The Guitar of Joseph Spence: DVD


spence dvdfrom
The Guitar Stylings of Joseph Spence (DVD)

To order online, go to the Guitar Workshop site.
For related music, check out my Bahamian Blind Blake page.

I saw Joseph Spence only once, when I was 12 years old, in a concert at

Harvard University with the Texas guitarist Mance Lipscomb. I can’t say I

remember very much about that particular concert, but I have been listening

to his music as long as I can remember, and he has always been one of my

favorite musicians.


I worked out one of his arrangements for the first time in the late 1970s,

among the first pieces I ever tried to learn note for note off a recording.

I can’t say I got very close to his fingering, but I came pretty close to the

rhythm, and that was what first fascinated me about his playing. I was

used to the straightforward rhythms of ragtime-blues, and Spence opened

up new possibilities that would eventually lead me to the Congo and lessons

from players like Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo.


Over the next thirty years I learned about a dozen of his pieces, but it was

only after Ernie Hawkins put me in touch with Stefan Grossman and Stefan

agreed to do this video that I really buckled down and tried to get the pieces

right. The last three years have involved months of intensive woodshedding,

as well as many long conversations with Guy Droussart.

Guy was a friend of Spence’s and knows his style better than anyone alive. Every time I would think I had it right, I’d send Guy a recording or play something for him over the phone, and he would tell me I still had it all wrong. Guy believes that no one can truly play Spence’s style unless they have a deep immersion in Bahaman church singing, then develop the physical strength Spence had from years as a stonemason.

I agree with him, but also feel that there is a great deal to be learned by understanding how Spence played, even if one can never exactly replicate the sound or spirit of his work. After all, none of us will ever be Joseph Spence, but by studying a brilliant, innovative musician, we can learn valuable techniques and develop ideas of our own. To my way of thinking, Spence’s style is like a language, and the aim of this DVD is to help people understand the structure and grammar, teach a representative sample of phrases, and provide some tips on the accent.

Along with his rhythmic innovations, Spence worked out a contrapuntal style in which his thumb, rather than keeping a steady rhythm, accented the melody with carefully placed notes and bass runs. He also played almost all his melodic lines in harmony, parallel sixths drawn from church singing.

The result is that there are typically three lines running at the same time–melody, harmony and bass–and his unique fingerings allowed him to improvise these simultaneously. It really is like a language. While he had a few pieces that were carefully worked out and remained more or less identical over the years, he could also play any melody he heard fluently, and once one has learned how to “speak” his style, it opens up a new vocabulary for any player.

For this DVD, I selected six of Spence’s typical arrangements, including “Coming In On a Wing and a Prayer” and “That Glad Reunion Day” (also known as “There Will Be a Happy Meeting in Glory” and essentially the same arrangement as “Great Dream from Heaven”) for each of which I teach a half-dozen variations. Other hymn tunes are “Oh, How I Love Jesus” and his classical-sounding arrangement of “The Lord is My Shepherd.”

The other secular songs are “Brownskin Gal” and “The Glory of Love.” All are played up to speed, then taught section by section, then played slowly all the way through with both hands shown on a split screen. There is also tablature for all the pieces. If you want a taste of my take on this music, here is a sample of “Wing and a Prayer.”

Along with my stuff, the DVD has almost an hour of unreleased Spence recordings, made in 1976 at his home by William Giles. Spence was clearly relaxed and in a good mood, and there is some wonderful playing and singing, as well as an interesting interview segment about his various playing styles. It is available in all better music stores and from the Guitar Workshop site.

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