Sunday, July 30, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 035: The Pindar Family with Joseph Spence: The Real Bahamas Volume 1 & 2

This music comes from a place—and a world of experience—that is gone. And it was a better, kinder place than the world we live in.

The Bahamas, before the tourist trade took the islands away from the people who actually lived there and turned them into picturesque denizens of a semi-tropical theme park, were a wonderful, kind, and gentle place. Mostly people lived very simple lives, with a lot of leisure time and a close connection both to nature (fishing, sponging, growing vegetables) and to God.

The tradition of the lining-hymn got started on the sponge beds: fishermen out on the beds who were unable to get back to shore for Sunday service would hold it on the boat instead. Services mostly consisted of improvised singing, when the song leader would “line-out” verses from the Bible (especially the Psalms) to improvised melodies and improvised responses from the other choristers. It’s a beautiful, unselfconscious, and truly devout musical language. Eventually the style moved off the boats and back on shore. It became, in fact, part of people’s dying: when a member of the community was not expected to live, the community on Andros or Freeport or Cat Island would gather in the stricken person’s home, clasp hands around the bedside, and sing lining-out hymns until the person passed. It must have been a gentle and loving way to say goodbye.

These are recordings made by Peter Siegel and Jody Stecher in ’65, when word was already out in the Boston/Cambridge folk community, as a result of Sam Charters’s 1958 recordings, about this carpenter/stonemason/guitarist on Andros. What I love so much about this record, even more than Spence’s astoundingly joyful solo records, is the way it reveals the musical world that Spence came from, when people sang together, and when singing was part of all kinds of daily activities: living and dying, joy and sorrow. Spence was a valued guitar player, but he was probably just as valued as a carpenter or a stonemason. And, while he was happy to take the check from the “boys from Harvard,” he was also equally happy to play at a friend’s party for a bottle of rum and the chance of a game of dominos.

The record is beautiful, in which old gospel revival hymns lie like Standing In The Need Of Prayer and Kneelin' Down Inside The Gate are friendly neighbors with Spence’s magnificent solo performance of Out on the Rolling Sea (one of the most beautiful pieces of American music ever recorded) and guitar instrumental Great Dream from Heaven, upon which an entire generation of fingerpicking guitarists built their styles, and without which (and Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground), Ry Cooder would inhabit a much less rich musical world. And Bid You Goodnight, which became an anthem for everyone from Aaron Neville (the only version to come within shouting distance of Spence's own) to the Incredible String Band to (shudder!) the Grateful Dead, is simply one of the most loving texts ever set to music.

Spence himself was related by marriage to the Pindar Family, one of the islands’ great musical clans, and he’s all over this record as accompanist and obbligato singer. He would be absolutely unmistakable no matter how far down in the mix. His guitar style was a marvelously corrugated, twisted, and impossibly funky extrapolation of the implications of ragtime piano (and especially the guitar-ragtime of Blind Blake, who Spence probably heard while working the tobacco fields of Georgia as a migrant) and 4-part gospel song. He played everything under the sun, from folk hymns to Tin Pan Alley to Afro-Caribbean blues, and he was a complete orchestra all by himself, not only in his wildly-contrapuntal guitar (all in the key of D—and for more on that, see below), but also in the irreplicable vocal soundtrack he supplied to his own guitar. You can’t really call it singing, encompassing as it does the widest-possible range of whistles, grunts, cackling laughter, and so on. He sounds happily demented, but he’s actually “living on the hallelujah side,” bringing the whole sacred/secular world of the Bahamas into his solo playing.

Spence is kind of a litmus test: people I play him for either love him or hate him: they start laughing hysterically or pleading with me to take it off. Just as with Blind Gary Davis or Arnold Schoenberg or The Minutemen, you have to listen past your own expectations of what “beauty” is and accept it on their terms—and if you do, your musical world will be bigger.

Years ago I talked to Jody Stecher about that ’65 trip, when the boys from Harvard must have thought they’d entered a virtually Edenic pre-industrial world. Stecher, a magnificent guitarist and a gentle, kind person himself (and a practicing Buddhist), tells the story very well. But he also told me the story of Spence’s rationale for playing everything in “D”. See, he used dropped-D tuning on the guitar, in which the lowest-pitched string is dropped an additional whole-step from E to D. This limits the number of keys you can employ (essentially to D, G, A, and their respective modes) but expands both the range and the contrapuntal capacities in those keys. “folk” musicians, unlike classical players, have never made a fetish out of technical difficulty for its own sake: play some impeccable, finger-busting etude in Db for a folk fiddler or guitarist, and he’s likely to say “you know, son, if you move that up a half-step to D, you’re gonna sound a lot better.”

So with Spence. Jody S told me that, in his guise as good little Topworld folklorist, he asked Spence why he played everything in D. Spence replied, in the gravel conversational voice that was an exact parallel of his singing, “I used to know all them keys! I knew ‘em all: A, and B, and D, and H…I used to know all them keys!” Stecher asked, “well, Mr Spence, if you knew all those keys, how come you don’t use them anymore?” Spence replied, “I got TAHRD of ‘em!”

What an amazing, kind, and bursting-with-creativity man. What a world that must have been. It’s gone—but this recording is like a daguerreotype to remind us of what we’ve lost.


The Irate Pirate said...

nice post. very well written, and it's amazing music too.

CJS said...

Many thanks for the kind words. I'm a HUGE fan of your blog--means a lot!