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The Guitar of Joseph Spence

Elijah Wald has been a musician since age seven and a writer since the early 1980s. He has published more than a thousand articles, mostly about folk, roots and international music for various magazines and newspapers, including over ten years as "world music" writer for the Boston Globe. In the current millennium, he has been devoting most of his time to book projects, including volumes on such disparate subjects as Delta blues, Mexican drug ballads, hitchhiking, and a broad social history of American popular music.

As a musician (and to a great extent as a writer as well), his mentor was Dave Van Ronk, who gave him a year of guitar lessons and many years of staying up late at night, arguing politics and listening to records of everything from Bulgarian folk music to Bing Crosby. Dave was a brilliant and omnivorous intellect, and Elijah did his best to capture his voice and a sample of his memories, wit and wisdom in The Mayor of MacDougal Street.
Along with Dave, Elijah picked up stuff from various other musicians over the years, as well as learning a lot from records. (Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, and Joseph Spence are my longtime guitar heroes.)

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    The Guitar of Joseph Spence

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    Joseph Spence was a virtuoso guitarist and master arranger in a style that was uniquely personal and yet caught the imagination of musicians around the world. He has been compared to the great blues masters, the African acoustic pioneers, and Thelonious Monk, and inspired such varied disciples as Ry Cooder (who has recorded four of his arrangements), Taj Mahal, John Renbourn, and David Lindley.

    Born on the island of Andros in the Bahamas in 1910, Spence worked as a stone mason, playing mostly the religious songs he and his neighbors sang in church. His guitar arrangements capture the sound of these Bahaman gospel groups, with rhythms reflecting deep African roots and the roll of boats on the sea, and multi-part voicings in which bass and lead improvise independent, complementary lines.

    As well as being a joy to play, Spences arrangements have valuable lessons for any curious guitarist. They are master classes in how to fingerpick in waltz time and capture the rolling Caribbean rhythms of Trinidad, Cuba or New Orleans. His separation of bass and treble, and the parallel voicings of his melody lines, teach interesting ways of harmonizing fingerstyle improvisations. And his unorthodox technique and brilliant improvisations break down old habits, and make one approach the guitar from a unique and fresh perspective.

    Titles include: Oh How I Love Jesus, Happy Meeting In Glory, Brownskin Girl, The Glory of Love, The Lord is My Shepherd, Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer.

    Bonus Audio Tracks: 55 minutes of unreleased songs and interviews.  

    80 minutes - Level 2/3 - Detailed tab/music PDF file on the DVD

    Review: I've been a fan of Joseph Spence for a while and, like a lot of guitar player before me, i was really intrigued and and fascinated by his playing. So last year i was very excited to see that Stefan Grossman's guitar workshops issued a tutorial DVD of Spence's guitar style by Elijah Wald. I really enjoyed this lesson and recommend it to everyone, even to the basic fingerpickers or the country blues/folk players because it brings new ideas for the playing in dropped D tuning, challenging rhythms and, like Elijah Wald says in the video, "it's so much fun to play". On the bonus of the dvd, there's one hour of unreleased audio recordings by Spence, including some interviews. - Cornbread, Molasses & Sassafras Tea 

    Review: In this instructional DVD, guitarist and author Elijah Wald offers instruction in and transcriptions of six songs played by the great Bahamian guitarist, Joseph Spence. Spence, who was originally "discovered" by Samuel Charters and recorded for Folkways Records in the late 1950s, gained a sort of underground following among guitarists who were captivated by his irresistibly rhythmic, highly contrapuntal guitar style.


    Elijah Wald does a very good job of presenting Joseph Spence's music. Wald has an engaging and friendly manner, and his enthusiasm and love for Joseph Spence's music is certainly infectious. Wald touts the intended accuracy of his transcriptions of Spence's playing, but at the same time, does not claim to have Spence's touch; it is a sensible balance, for no one has equaled or ever will equal Spence's degree of familiarity and comfort with his own style. Elijah Wald's teaching is very practically oriented, and since every piece taught is played in the same dropped-D tuning, much of what will be involved for persons learning the songs off of the video will be developing a knowledge of Spence's musical vocabulary. I could have used a little more talking about Spence's counterpoint and discussion of his chordal vocabulary, which was largely derived from church music, but in fairness, I'm not sure that spending more time talking about such matters would help people play the songs better. I am impressed by the amount of industry Elijah Wald had to exert, listening, experimenting, and revising, to come up with his transcriptions; it's an enormous amount of work, and the more you strive for accuracy, the more difficult and painstaking it becomes. 

    Elijah Wald is to be congratulated for the fine job he did on this video, both in the teaching and putting together the transcriptions of Joseph Spence's performances. Guitarists who use this video are going to have a significant leg up in terms of learning the musical language of Joseph Spence and developing a degree of comfort speaking in that language. - John Miller/The Old-Time Herald





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