I don’t know for sure who first described Joseph Spence as “the folk guitarist's Thelonious Monk”—it may have been Mark A. Humphrey, who wrote the All-Music Guide entry for this Bahamian guitar player. In any case, the phrase seems to pop up regularly on the internet when you're searching for Spence; it has the virtue of not only being catchy, but also descriptive in a helpful way. As such, I’m happy to continue its proliferation right here on Robert Frost’s Banjo.
What are adjectives you could use to describe Monk’s music? Consider these two sentences from Wikipedia’s entry on the great jazz pianist:
His compositions and improvisations are full of dissonant harmonies and angular melodic twists, and are impossible to separate from Monk's unorthodox approach to the piano, which combined a highly percussive attack with abrupt, dramatic use of silences and hesitations. Monk's manner was idiosyncratic.
Compare this with the opening of Humphrey’s piece:
Born on the island of Andrus in the Bahamas, Spence created an idiosyncratic (and inimitable) guitar style rife with percussive and improvisatory vamps around staid hymns and such "square" standards as "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer."
I'd add the adjective "playful" to describe both men's music. One thing I can say with some certainty: if you’ve never heard Joseph Spence, there’s really no one to compare him to, in the sense that you could say, “his guitar playing reminds me of so-&-so” (actually, he has some notable points in common with Costa Rican guitarist Walter Ferguson, but Ferguson is probably more obscure than Spence). In fact, I must tell you that the first time Eberle & I heard him play, we were not only entirely captivated, but also overcome with fits of hysterical laughter, especially during his unforgettable rendition of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Despite the laughter, we were completely convinced that we were listening to an incredible musician; the laughter came from delight combined with a sense of how foreign this was to our conception of exceptional musical performance.
Unlike other guitarists featured in this series, Spence is not a blues player; in fact, he claimed that even after being exposed to the form while working as a stonemason in the U.S. during the 30s, the blues never “grafted to my head.” His repertoire was in fact extremely eclectic & as idiosyncratic as his playing & singing. He sang old standards (see “Coming In On a Wing & a Prayer”); Bahamian folk songs (see “Good Morning Mr Walker”) & even the occasional calypso (“Jump in the Line” is an epic guitar tune when played by Spence!) in addition to lots of hymns, children’s songs &, in essence, whatever struck his fancy (including an unforgettable rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which you can find on YouTube—& which I expect to post during the upcoming holiday season).
Spence played almost exclusively in what’s commonly known as “drop D” tuning—this means simply that the lowest sounding string on the guitar isn’t tuned to an E as in standard tuning, but down to a D; & it also should be noted that his guitar is "out of tune" by common standards. But as Jack Viertel points out in his liner notes to Good Morning Mr Walker, “There is no sloppiness in this. He tunes very precisely by playing the same figures over & over until he is satisfied, & the guitar is always tuned to the same pitches.”
Spence’s guitar playing involves complex improvisations & a whole lot of counterpoint; "chords" per se are less important than "voices." In this regard, Spence is especially renowned for his bass runs. When Ry Cooder was asked about the origins of his own playing, he said:
It all started with Joseph Spence when I was a little kid. He was one of my all-time great inspirations. When he did those bass runs, I didn’t understand it. I was so mad all the time.
A lot of guitar players—myself included—have been inspired by Spence’s playing; Taj Mahal & John Renbourn are two other well-known players who, like Cooder, acknowledge Spence’s influence. Guitarists who'd like to see what this looks like "on paper" can check out Happy Traum's excellent book of transcriptions Traditional & Contemporary Fingerpicking Styles for Guitar (Oak Publications). The book contains a transcription of "There Will Be a Happy Meeting" from Music of the Bahamas, vol. 1 (Folkways-Smithsonian). I'd also agree with traum's statement that Spence's recordings are "essential listening for anyone interested in fingerstyle guitar." Although Spence's playing as an entire package is pretty much inimitable, you can learn a whole lot about what's possible on the instrument.
Spence’s playing has another unique feature, & that’s his voice. You may notice that on Arhoolie’s Good Morning Mr Walker Spence is credited with “guitar & vocal sounds.” What Spence does isn’t singing as we commonly understand the term. Viertel said, “His voice, also inimitable, is used as a secondary instrument more than as a means of communicating words. It provides a solid, if somewhat gravelly, base for the guitar’s fluid lines to play off of.” In fact, Spence often forgot the words to songs & would simply vocalize syllables like “la dee dee” over the guitar’s flurry of notes.
Spence was first recorded by Sam Charters for Folkways in 1958, & he toured in the U.S. in the 1970s. Like Reverend Gary Davis, Elizabeth Cotton & Son House (& many many others) he was a “discovery” of the folk movement. Of course, all of these folks had been making music right along—the “discoveries" were akin to Columbus’ discovery of the Americas: it’s not like they suddenly appeared out of thin air. Spence worked his entire life as a stonemason, but was still a guitarist of the very highest order in his later years.
If you’re looking for an introduction to Spence’s music, you might consider Living on the Hallelujah Side (Rounder), Arhoolie’s Bahamian Guitarist: Good Morning Mr Walker, The Spring of Sixty-Five (Rounder Select) or the out-of-distribution but still available Complete Folkways Recordings, which are the nine tracks issued from Charters’ 1958 recordings.
Hope you enjoy listening to this truly unique & inspiring musician!