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.

But a sense of fate fulfilled in no way suggests the recordings simply met their expectations. If someone told me that this collection of rugged, simple songs was The Real Neptune, I'd have no problem believing them. This is incredible music. Placed back in history, it begs analogy to Robert Johnson, the Carter Family, and (Christ, why not) John Wesley Harding.

The song I'm listening to right now is called "We'll Understand It Better By and By." It isn't pretty (or even cohesive). But it is beautiful. "By and By" opens with Joseph Spence pulling notes out of the air and stringing them up in a spider web. He bristles against off-beats on an untuned guitar. Eventually he finds the voice of one Edith Pinder, who sings like a prepubescent Al Green. Following her is husband Raymond--signing a disjointed doo-wop--and her daughter Geneva, whose quavering treble is as light as a voice can get before it becomes something else; really, she's like a human singing saw. They wander around each other. Then Edith steps up. "We gonna tell Jesus how we overcome/We gonna understand it better by and by."

By and by, Raymond's bassy bluster circles around Edith. Geneva might as well be on a different island, but somehow she stays with us. Edith leads; they follow. But it is Spence who holds court. He's a calypso John Fahey one minute, a sky-blues Robert Johnson the next. As his playing intensifies he makes these sounds--a yakka yakka/hamana hamana mouth-harp routine, sans the harp. The effect is unnerving. We have a pulse, but the blood is flowing in different directions.

We hear an elaborate aural interruptus: A carnal aggravation is made holy. You want to hear reggae (which isn't there). You try to hear American gospel (which certainly is). But all our received musicology--and the fact that I'd give my right pinky to hear it looped by Prince Paul--doesn't really explain how it feels at all. You really have to hear it.

Or, better yet, be there and see it. Stecher describes the scene of the recording of "By and By"--done at midnight in Spence's backyard--as looking like it sounds. "It was this combination of chaos and unity," he says. "It was 100 percent delight. They were so into it, laughing so hard and getting such a kick out of the fact that all the neighbors had filled the backyard, and the ones who couldn't fit were leaning over the fences. They were drinking Colt 45, which had just appeared on the market. Billions of kids were underfoot, little ones, all over the place. Billions of insects were chirping. Subtropical, lush undergrowth everywhere. And everybody was completely happy."

When Siegel and Stecher had first arrived at Joseph Spence's house, his wife Louise had already made them dinner. "People talk," Stecher says. "She knew we were coming."

In a way, Spence was prepared for them, too. By this point in his life he was a star to the small group of Americans who placed the Bahamas on their musical maps. The 1958 Charters recordings and the appearance at Newport had exposed Spence to his own legend. And migrant fieldwork in Tennessee in the '40s had more than exposed him to American whites. Locally he was a legend. "Everyone knew Joseph Spence," Stecher explains. "He had this recitation of all the kinds of music he would play, almost all of them were dances: 'I play reel, polka, waltz, tap, jazz, buck, heel 'n' toe polka, club, long meter, short meter, hymn, and an'tem.'"

Like Woody Guthrie's fascist-killing six-string, Spence's tiny amplifier featured a sign that read, "Joseph Spence, the Voice from Heaven." And his legend was almost as full as his life. "He was a stone mason, and he was much prouder of his house, which he had built, than his guitar-playing," Stecher says. "He'd been a sponge fisherman, a farmer. At the end of his life he was a night watchman."

But Spence's playing and singing had roots in sponge fishing long before they ever reached heaven. The "rhyming" style epitomized in "By and By" had work-song roots that went back more than 100 years. "There was a huge sponging industry," explains Siegel, whose knowledge of said is apparently all-inclusive. "And there were a lot of sponging boats in the Bahamas. The crews would go out for days at a time. In the evenings they would tie up the oars together and pass the time singing. The kind of singing they did was this singing of an anthem or an improv by a 'rhymer.' They'd have a competition in which they'd rhyme their way through a series of Bible verses.

"In 1937 a disease killed the sponges, and the tradition of singing stopped. After that a lot of these singers continued to sing in various places, but there were not a lot of people coming into it."

One of those people self-consciously "not coming into it" was the astounding Sammy Green. "He was very young and did not rhyme," says Siegel. It's impossible to miss the difference between Sammy Green and Joseph Spence. "Spence had a radio and heard everything current, and he hated it," Stecher says. "He was closer to the old songs." Green, by contrast, had been raised on the jukebox.

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