Joseph Spence Medley

Anyone who has followed this project knows how much I love Joseph Spence’s guitar style. I’ve already posted my versions of his  “Coming In on a Wing and a Prayer,” “Happy Meeting in Glory,” “Brownskin Girl,” “Sloop John B.,” and “Glory of Love,” and written about how I fell in love with his music, first on record, then seeing him in person, and finally immersing myself in his style and filming an instructional video to help other players get a sense of what he was doing.

I recently was re-inspired by a wonderful new set of Spence recordings made by Peter Siegel in the 1960s and released this year on Smithsonian Folkways, so I put together a medley of some of his classic arrangements of Bahamian hymns.

I have written before that I think of Spence’s style as a language — he almost always played in the same key and tuning (drop D) and used the same partial chord shapes — and I think of this medley as a kind of primer in that language. Rather than taking one arrangement and exploring how he would improvise brilliant variations on it, which was what I tried to do in my previous posts, this is a journey through five of his basic arrangements, with each song using some licks that show up differently in the next.

The first three are two-part pieces, with a  verse and a chorus: “Victory is Coming,” “Face to Face That I Should Know Him,” and “Happy All the Time.” Spence sang with his relatives, the Pindar family, and one of the key aspects of his playing is that he harmonized like a vocal quartet, with two lead lines in parallel sixths punctuated by a bass part. In these songs, the bass mostly goes along with the lead on the verses, then becomes a separate voice in the choruses, providing a call to which the treble voices respond. The fourth song, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down,” has only one section and I play his basic version and a typical variation.

Finally, “The Lord Is My Shepherd” is what I think of as one of Spence’s classical guitar arrangements. These are in the same language as his other pieces, using the same variety of positions and techniques, but rather than creating a basic arrangement and improvising variations, he intricately arranged them, with bass and treble lines sometimes moving  in opposite directions, and varied them very little from chorus to chorus.

I have to again give credit to Guy Droussart, who was kind enough to explain many of Spence’s favorite moves to me. One of the fascinating things about learning the style of any vernacular guitarist — meaning players who work out arrangements by playing pieces over and over — is that their arrangements flow logically out of the way they use their hands, and are comfortable to play if you can figure out how they are using their hands. Guy gave me the clues I needed to get this close to what Spence was doing — not all the intricacies, subtleties, and virtuosity of his playing, but the basic style.

As I wrote up top, I think of this medley as a kind of primer, which means I would encourage any guitarist who loves Spence’s style to give it a shot. None of us will ever speak his language accentlessly, but the basic vocabulary is not complicated and just teaching my hands to play his kind of punctuating and moving basslines rather than keeping a regularly alternating  bass changed my own playing forever.

All the tunes are in drop D tuning and use the same left-hand shapes. The distinctive thing about Spence’s left hand is that he never has more than three fingers on the fretboard, and often just two — for example, for a basic D chord he holds either the first and third strings on the second fret or the second and fourth strings on the third and fourth frets, where most players would hold all of those at once to make a full chord. As for his bass, when it is not moving, the standard bass for those D shapes would be an open D string with the first, and the fifth string, second fret for the second — which is kind of odd, because it adds a 6th in the bass, but is one of the harmonies that distinguishes his sound.