Joseph Spence 

Happy All the Time

Joseph Spence was already a legend when Fritz Richmond -- riding high on his success with Jim Kweskin's Jug Band -- went searching for him in 1964. Spence had recorded for Alan Lomax in the '30s and for folklorist Sam Charters in the late '50s, and those sides became a touchstone for guitarists looking for a new approach.

When this album was released on Elektra in '64 it caused a sensation. Folkies loved Spence's rough-hewn and humorous vocal style, which jumped from a gravelly grind to a high birdlike flutter, and the way he used his voice as another rhythmic element in his arrangements. Acoustic guitar players, including a young Ry Cooder, couldn't believe their ears. Spence bounced melodies from the high strings to the bass strings; his arpeggios were full of unexpected notes and his rhythms were unique, combining elements of calypso, blues, gospel, British folk, and sea chanties -- anything he'd ever heard. Like many great folk artists (a somewhat pejorative term in itself, seldom applied to "proper" professional musicians with half the chops and originality), Spence mixes bits and pieces of melodies and lyrics borrowed, adapted, or sampled from other tunes into his songs, creating something totally original and yet strangely familiar, all deeply rooted in the past. The music Spence laid down so many years ago still sounds vibrant and lively, and while the word is often bandied about, "timeless" is the only one that fits.

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