence in 1958 while conducting fieldwork in a remote Bahamian fishing village on the island of Andros. Producer and engineer Peter Siegel recorded these previously unreleased recordings in 1965 in New York City and the Bahamas. Unlike, say, blues artist Mississippi John Hurt, who was grounded in the guitar style of a particular region, Spence found inspiration in various Bahamian song styles, especially the fast-paced, syncopated call-and-response songs of the local fishermen. You can hear that influence in his unique bass runs, which forgo alternating bass notes commonly heard in country blues and bluegrass to replicate a bass singer.
The tracks on Encore: Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing include such familiar Spence songs as “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-time hymn “O Death”), and the ebullient “Won’t That Be a Happy Time.”
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.