Thursday, December 15, 2011

Joseph Spence is Coming to Town

Happy Thursday folks!  I’m here with another installment of the series Xmas Music for People Who Hate Xmas Music, & I changed the song title slightly so as not to scare away people that fall into that class.  In fact, today’s selection is the great Joseph Spence’s singular interpretation of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

If you’ve never heard Joseph Spence, you are in for a major eye-opening.  To my mind, he was one of the most inventive guitar players you will ever hear—& I’m not alone in that assessment.  Ry Cooder famously proclaimed:

It 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.

Other notable admirers of Spence include Taj Mahal, John Renbourn, Olu Daru & Woody Mann.  In his all-too brief Allmusic biography, Mark A. Humphrey states, “he was a folk guitarist's Thelonious Monk,” & as a fan of both men’s music, I’d have to say that is a truly fruitful comparison. 

Spence lived in his native Bahamas thru his entire life—born in 1910 & passed away in 1984.  His guitar playing—which to the best of my knowledge was all done in the “drop D tuning” (meaning that the lowest sounding string is tuned down from an E to a D), is extremely intricate, featuring Cooder’s aforementioned bass runs acting as counterpoint to the melody & melodic improvisations on the guitar’s treble strings.  Now it is true that Spence’s guitar is not “in tune” by Western standards—he didn’t tune to A=440 (which is the Euro-American standard for playing in tune), & even given that the base criteria for tuning is a bit off, there’s a slight but noticeable disjuncture in tuning between the bass & the treble strings, & especially involving the third string, which would be tuned to a G (G below middle C for those who care about such things.)  However, one thing about Spence’s tuning that has been pointed out & confirmed: his tuning was always consistent.  He didn’t tune this way because he was incapable of hearing the correct pitch, but because this was the correct pitch to him.  In fact, the pitches that we use for notes in Euro-American tuning are dictated by equal temperament tuning, which essentially is a tuning that means you don’t have to re-tune an instrument every time you play in a different key (as was the case with earlier tuning systems.)  In fact, equal temperament dictates that one has to “split the difference” on the pure mathematical proportions between notes, so in fact some intervals that we hear as correct, musicians from other cultures would hear as being “off.”  This is especially true of the major third—i.e., the note “mi” in the do-re-mi” scale.

But enough for musical relativism!  In addition to Spence’s rather amazing guitar playing, his singing is also unique—in fact, the casual listener may focus more on this idiosyncratic vocal style than anything else.  In essence, the words of a song seem only of passing importance to Spence; instead he hums, does a sort of guttaral scatting & overall includes all manner of vocalized effects almost as another counterpoint to his guitar playing.  Those of us who are older, remember the 60s expression “blow your mind.”  Joseph Spence will, indeed, blow your mind.

You will never hear “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” like this, I promise.  Enjoy!


  1. My kind of Christmas song - I will add that to my seasonal playlist.

  2. Heh, heh! I've heard this several times before, and it always makes my day! To me, Spence sounds like Monk meets Lionel Hampton; I'm wondering if Spence isn't singing the song so much as he is vocalizing along with his playing, the way Hamp grunted and crooned along with his vibraphone performances. A lot of jazz pianists had/have that habit, too.

    A note on equal temperament/just intonation. The compromise made by equal temperament creates a "beating" of tonal fluctuation between intervals, whereas just intonation creates smooth, beatless intervals. Orchestral musicians automatically adjust -finger position, embouchure, whatever changes the pitch on their instrument - to remove that beating, thus creating just intonation by default.

  3. Hi Alan & Roy

    Alan: Thanks! Glad you liked it. As much as I admire Joseph Spence, one never knows how he will go over!

    Roy: Thanks! Interesting point about just/equal temperament. I was aware of this being done in small string ensembles--i.e., string quartets. However, I'm not aware that it could be done in larger symphonic contexts where there would be instruments with fixed pitches that can't be adjusted. For instance, there would be no way of playing a piano concerto in just temperament unless the piano had been specially tuned to do so. But you are right in that to some degree adjustments can be made. Thanks again!

  4. This is indeed some wild stuff!!

  5. Hi T: Couldn't have put it better myself! Thanks.


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