The Fretboard Journal is proud to offer our readers a first glimpse at a truly special project, Smithsonian Folkways’ forthcoming collection of previously-unreleased Joseph Spence recordings. As you hopefully know, Spence (1910-1984), was a wildly influential, one-of-a-kind guitarist / singer from the Bahamas. His offbeat recordings sound like no one else (before or after); he went on to inspire the likes of Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, the Grateful Dead and numerous others.
Encore: Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing (out July 16, 2021) is a 13-track collection of recently-rediscovered recordings made by recording engineer, musician and producer Peter K. Siegel. In the ’60s, Siegel was lucky enough to spend time with Spence and record the musician in both New York City and at Spence’s home in the Bahamas. Encore collects all the previously unreleased Spence songs from those sessions.
As huge Spence fans, we wanted to hear more about the making of these recordings, Spence himself and the musician’s guitar of choice. We talked to Siegel about this project and his time with the musician for the Fretboard Journal Podcast. Be on the lookout for a story on these sessions in the Fretboard Journal #49.
Some highlights from our interview with Siegel:
“I discovered him through his first Folkways album, which is still a classic. It was recorded by Sam Charters in 1958 and released in 1959. By the early ’60s, I and all my friends were crazily obsessed with Joseph Spence. I listened to that album so many times. So that was my introduction. It’s still wonderful album.”
“Joseph Spence was presented by Friends of Old-Time Music in the spring of 1965. As a volunteer for the group, I was asked the show them around the city; I can’t tell you how much of a thrill that was. He was an incredible person. He was just so open, and enthusiastic, and happy. We went to the top of the Empire State building! For me as a 21-year-old kid, that was like a life’s dream come true.”
“There are three sources for the recordings on this album. One was from the Friends of Old-Time Music concert, recorded live. Then there were also recordings made in the apartment where I lived with my parents on 31st St., in my bedroom. Let me tell you, for a 21-year-old kid to have Joseph Spence playing guitar in your bedroom, that is an incomparable experience… After meeting Spence and hearing him in concert, I got really excited about Bahamian music. I called my friend, Jody Stecher, and the two of us went to the Bahamas and recorded all kinds of great music, which came out first on an album called The Real Bahamas on Nonesuch Records. That’s the third source. The three sources being concert, the apartment, and in Joseph Spence’s house in the Bahamas.”
“I had been through these tapes a number of different times and I didn’t know they were there. When Jody and I made The Real Bahamas and a couple of other compilation albums, we were trying not to have the same songs on different albums. It was a funny attitude, which I don’t fully understand, but we sort of thought even if the song had been sung by Frederick McQueen, we didn’t want another retake of it by Joseph Spence. What that meant was there were a number of great songs that we didn’t use. A couple years ago, pre-pandemic, I took all those tapes down and put them on the recorder and listen to them. And I discovered that there were quite a few really great things there. I was sitting on them only because I wasn’t sufficiently aware of them. When I heard them, they really sounded good and that’s when I started putting this together.”