Comin’ In on a Wing and a Prayer (Joseph Spence)

This is my favorite Joseph Spence piece to play — which is not the same as my favorite to hear. I love Spence’s singing, whether on his own or with his in-laws, the Pinder family, and if I had to take one Spence recording to the proverbial desert island it would more likely be a Bahamian anthem like “Out on the Rolling Sea.” But for playing… this is absolutely it.

For a while I thought this was an anomaly in Spence’s repertoire, because all the other selections on his Folkways album were gospel songs, but when I mentioned that to Dave Van Ronk, he said, “I assume he thought it was a gospel song.” Which, of course, is right — especially since it became a hit in 1943, during the American Federation of Musicians recording strike, so the most popular recording was an a cappella choral arrangement by the Song Spinners, plus versions by the Golden Gate Quartet and the Four Vagabonds.

Be that as it may, it was one of Spence’s favorites, which he extended with marvelous variations — not just improvisations on the standard A and B sections, but a two-chord interlude he added occasionally as a break. I always considered it his instrumental masterpiece, and only tackled it after working out a bunch of other pieces, some of which I’ve posted (“Brownskin Girl,” “Happy Meeting in Glory,” “Glory of Love,” “Sloop John B,” and a medley of shorter tunes) — and those posts also include my general recollections and thoughts about Spence, a front-runner for my all-time guitar hero.

The song itself was a World War II hit, with a dozen sheet music covers testifying to all the famous bands and singers who featured it, from Tommy Dorsey to Eddie Cantor, to Joe Venuti and the unrelated Benay Venuta. I’m pretty sure I first heard the words (which are pretty lousy) from Ry Cooder, who presumably was inspired by Spence, and other than that just enjoyed the guitar version… until I was preparing this post and heard the Four Vagabonds’ version, which I’m going to my grave claiming was where Spence got it, just because: