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« Elsewhere | Main | Fenster Predicts the Past »

November 02, 2004

Joseph Spence

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've been listening to and loving this CD by the amazing Bahamian guitarist-singer Joseph Spence. His music is full of funky front-porch fingerpicking; the kinds of odd harmonies and microtones you hear in the rawest gospel; and the most original vocalizing I've heard since I treated myself to Asie Payton. Spence seems to love diving heedlessly into muddy rhythmic predicaments; he emerges victorious every time. His sound is as lowdown as the Delta blues, but it's set to joyful island beats -- the sacred and the profane, the light and the dark, all of it borne along on a current of rum and laughter. My mind struggles with the mixture, but my ears couldn't be happier.

Spence is known for his giant but laid-back personality; his unself-consciously dazzling, contrapuntal guitar work (Ry Cooder's a fan); and for being one of the oddest, most wonderful vocalists ever. (Van Morrison's a fan too.) What a stylist! He's as off on his own asymetrical-cubist planet as Thelonious Monk. There are passages when his vocal line seems to be made up entirely of gargles, chortles, yelps, and growls; there are times when you wonder if conventional "singing" is playing a role at all. Spence mutters to himself; he coughs; he's as incomprehensible as Popeye ... Yet his singing works: it swings, and it moves you. (Or moves me.) He may be the most eccentric great vocalist I've ever listened to.

Here's a loving website devoted to Joseph Spence; here's another. Here's an Amazon list of Spence recordings. You can sample a lot of Spence's tracks at this Amazon page -- click on "Listen to all."

I can't resist copying-and-pasting this exchange between Joseph Spence and one of his admirers:

Young Folklorist: Mr Spence, I couldn't help noticing that you play all of your songs in the same tuning, dropped-D tuning, and the same key, D major. Why is that?

Spence: I used to know all them keys! I knew 'em all: A, and B, and D, and F, and H...I used to know all them keys!

YF: Well, Mr Spence, if that's true, then why do you play everything in the same key of D? Why don't you use any of those other keys?

Spence: I got tired of 'em!

He's not just a living work of folk art; he's a sage! I hereby nominate Joseph Spence for immortality.



posted by Michael at November 2, 2004


That is truly Zen.

Posted by: Micah on November 3, 2004 12:43 PM

And we shall never be so Zen, or so wise.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 3, 2004 1:11 PM

I love another very talented artist - Ted Hawkins. He has a wonderfully raspy voice and a joy to listen to.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on November 3, 2004 2:49 PM

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