One of the best-known Bahamian musicians worldwide is Joseph Spence. Ironically, few in the Bahamas know of him. Even I only learned of him only about ten or so years ago. The reason will be mentioned shortly. Let's look at the man and his growl and guitar. Spence is spoken and written of as quite unassuming, humble and most of all gifted with the talent of self-expression. From the first time I heard his music I knew that he played from his heart, not worrying about what anyone thought of his gift, but only to express it. Many say that Spence had an invisible character playing along with him, thus all the extra parts simultaneously being heard in his music. Anyone who has the faintest idea of the technique of playing the guitar would know that what Spence did was pure genius. Born in Small Hope, Andros Island, the largest of the Bahama Islands, where his father was a Baptist minister. Spence over his lifetime did whatever he had to in order to care for his wife Louise.
In his teen years, Spence received his early music education from an uncle who was a professor of music. In the settlement of Fresh Creek, Andros, he, along with his uncle on the flute, a man beating the drum, and one hitting tambourine started playing for gatherings and dances once he became proficient on the guitar. In these dances he would play for the quadrille dance, waltz, heel and toe polka (or kapolka as it was referred to by Spence and others of certain parts of Andros and other Family Islands), and the calypso round dance. In short, they played just about any style imaginable. With an unusually heavy pick on his thumb, he would develop a style which placed a firm bass on the bottom of beautiful island and sacred melodies on top. Spence also was influenced by 19th century English music, an influence strong in The Bahamas, a former British colony.
Other influences would include jazz, blues, boogie woogie, and country. Additionally, “anthems”, and island songs made up the bulk of his repertoire along with work songs commonly used by sponge fishermen, a fraternity in which Spence participated on Andros. In fact, during the heyday of sponge fishing, Spence would spend weeks out “in the mud" working all day and sleeping on a skiff at night. On these trips, it is said that Spence would wrap his guitar in cloth and take it with him. Spence was a sponge fisherman from about the age of 16, which would have been around 1926 until around 1938 when blight wiped out a large percentage of the sponge in the Bahamas. He claimed that God did this in order to stop the exploitation of the fishermen most of whom were still broke after all that hard work.
During World War II, the United States contracted laborers from the Bahamas to fill the shortage on American farms, Spence along with his wife Louise signed up and picked crop for a time. These years would take him to Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, Delaware, and Tennessee where he would take the opportunity to expand his vast repertoire of popular and sacred songs. Just listening to his music will give you a clearer understanding of the joy that he shared through his music. Never leaving his guitar far behind, Spence came into possession of a hymnal "Crown And Glory" which further expanded his repertoire. His exposure to American folk and their songs greatly impacted his musical perspective during those years. Spence always tuned his guitar low E down to a D. This, he claimed gave him a fatter sound that served well for the contrapuntal bass lines that he had mastered. Interestingly, this pretty much locked him in the key of D.
An American folk recordist by the name of Alan Lomax first had an encounter with this cultural treasure in the 1930's followed by Sam Charters in 1958. Upon landing on Andros Island, Charters sought out the man famed as the best guitarist and engaged him in a three-hour recording session which resulted in the Folkways recordings. It is reported that after this session, Spence got up and walked away, never to be seen again by Charters. These two encounters would produce live recordings that are truly one of a kind. Another recordist by the name of Paul Rothchild in 1964 headed to Nassau where Blind Blake introduced him to Spence. The encounter resulted in yet another recording of his unique guitar and vocal styles.
Joseph Spence would go on to be respected by the likes of Rossy of Madagascar, Peter Lang, Ry Cooder, Martin Carthy, Fritz Richmond, Tai Mahal, Henry Kaiser, and countless folk, blues, and rock musicians. For a time, Spence traveled the US and would meet with some of these great musicians who were fans of his, but he found himself more comfortable at home with his wife Louise. There were times when he would receive calls from United States to make guest appearances at Carnegie Hall, and his response would trouble any musician who would only dream of being afforded that opportunity.
Spence made no efforts to gain esteem, or to consciously develop his unique approach to the technique he developed in playing the guitar. He plays only for his own pleasure. He plays what he wants to play when he wants to play it, and didn't worry about what it sounded like to others.
Click play to hear Philip Burrows speak of Spence's invitation to Carnegie Hall -
Spence was not only respected all over the world, but also here at home. Those who knew him revered his kindness and humility, although many did not fully appreciate the genius of his work during his lifetime. Riding about on his bike, he'd share a smile with all with whom he came into contact. One person who has fond memories of Mr. Spence as she refers to him is a fellow co-worker Carnetta Seymour, former Vice-Principal at the Oakes Field Primary School.
Click play to hear Carnetta Seymour speak about Joseph Spence -
Spence has been featured on many albums, some of which are listed in the link listed below. It is however pleasing to see that the people of The Bahamas are now seeing fit to give Joe Spence the recognition and credit which the rest of the world gave a long time ago. If one were to do a search on the Internet alone, Joseph Spence would no doubt be the most famous Bahamian ever. This fame that equals some fortune (if only culturally) has no link to the people of this giant of a man. The work of Joe Spence belongs in the national archives and museum of The Bahamas; however, the work is owned by foreigners and until success is made in this regard it seems rather unfortunate that of one of our greatest treasures, we have no ownership. Who's to blame? Maybe that question is out of place or has no answer, but I feel that steps need to be taken to reclaim this lost treasure.