Brownskin Girl (Joseph Spence)

I’ve been fascinated by the Bahamian genius Joseph Spence since I was a kid, and by 1986 I’d worked out rough and inaccurate approximations of a few of his pieces. This was one of my favorites off his Folkways album, and it came in handy when I hitchhiked down through Mexico, up through Guatemala, and wound up in Belize.

My ride dropped me in Belize City around mid-afternoon, and I wandered the streets looking for someplace cheap to stay. In those days the town looked like a rundown Caribbean port in an old movie: lines of battered, close-packed houses with carved wooden balconies sagging in the tropical heat. I was directed to a Chinese hotel that was like the place Bogart met Tim Holt and Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre — the “rooms” were just cubicles separated by chicken wire, each with a cot and not much else. It looked thoroughly uncomfortable, and a fan at the end of the hall was doing nothing to combat the heat, so I gave it a pass.

The alternative was to find someone who would put me up, and since I didn’t have a clue where that person might be, I wandered over to the port. The fishing boats had come in and young men were sorting fish into baskets and hawking them to customers, cleaning them on the stones and tossing the guts over a low wall into the water. I walked by with my guitar, and a couple of them called me over. I don’t remember what I played first — probably some blues followed by a country song, since the nearby bar was decorated with posters of Bob Marley and Willie Nelson and I didn’t play reggae. Anyway, they enjoyed it and  then, after a bit, I played this song and a couple of them began singing along.

I’d never known the words, since I’d only heard it done by Spence, who tended to mumble more than sing. So that was a nice surprise. They sang:

Brownskin girl, stay home and mind the baby.
Brownskin girl, stay home and mind the baby
If you go away in a sailing boat,
And if you don’t come back,
Please take that damn baby.

I later learned this was a variant of the usual words — “Papa’s gone away in a sailing boat/ And if he don’t come back/ Stay home and mind the baby.” Obviously, an improvement.

Anyway, I ended up spending the night with one of the fish cleaners. He had a tiny place, just a shack big enough for a stove and a bunk bed, and he let me sleep in the top bunk. He explained that a young woman often slept there, but she was a prostitute so probably wouldn’t need it during the night.

He took me to a nearby restaurant where I played and got us a meal, then we joined some friends of his, drank some beers, and ended up back at his place. His roommate did come in later that night and offered to join me, but everyone was tired so instead she split the lower bunk with my host, we all got some sleep, and the next morning I hitched north to Mexico.

As for Spence, I’ve written about him in posts for “Glory of Love” and “Sloop John B,” and on the page for my instructional DVD on his guitar style. I got more serious about working out his arrangements in the 2000s, and the DVD includes a fairly complete exploration of “Brownskin Girl,” along with “Glory of Love,” “Coming In On a Wing and a Prayer,” “That Glad Reunion Day,” “Oh, How I Love Jesus,” and “The Lord is My Shepherd.”