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."

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.

The first songs Sammy Green sang for Stecher and Siegel were Ray Charles's "I Got a Woman" and Bobby "Blue" Bland's "High Heel Sneakers." The songs that made The Real Bahamas were "I Told You People Judgement Coming" and "I Ain't Got Long." Neither tune resembles the rhyming style epitomized in "By and By." "I Told You" is short and mean; Green balls up his redemption song and blasts it out like he's auditioning for a Sun session. On "I Ain't Got Long," he moans a mantra so blue it goes black.

Green was essentially an R&B singer and his style was mindful of, but a bit distant from, the religion Edith Pinder sang about when she bellowed lines like, "Jesus remember/I am a fallen sinner." Green's initial choice of Ray Charles's sacrilegious rewrite of the old gospel "I Got a Savior" is a coincidence for sure. But so is rock & roll. And Green blurs the thin line between the spiritual and the soul shout with an intensity that could match any R&B singer he ever heard on a record. (At points it's a little too intense. "The only people who responded negatively to this music were young, affluent African Americans," Stecher says. "They found them too raw, and way too threatening. Too close to the sounds of slavery.")

Back in 1966, just as his album was coming out and his job at Nonesuch was in the bag, Siegel heard that same raw power in a different context. "Percy Sledge had come out with 'When a Man Loves a Woman,'" he remembers. "His singing really reflected church singing, and it wasn't lost on me how gospel music related to the Bahamas. My goal was to introduce people to the Bahamas the way I had been introduced to the music of Kentucky. Still, I didn't see it influencing pop music."

It didn't. In fact, the record fell out of print quickly enough to leave little discernable influence on the world-music history it had helped to pioneer. Yet this collection--which appeared amid a renaissance of roots recordings--would represent a unique, formative confluence of world music and Americana. (Decades later, the "world" world would be prepared for Spence-ian albums, like Rounder's mid-'90s issues Spring of '65 and Kneelin' Down Inside the Gate: The Great Rhyming Singers of the Bahamas.)

Reappearing now, The Real Bahamas represents a sort of Time Before Time in the popularization of foreign music; neither the album, nor Spence, nor the Bahamian islands are mentioned in the otherwise all-inclusive Rough Guide To World Music. Stecher is, however. You can see him photographed in the mid-'60s, pickin' some rediscovered "old time" American music with country revivalists the New Lost City Ramblers. Proving that there are islands of Americana wherever you want to find them.

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