Happy Meeting in Glory (Joseph Spence)

This is Joseph Spence’s best-known guitar piece, and by the time I recorded my CD it had become a regular in my sets. At the time I thought I was pretty close to his sound, and I played a couple of my versions of his arrangements to Ernie Hawkins, and Ernie was kind enough to call Stefan Grossman and suggest that I would be a good person to do an instructional video on how to play Spence’s style. Stefan knew of me as a writer but had never heard me play, but he trusted Ernie and signed me up. So then I had to figure out how Spence actually played… and immediately realized I had most of it wrong.

That was frightening, but also exciting, because it forced me to engage with Spence’s recordings in a different way. Over the next few months I listened to them more closely than I’d ever listened to anything.  In the past I had worked out reasonable versions of several of his pieces — this one, “Glory of Love,” and a much simplified “Brownskin Girl” — but I’d approached them one by one, as individual arrangements, rather than immersing myself in the way he thought and moved.

Now, I realized I needed to approach his music the way I would learn a language — not by memorizing sentences, but by learning how it fitted together as a whole system. Spence played everything in the same tuning and key (key of D, with the lowest string tuned down to D), using essentially the same chord shapes and techniques —  the instrumental equivalent of a vocabulary and grammar. Techniques from one piece appeared in other pieces, and sometimes a voicing would be more obvious in a new piece, so as I learned more of his pieces I kept discovering things I’d misunderstood in other pieces… and although I never lost my accent, I eventually reached a basic level of fluency.

I also hunted up a couple of people who had watched Spence and played with him. Jody Stecher  had recorded Spence and studied him closely, and was kind enough to let me come over to his place and play what I had, then correct some of my mistakes. But the real expert is Guy Droussart, who visited Spence for extended periods over many years.

I first tried to persuade Guy to do the video himself, since he was the obvious person, but he refused because he doesn’t like instructional videos. Guy thinks it is important to approach Spence directly and immerse oneself in his music and his world – not only the guitar style, but the Bahamian gospel vocal tradition, and also to develop the physical strength Spence had from a life as a stonemason, and the rhythm of the fishing boats. So he said no, and also declined to help me… but when I played my versions of some Spence pieces for him, he was horrified and pointed out particularly egregious errors, then told me how I should be fingering particular passages… and I listened and asked questions until he began feeling like he was getting too involved with the video project. So we’d end our conversation and I’d spend a few months assimilating his corrections, send him a tape of my current versions, and he’d still be horrified and would correct me some more… and it never got to a point where he was happy, but my playing certainly improved and I am infinitely grateful.

Eventually I felt comfortable enough with Spence’s language to make the video and this was one of the songs I taught. The way I play it now is a mix of choruses Spence played on his first recordings, made by Sam Charters for Folkways Records, with some more impromptu choruses using the same basic grammar and vocabulary.

On the Folkways LP this song was titled “Happy Meeting in Glory,” and I still tend to think of it that way, but its legal title is “That Great Reunion Day.” It was published in 1940 and composed by a gospel songwriter named Adger M. Pace. An online biography says he was born in South Carolina in 1882 and became the first president of the National Singing Convention, a teacher at the Vaughan School of Music in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, and the bass singer for the Vaughan Radio Quartet on WOAN, one of the first radio stations in the South.