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  • Writer's pictureThe Sound Cafe

Bahamian Guitar Legend Joseph Spence on Album of Unheard Recordings Coming Later This Year

By Devon Leger. Photograph by Guy Droussart

Smithsonian Folkways is prepping a new album of never-before-heard recordings from the great Bahamian guitar legend Joseph Spence.

And today they’re releasing a never-before-seen photo of Spence. Taken by Belgian photographer Guy Droussart in the 70s outside Spence’s home in the Bahamas, the picture captures Spence playing his inimitable fingerstyle guitar.

“Meeting Joseph Spence and hearing him play the guitar over the course of a few days was beyond all my expectations,” Droussart said recently. “His warm hospitality and the sound of his music touched me deeply.”

The photo was uncovered during the process of producing a new album of previously unheard material recorded in the prime of Spence’s career. We’ll have more news soon on the album! If you’re not familiar with Spence, he was discovered during the folk revival and was such an amazingly different and unique guitarist and singer that he influenced everyone from Richard Thompson to The Grateful Dead, Ry Cooder, and Taj Mahal.

Born in Andros, Bahamas, in 1910, Spence was the son of a pastor. He got his start in music as a teenager playing in his great-uncle Tony Spence's band. After leaving school he worked as a sponge fisher, stonemason, and carpenter, and as a crop cutter in the United States. The earliest recordings of Spence were made on his porch by the folk musicologist Samuel Charters, in 1958. Charters initially thought that Spence's guitar playing was the work of two players duelling.

Mike Heron, of the Incredible String Band, credited Spence as the inspiration for the "Lay down, dear sister" passage in "A Very Cellular Song" on the album The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, released in 1968. Curiously, Spence credited Heron with the same song, claiming to have learned it from the Incredible String Band.

Joseph Spence died on March 18, 1984, aged 73, in Nassau, Bahamas.

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