Joseph Spence

Music of the Bahamas, Vol. 1: Bahaman Folk Guitar

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The remarkable music on this album was recorded in 1958 and released two years later on the Smithsonian Folkways label. Not that it would be easy to even choose two dozen absolutely essential releases in this label's catalog, but the introduction of this artist is something guitar players in particular will be eternally grateful for -- that is, unless they happened to find the genius of his playing discouraging. Prior to Spence it might have been difficult for this label, and many others as well, to conceive of turning an entire album over to one artist if the music in question was from some exotic country. Indeed, some of Folkway's previous anthologies indicate that the producers didn't think the audience would be able to get through an entire performance by an artist, let alone an album, so they were heavy on the fade knob. Here we have the entire proceedings turned over to Spence, and he stretches and milks each number as if sunning on a beach. Fadeouts, if and when they might occur, happen so long in the game it's as if the editor had been held off with a bayonet. The combination of Spence's voice and guitar is one of music's most unforgettable. It is a low, rumbling voice that is sometimes simply moaning and mumbling, as if this was a Glenn Gould voice track. As for lyrics, clearly enunciating two words out of a line is a good average for this man, and the results should make many other vocalists think about following suit. His vocal style could be appreciated simply for being bizarre and unorthodox, true, but the same could never be said for his guitar playing. He often uses a drop-D tuning, which means his bass string is lower than usual. This in turn creates many variations in harmony as he plays, combining very nicely with the hard, percussively snapping feel of his picking. To continue the previous classical piano analogy, the plotting of Spence's guitar performances is a bit like Brahm's, the melodies plowing forward into their determined destination like the pounding of the surf. The beach is never far away when one is listening to Joseph Spence. The CD version of this that was eventually released under the title of The Complete Folkways Recordings is a good deal. Not only is it easier to take to the beach, it also includes three other tracks Spence recorded for this label that were included on other anthologies.

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