"Seeing and hearing is believing, folks, how great thou art Abner Jay sings and plays. He once was a low down dirty blues singer, heavy on drugs and liquor. He performed with such greats as Lil Richard, Otis Redding, James Brown and many others. One man band."
"St. James Infirmary Blues"
I very recently heard Abner Jay's music for the first time, and I've fallen in love with his deep voice, folky-blues-ey style and in-between-song spoken word stories and jokes. It's really a bare-bones, original and unique sound that reminds me of so many others I love, from Bob Dylan to Son House. The information that most of us seem to know comes straight from the horse's mouth via pamphlets (such as the quote above) and short biographies that he hand wrote and passed out at his performances, and it seems an lesser known legend has been out there all along.
The basics we know are: Abner was born in Fitzgerald, Georgia in 1921. Since his grandfather and father were both slaves, he was also a slave. His Grandfather gave him his own banjo and learned Abner how to play at an early age. He began performing in Medicine Shows at the age of five. At the age of 11, he joined the Silas Green Ministrels. He was in World War II and by age 25 he led the WMAZ Ministrels on Macon radio from 1946-1956. After this time, he began a solo career, traveling the south in a converted mobile home that opened up into a portable stage, complete with a small PA system and home furnishings. He traveled the southern United States as a one man band, earning a living by performing field songs, Pentecostal hymns and minstrel tunes as well as original material, with themes consisting of Vietnam, drug addiction, depression, sex and lust among others, intermixed with parts of spoken word and jokes. He sold vinyl records and cassettes that he self published on his own label, Brandie Records. These original pressings are sought after and quite rare. More recently, Mississippi Records, a Portland, Oregon based record label specializing in American roots music and blues archiving, has re-released some of Abner's recordings and releases, complete with reproductions of some of the handwritten pamphlets and biographies he distributed, including True Story of Abner Jay and Last Ole Ministrel Man, both of which I have purchased from Amoeba SF.
I think the best way to share the joy of Abner Jay is to let him speak for himself. Here are some more quotes to share the wonder that is Abner Jay.
"Abner Jay, a Philosopher, Lecturer, Composer, Author, Singer, Bone Player and one man band, has often been refered to as a black 'Will Rogers' and a black 'Bob Dylan.' Abner have been performing for 45 years, traveled over 42 United States and several Foreign countries. Abner plays banjo, harmonica, guitar, bass drums, cymbals and bones. Abner is the only person known still playing and singing the old traditional American songs such as: "Dixie," "Old Black Joe," "Swaunee"... Abner plays to the upper grade people, in supper clubs, schools. colleges and churches. Abner have written over 80 songs and one book -- Rattle the Bones.
"Abner was a slave sixty five years after the slaves were freed, because Abner grandpa and Pa love the slave life. Abner was hired out to white plantation owners when he was at the age of six. Abner worked as a slave side by side with his grandpa, a former slave. Abner could not and did not receive his pay until after he was twenty one years of age. Abner ate and slept in the barn with the mules. The White folk would hand his food out of the back door to him in a pan, mostly left overs and the food the white folk dogs wouldn't eat...
"Abner start singing on the public for the white plantation owner when he was eight. Abner start playing banjo at the age of ten, and became a one man band and bone player at the age of fourteen. Abner would play in the rich homes for the plantation owners when they wanted to entertain."
"Abner Jay became ill with cancer of the throat and vocal chords. He was in and out of 10 different VA hospitals. On August 5, 1958 at Sawtell, Calif VA Hosp., surgery was performed. He was in intensive care for 18 days. His family was notified that he had only hours to live. They came to bury him, but he recovered, puzzling all the hospital staff. He was told not to try to sing for 18 months. Abner also used to be a heavy smoker, 4 packs of cigarettes per day...Abner hates cigarettes now. Abner believes in God.
"Abner Jay, a living art, plays and sings over 600 favorite ole American classical songs, mostly of the ole South. He plays and sings the songs the original way. Abner's life started turning around in February 1960, 18 months after surgery. It was then his voice range changed to a low bass voice."
“Abner plays his grandpa’s ole banjo. This banjo was made in 1748 by the slaves. If you haven’t heard him, you haven’t heard the ole music played and sung the original style and way. Just like over 150 years ago. HELP KEEP AMERICAN CULTURE ALIVE by purchasing Abner’s record albums."
"Don't Mess with Me, Baby"
“Abner is known to be the champion of:
-world’s champion cotton picker and pea picker
-world’s fastest tobacco crapper
-world’s greatest jaw bone player
-world’s fastest mule skinner
-the world’s worse business man”
In the end, Abner had 7 wives and 16 children. For a time he was a pimp and in the early '60's he studied voice and music in New York City with 4 different voice coaches. Chris Campion listed Abner as #1 on a list of unsung heroes: "He was a confidante to an evangelical preacher called Prophetess Dolly and acted as agent and manager to 'original soul sister' Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the first million-selling gospel star. He managed nightclubs, ran a restaurant and even played the Apollo. He was friendly with Little Richard, Chuck Berry, James Brown and Elvis, and played alongside Muddy Waters. Jazz saxophonist Anthony Braxton described him as 'an American master.' Abner Jay himself was no less modest. 'Forget about your Tchaikovsky,' he said. 'He Russian. I'm your classical American music. Like it or not -- I'm IT.'"
His last performance was in 1993 at the Grassroots Festival in Trumansburg, New York, and he died shortly thereafter. Here are 2 songs from that last performance. I hope you have enjoyed reading, listening and watching! I'd like to let Abner get the last word in: "There is nobody in the class with Abner, he is all in a class by himself."