According to Charters, pervasive poverty had caused residents to feel “sensitive and dissatisfied.” Many split for Nassau, where work was more plentiful. The ones who stayed found solace in song. “Music is the only creative expression of the island’s people, and religious singing and instrumental music have become an intensely important part of their lives,” Charters explained.
Many of the men on Andros played unaccompanied acoustic guitar, tuned to a standard tuning, but with the sixth string dropped from E to D. Islanders were either Anglican or Catholic, and sang hymns and other religious music. One afternoon, Charters and Danberg came upon a guitarist sitting on a pile of bricks; some men were hammering away at the wooden frame of a house, and he was messing around, entertaining them. Joseph Spence was about to turn forty-eight, and mostly made his living as a stonemason. “I had never heard anything like Spence,” Charters later wrote. “His playing was stunning.” The performance was so rich and multifaceted that Charters started peeking around to see if maybe there was a second musician out of view. There wasn’t.
The subsequent album—“Music of the Bahamas, Volume 1: Bahaman Folk Guitar”—was released by Folkways Records in 1959, and recently reissued as part of the label’s seventieth-anniversary celebration (Folkways was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, and is now known as Smithsonian Folkways). Spence would go on to make other recordings—including one studio album, “Good Morning Mr. Walker,” for Arhoolie Records—but there’s nothing quite as loose, buoyant, or expansive as those first recordings.
In the nineteen-thirties, the folklorist Alan Lomax travelled to the Bahamas and recorded local fishermen singing sea chanteys and anthems (there’s some enduring confusion about whether or not Lomax recorded Spence, too, although Todd Harvey, a curator at the American Folklife Center, which manages the thousands of recordings Lomax made under the auspices of the Library of Congress, recently told me he couldn’t find any definitive connection between Spence and Lomax). Even if Lomax had come across Spence, by the nineteen-fifties, Spence’s repertoire would have been broader and weirder, its influences more disparate and motley. Island cultures tend to be insular, which is why music developed there can feel so unique—it’s often conceived of and honed in relative isolation. Spence didn’t seem to think about his work in terms of genre, yet his playing refers to the musical conventions of Tin Pan Alley, to gospel hymns, Delta blues, Appalachian folk, calypso, and any other number of things a listener can sense but not quite explicate. His notes are often just a little off-kilter, yet even the technical imperfections in his playing feel precise and intentional. It was just the way he thought things sounded best.
Spence liked to improvise, and often worked a familiar melody into something deeper and more idiosyncratic. His take on “Jump In the Line,” a calypso jam written by the Trinidadian musician Lord Kitchener and made famous—to American audiences, anyway—by Harry Belafonte, in 1961, starts out recognizable, but gradually mutates into something wilder and more abundant. The effect is like discovering a secret door in a house you’ve occupied for decades. Spence was often delighted by the winds of his own work, how a tune could blow him one way or the other, a palm in the breeze.
“Sometimes a variation would strike the men and Spence himself as so exciting that [Spence] would simply stop playing and join them in the shouts of excitement,” Charters noted.