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!