Joseph Spence: Living on the Hallelujah Side (1980)


The Les Claypool of folk.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Les Claypool is reknowed both for his unique mastery of the bass guitar and his eccentric vocal style, a clenched piercing squawk that sounds like “Donald Duck: Delta Bluesman.” He may never sing a duet with Boyz II Men, but within Primus his voice and bass alchemize into a brilliance on its own terms. This type of paring rarely occurs in folk music, but Bahamian guitarist and singer Joseph Spence was a phenomenon, as witnessed on his live album Living on the Hallelujah Side.

Spence’s musical training was limited to family members, church, and short trips to the U.S. so his musical style was left to develop on its own, a previously unheard mixture of complex, multi-harmonic fingerpicking and the oddest vocal mutterings this side of Popeye.

A devout Christian, he would re-engineer classic hymns to be performed by three guitars, or so it sounds. The mellow gypsy twang of “A Closer Walk With Thee” spins spirited bass lines among the melody and harmony clusters, but it’s all played by him, live. It also features his lyrical attack, where he sings just enough words to set up the song then deconstructs it with deep growls, meandering yelps and primitive beatboxing. In “I’ll Overcome Some Day” he becomes his own hype man, shouting back at himself and stifling laughter while throwing down some inventively dense country blues.

Like Ol’ Dirty Bastard at guitar jam, he pops melodic wheelies all over the odd boogie “When The Saints Go Marching In” and sprinkles lyrical scraps like fish food in an aquarium during the beatific “Irene Goodnight”.

But it all comes together in his take on “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town”, a joyous swinging version stuffed with drunken sailor humming, stray jazzy notes flying out of the ether, then ends with a crash of a chord that makes one think he fell upon his guitar during a single rapturous moment. His barely says a word you could recognize, but then again, does he need to?

THE FALLOUT: Due to his reticence to travel, indifference to recording, and lack of desire to have an entourage of groupies hang out in The Champagne Room, he never gained much fame during his lifetime. If not for the fandom of musicians like Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal and Duck Baker, it’s possible he would have been completely forgotten. Hallelujah was the last album he recorded before his death in 1994.

Living on the Hallelujah Side is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

In a world of spray-on beats and Auto-Tuned™ voices, we may never hear another work of outsider music like Living on the Hallelujah Side, one of simply expressed genius.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: What does Bootsy want for Christmas?