By Nick Millevoi
Listen to any Joseph Spence song and you’ll find unexpected nuance and detail, no matter how many times you have heard it. While his repertoire consisted of a variety of music, from spirituals to popular songs to folk songs, the Bahamian guitarist (1910–1984) had a personal style and sound that put him among the most individualistic and unique musicians ever recorded. His arrangements are often repetitive, sometimes cycling through a song ten to 20 times. Throughout that repetition, Spence would keep his performance compelling—and exhilarating—by improvising not in a soloistic way but by making more subtle expressive variations in note choice as well as with his attack, dynamic, and rhythmic feel.
Spence’s music has captured the imagination of many guitarists, most notably Ry Cooder, who paid tribute to the elder guitarist by recording arrangements of several songs associated with Spence. On his 1978 album, Jazz, Cooder’s takes on “Face to Face That I Shall Meet Him,” “Happy Meeting in Glory,” and “We Shall Be Happy” recognize that one of the most apparent hallmarks of Spence’s style is the unrepeatable nature of the material, and he and arranger Joseph Byrd thus chose to create their own arrangements of these songs rather than attempt to emulate Spence.
A Fully Formed Style
It’s telling that Spence spent much of his life as a professional laborer—mostly as a stonemason—developing his musical style among a local community before a chance meeting led to his first recording at the age of 47, in 1958, when music scholar Samuel Charters and his wife, Beat scholar Ann Charters, first recorded him. The couple had traveled to the Bahamian island of Andros in search of folk musicians playing in a largely undocumented regional style of guitar music. In the liner notes to Spence’s The Complete Folkways Recordings, 1958, Charters describes finding Spence sitting upon a pile of bricks outside of a construction site and entertaining his friends who were working by playing guitar in such a way that the couple was certain someone else was accompanying him.
The Charters invited Spence back to the house where they were staying to record his playing. He brought a small group of friends and proceeded to play a set of music that was both warmly casual and mystifying. Spence mumbled and rambled his way through the melodies and some lyrics of songs as he played, and in the liner notes, Charters gives some context to his esoteric vocal style: “There was some discussion between him and the women about his singing. He growled occasional words and phrases of the piece he was playing, as much to help him keep track of where he was as it was to actually ‘sing’ something. He tried to explain to one of the women that he couldn’t sing, but she scoffed at him, saying, ‘What do you mean you can’t sing? You got a mouth to talk!’”
The Complete Folkways Recordings, 1958 thus presents Spence as a fully formed artist making a strong musical statement. While his sound and style can feel unapproachable, and it may very well be the case that Spence is one of those musicians so uncommon that they cannot be copied, there is much to learn by trying to understand his playing.
Breaking Down the Material
Taken from the Smithsonian set, Spence’s take on the spiritual “The Lord Is My Shepherd” reveals much about the guitarist’s style. According to Charters, it was common at the time for guitarists in the Bahamas to play in dropped-D tuning, and Spence is frequently said to have used that tuning. This track, however, sounds about a whole step lower. Part of this may be a matter of informal tuning at the time of recording, but it’s also possible that the recording may have been transferred too slowly, as the pitch does tend to waver throughout the track. If you’d like to play along with the recording, you’ll have to tune down roughly an additional step (low to high: C G C F A D).
The track begins with an introduction that Spence would commonly play to introduce several songs in his repertoire, including “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer” (also from The Complete Folkways Recordings, 1958) and “Irene Goodnight” (from Living on the Hallelujah Side). This introduction makes up the first four bars of this transcription, in common time. Spence slows down from approximately 160 bpm to about 112 bpm as he begins his arrangement of “The Lord Is My Shepherd” in 3/4 time at measure 5.
When dissecting Spence’s playing, it can be helpful to use the interaction of bass and melody notes as a guide to unlocking the material. The melody will always be the top voice and, with Spence’s persistent foot stomping driving the song, he would often use bass notes to harmonize those notes rather than state the pulse. Spence would usually vary his choice of bass notes as well as their rhythmic placement.
While learning this piece, it’s helpful to look at the bass notes and melody as individual parts and take note of the variations that Spence plays, in order to absorb his style. He tended to choose the root note in the bass, but would also frequently use the third, such as on beat one of measure 6. His bass runs deserve special attention. Follow the bass notes in measures 13 though 16, where Spence plays a counter melody as a fill that then harmonizes with the lead melody upon return.
Spence repeats the tune a total of 13 times; this transcription captures the first pass note for note. Upon learning this material, variations on this theme can be spotted easily, though several details are worth mentioning. In measure 15 (0:26 on the Smithsonian recording), Spence plays a C natural instead of the C# that he plays in each subsequent iteration, giving that phrase a bluesy feel. Throughout, Spence will sometimes opt to replace measure 12 with a lick that extends the phrase in measure 11. This can be heard at 2:01. At 2:29, Spence replaces the bass notes in measure 14—A, G, F#—with A, F#, Fn providing somewhat of a bluesy feel to the line as it approaches the Em chord in measure 15. And at 4:23, Spence plays an improvised lead line to replace the melody of the first phrase of the piece.
There are plenty of other more subtle variations that are rewarding to discover throughout the nearly six-minute Smithsonian recording, which is captivating from beginning to end. Each iteration of the 16-bar form offers a chance for a new interpretation, a lesson certainly worth exploring!