Blues People

In 1965, the field recordings of the Bahamas were an island unto themselves. Thirty years later, it's a small world after all.

"We were strangers, conspicuously white-skinned, suspected of being Beatles (who had been there filming Help!) or tax collectors. Pete Siegel was 21 years old; I had just turned 19. We had come to the Bahamas to record the spirituals and anthems of the region and, particularly, the distinctive Bahamian vocal style called rhyming."

Upon an initial reading, Jody Stecher's liner notes to 1978's The Real Bahamas Vol. II--just reissued last month on one Nonesuch CD with its 1966 predecessor, The Real Bahamas--might seem a bit faux literary, with the author evincing a sense of his own exoticism. But it's a good place to start. Really, when was the last time you were 19 and someone mistook you for a Beatle? And when was the last time you chased down about half a dozen songs that are as beautiful as anything on Rubber Soul?

In May of 1965, bluegrass fanatic Peter K. Siegel and his musician friend Jody Stecher first encountered Bahamian music in the person of Joseph Spence, who played to the same Newport Folk Festival crowd that booed the newly electrified Bob Dylan off the stage. A couple weeks later Siegel called up Stecher and said, unpretentiously enough, "Hey Jody, I want to go to the Bahamas and record all those great rhyming singers and Joseph Spence. Want to come?"

A month later they were gone, simple as that--the greatest spring break imaginable in the form of an Alan Lomax wet dream. Siegel and Stecher got off the plane lugging a borrowed Nagra monaural tape recorder, and carrying just enough money to pay each of the 16 singers they would record about $10 a session.

"I had about $200 put aside as part of a small scholarship at City College of New York," Stecher remembers 33 years later. "And I spent it all on a plane ticket and I don't know how many bowls of conch chowder, and that sustained us. We managed to stay for a week and we were either very lucky or the stars were aligned. We never spent a day that we didn't record music that wasn't just very moving. We had no sessions that were duds."

They were led from musician to musician by Rev. W.G. McPhee, whom they'd found through the advice of veteran field recorders Fritz Richmond and Paul Rothchild. McPhee introduced them to singers on a few different islands, who arranged meetings with singers from other islands, and Siegel and Stecher recorded these musicians in backyards, back alleys, McPhee's living room, and their own hotel. "Some of them were shy around us, some were more forthcoming," Stecher remembers. "It usually depended on their age. But you have to remember, I was 19 years old and I wasn't the most articulate individual you ever met. Sometimes I was happy not to say anything at all."

The youngest person the pair recorded was 18-year-old Geneva Pinder, who can be heard rocking her baby to sleep as she offers the album's most gorgeous moment, "I Bid You Goodnight." (The song would become the album's only contribution to pop music, becoming a set-closer for the Dead after Stecher taught it to his friend Jerry Garcia.) The oldest was the 55-year-old Spence, who can be heard on nine of these 28 recordings living up to his legend as one of the oddest singers and guitar players ever.

As proto-spring breaks go, a trip to the Bahamas in 1965 wasn't exactly a Carnival Cruise. Though only 90 miles off the coast of Florida, the Nassau that the young Americans visited was light years away from the tourist summer camp that today employs a full half of the population. Yet, musically--and to a lesser extent, culturally--the Bahamas were as American as any Amerighteousness that Alan Lomax ever stumbled upon in his famed field recordings from the American South. The Bahamas had been emancipated from England in 1838, making the islands a haven for runaway slaves. And its spirituals and work songs had been developing through a century-long conversation with the singing styles and rhythms of Georgia Sea Island spirituals.

Siegel and Stecher had made enough trips to the library and heard enough records to know all this and more, but they were music geeks, not wonkish anthropologists. And their project came free of the hunger for anthropological particularism that often turned (and still turns) field recorders into ethno-tourists. (For this phenomenon, see another recent Nonesuch reissue, John Storm Roberts's 1971 album Caribbean Music.)

Siegel's interest did reflect at least a smidgen of careerism; he hoped to use the recordings as a résumé of sorts for a job at the burgeoning folk label Elektra/Nonesuch. Stecher was along for the ride. Later that charmed summer, he would follow his musical catholicism and continue along similar lines, unearthing The Real Mexico. But, at the core, this pair was simply young musicians in love with "old time" music, who had developed addictions to Sam Charters's 1958 recordings of Spence's anthem singing, and Lomax's 1935 and 1959 recordings from the Georgia Sea Islands. Put simply, they wanted to make a record.

"We knew that what we were doing was very special," Stecher remembers. "We recorded every day, traveling in this overpowering fog-like heat, taking the jitney--a small minivan kind of thing. When we weren't recording we were listening to the tapes we'd made. That was it. I mean, we took some walks and talked about the merits of certain singers and songs. We'd hit a treasure trove and we were buzzing with delight. It felt like this was supposed to be happening."

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