Today’s Outsider: Abner Jay (1921-1993)
Bio: Abner Jay was born in Fitzgerald, Georgia in 1921. His father and grandfather had both been slaves, and his grandfather, a banjo player, passed down his knowledge of old-time folk music to Abner. Abner began performing at medicine shows at the age of five and joined the Silas Green from New Orleans Minstrel Show at eleven. By 14, Abner was a bona fide one-man band, traveling around the South in a mobile home that converted into a portable stage. Calling himself the “last working Southern black minstrel”, Abner livened up his concerts by telling jokes and stories in between the songs he played on the harmonica, the drums, his ancient banjo, and a percussion instrument made from bleached cow and chicken bones. He liked to tell tall tales about his exploits as a cotton picker, tobacco crapper, jaw bone player, and mule skinner. Over the years, his fame grew and he came to be recognized as one of the last great masters of true American folk. He befriended and influenced more well-known artists such as Little Richard and James Brown, played the Apollo, ran restaurants and nightclubs, and managed the pioneering gospel star Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Abner’s youthful vigor never left him for a moment, and he claimed that his eternal youth stemmed from drinking out of the Suwannee River. He continued to play concerts well into old age. During his final shows, he was known to genially instruct the audience, “Hurry up and get your record. They’ll be worth a lot of money when I’m dead.” He was right. One Man Band, a compilation of recordings by a man who played free shows outside his trailer for anyone who wanted to listen, can now be purchased for $100 from a Swedish record label.
Music: Abner Jay’s lyrics are raw, fierce, and completely honest. He sings about war, depression, and politics using blunt terms rather than veiling his opinions in metaphor. The listener learns of his sorrow over the Great Depression, his anger about whites’ economic oppression of blacks, and his love for his beloved Suwanee River- topics which he sings about with equal fervor. His hauntingly beautiful music matches perfectly with the fire of his lyrics, as well as his powerful vocals.
Notable Works: One Man Band
Trivia: Drinking from the Suwanee may not have granted Abner eternal youth, but it seems to have helped his potency- he fathered sixteen children.
Quote: “Forget about your Tchaikovsky. He Russian. I’m your classical American music. Like it or not- I’m IT.” –Abner Jay