Joseph Spence
Joseph Spence was a Bahamian guitar
The guitar is a plucked string instrument, usually played with fingers or a pick. The guitar consists of a body with a rigid neck to which the strings, generally six in number, are attached. Guitars are traditionally constructed of various woods and strung with animal gut or, more recently, with...

ist and singer. He is well known for his vocalizations
Speech production
Speech production is the process by which spoken words are selected to be produced, have their phonetics formulated and then finally are articulated by the motor system in the vocal apparatus...

 and humming while performing on guitar. Several American musicians, including Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal (musician)
Henry Saint Clair Fredericks , who uses the stage name Taj Mahal, is an American Grammy Award winning blues musician. He incorporates elements of world music into his music...

, The Grateful Dead, Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder
Ryland Peter "Ry" Cooder is an American guitarist, singer and composer. He is known for his slide guitar work, his interest in roots music from the United States, and, more recently, his collaborations with traditional musicians from many countries.His solo work has been eclectic, encompassing...

, Woody Mann
Woody Mann
-Biography:Mann specializes in jazz, blues, and American roots music.He was born in New York, where he first studied acoustic guitar with ragtime and blues guitarist Reverend Gary Davis from 1968-72. From 1973-78, Mann continued private lessons, focusing on improvisation with jazz pianist Lennie...

 and Olu Dara
Olu Dara
Olu Dara Jones is an American cornetist, guitarist and singer.-History:...

, in addition to the British guitarist John Renbourn
John Renbourn
John Renbourn is an English guitarist and songwriter. He is possibly best known for his collaboration with guitarist Bert Jansch as well as his work with the folk group Pentangle, although he maintained a solo career before, during and after that band's existence .While most commonly labelled a...

, were influenced by and have recorded variations of his arrangements of gospel and Bahamian songs.

The earliest recordings of Joseph Spence were made on Spence's porch by folk musicologist Samuel Charters
Samuel Charters
Samuel Charters, born Samuel Barclay Charters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, August 1, 1929 , is an American music historian, writer, record producer, musician, and poet...

. These were released by Folkways Records
Folkways Records
Folkways Records was a record label founded by Moses Asch that documented folk, world, and children's music. It was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, and is now part of Smithsonian Folkways.-History:...


Spence played a steel-string acoustic guitar
Steel-string acoustic guitar
A steel-string acoustic guitar is a modern form of guitar descended from the classical guitar, but strung with steel strings for a brighter, louder sound...

, and nearly all of his recorded songs employ guitar accompaniment in a Drop D tuning
Drop D tuning
Drop D tuning, also known as DADGBE, is an alternate, or scordatura, form of guitar tuning — specifically, a dropped tuning — in which the lowest string is tuned down from the usual E of standard tuning by one whole step to D.- Uses of drop D tuning :In drop D the three bass strings...

, where the sixth string is tuned to a D below the normal E, so that the guitar sounds, from sixth to first D A D G B E. The power of his playing derives from moving bass lines and interior voices and a driving beat that he emphasizes with foot tapping. To this mix he adds blues coloration and calypso
Calypso music
Calypso is a style of Afro-Caribbean music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago from African and European roots. The roots of the genre lay in the arrival of enslaved Africans, who, not being allowed to speak with each other, communicated through song...

 rhythms to achieve a unique and easily identifiable sound. He has been called the folk guitarist's Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Sphere Monk was an American jazz pianist and composer considered "one of the giants of American music". Monk had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire, including "Epistrophy", "'Round Midnight", "Blue Monk", "Straight, No Chaser"...


The Richard Thompson fan club produced a benefit tribute album
Tribute album
A tribute album is a recorded collection of cover versions of songs or instrumental compositions. Its concept may be either various artists making a tribute to a single artist, a single artist making a tribute to various artists, or a single artist making a tribute to another single artist.There...

 to Spence and the Pinder Family, Out on the Rolling Sea. It featured a variety of artists covering songs from Spence's repertoire. His recording of "That Glad Reunion Day" was used in the 2004 film Open Water and also appears on its soundtrack CD.

His unique vocal stylings on "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
"Santa Claus is Coming to Town" is a Christmas song. It was written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie, and was first sung on Eddie Cantor's radio show in November 1934....

" may be the definitive version of that song, according to Tom Schnable of KCRW
KCRW is a public radio station broadcasting from the campus of Santa Monica College in Santa Monica, California, carrying a mix of National Public Radio news, talk radio and freeform music format. The general manager of KCRW is Jennifer Ferro...

's Weekend Becomes Eclectic show and John Kelly
John Kelly (broadcaster, writer)
John Kelly is an award winning Irish broadcaster and writer. He presents The View on RTÉ One and The JK Ensemble on RTÉ lyric fm...

 of RTÉ Radio 1
RTÉ Radio 1
RTÉ Radio 1 is the principal radio channel of Irish public-service broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann and is the direct descendant of Dublin radio station 2RN, which began broadcasting on a regular basis on 1 January 1926...

's Mystery Train show.

Mike Heron
Mike Heron
Mike Heron is a Scottish singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, best known for his work in the Incredible String Band in the 1960s and 1970s.-Career:...

 of The Incredible String Band credited Spence as the inspiration for the "Lay down, dear sister" passage in A Very Cellular Song on 1968's The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
-Personnel:*Robin Williamson - vocals, guitar, gimbri, penny whistle, percussion, pan pipe, piano, oud, mandolin, jaw harp, chahanai, water harp, harmonica*Mike Heron - vocals, sitar, Hammond organ, guitar, hammered dulcimer, harpsichord...

. Curiously, Spence credited Heron with the same song, claiming to have learned it from the ISB.


  • 1959: Joseph Spence: Bahamian Folk Guitar Folkways Records
    Folkways Records
    Folkways Records was a record label founded by Moses Asch that documented folk, world, and children's music. It was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, and is now part of Smithsonian Folkways.-History:...

     FS 3844
  • 1964: Happy All the Time Elektra Records EKL-273; Carthage Records CGLP 4419 (LP reissue 1985); Hannibal Records HNCD 4419 (CD reissue 2003)
  • 1964: Folk Guitar, Bahaman Ballads and Rhyming Spirituals Folkways Records FW03847
  • 1966: Explorer Series: The Bahamas - The Real Bahamas Nonesuch Explorer Series 79725-2
  • 1972: Joseph Spence: Bahamian Guitarist, "Good Morning Mr. Walker" Arhoolie Records 1061; Arhoolie CD 349 (CD reissue 1990)
  • 1978: Explorer Series: The Bahamas - The Real Bahamas, Vol. 2 Nonesuch Explorer Series 79733-2
  • 1980: Joseph Spence: Living on the Hallelujah Side Rounder CD 2021
  • 1990: Glory Rounder CD 2096
  • 1992: Joseph Spence: The Complete Folkways Recordings, 1958 Smithsonian Folkways
    Smithsonian Folkways
    Smithsonian Folkways is the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution. It is a part of the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, located at Capital Gallery in downtown Washington, D.C. The label was founded in 1987 after the family of Moses Asch, founder of Folkways...

    CD SF 40066
  • 1995: Kneelin' Down Inside The Gate: The Great Rhyming Singers of the Bahamas Rounder CD 5035
  • 1995: The Spring of Sixty-Five Rounder CD 2114
  • 1997: The Bahamas: Islands of Song Smithsonian Folkways SFW40405
  • 2006: Friends of Old Time Music: The Folk Arrival 1961 - 1965 Smithsonian Folkways SFW40160

External links

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