The last working minstrel in America was also its first independent recording artist. Decades before independent recording grew into a techno-cultural wave and a bounty of self-produced CDs, Abner Jay recorded and produced eight LP albums and sold them out of a traveling wagon at his own performances at flea markets, folk festivals, and fairs. Today, every one of his albums is a prized collector’s item, yet Abner Jay remains an obscure folk legend, a footnote in music history.
Minstrel shows flourished in America until the mid-twentieth century, providing professional venues for scores of black entertainers. In rural Ocilla, Georgia, where Abner Jay was born in 1921 and raised as an entertainer on the same plantations where his grandfather had been a slave, the minstrel tradition lasted almost to the end of the century.
At the age of six, Jay’s father hired him out to plantation owners, and he worked alongside his father and grandfather in the fields. He soon began learning to play the guitar. By the age of eight, he was singing for his supper. By ten, he was playing the banjo, and by fourteen, he was a one-man band. His father retained all his earnings until he was 21.
Jay grew up performing gospel standards and traditional American classics in the homes of wealthy plantation owners, singing Stephen Foster songs in “Negro” dialect, as they were originally written. Throughout his life, he continued to perform popular favorites from an earlier era, often adding colorful narrative commentary and using the songs as points of departure for stories and what he called his “terrible comedy.”
Jay began his life on the road with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, the popular troupe that fostered the careers of Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, and many others. He went on to travel widely with Silas Green from the New Orleans Show in the 1930s. His teenage voice matured to a deep baritone, and in the late 30s, he performed with a jubilee singing group, The Sunlight Four, at ballparks, fairs, and churches all over the South.
During World War II, he formed the Jay Brothers Band and played special service tours. From 1947 to 1955, he traveled with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, singing and playing gospel music. During this period, he also formed and toured with his own gospel group, The South Wind Singers.
While he continued to sing with gospel bands in 1955, he had his own radio program in Macon, Georgia, The Abner Jay Show on WMAZ. He became a booking agent for Little Richard and James Brown. For a brief period, he had his own rock band called Big Abner Jay. One of his backup singers was a young Otis Redding.
During the folk revival of the early 1960s, while folk music was distancing itself from the musical heritage of the plantation, Jay went to New York City and studied Voice and Music under four different coaches in hopes of launching a career as a Broadway singer. By 1970, he’d been married seven times and was raising sixteen children. Working minstrels were as scarce as working vaudevillians, but Abner Jay was working, albeit not on Broadway. With nearly forty years in the minstrel trade behind him, he was just getting started.
From 1969 to 1974, he was one of the hottest attractions in Underground Atlanta. He created his own record label, Brandie Records, and produced and distributed his own LP albums. He became a regular attraction at the Florida Folk Festival and at various blues Festivals in Georgia.
In 1974, Jay took his one-man band on the college circuit. Often described as “a black Will Rogers” or “a black Bob Dylan,” he transcended musicianship and fascinated young white college students with his unique blend of music, philosophy, history, and comedy.
Quoted in the liner notes of Blues Routes, Jay said, “A good musician is ten cents a dozen. Entertainers are born. Musicians are made. I’m a born entertainer.”
Always the consummate storyteller, he used digressions and anecdotes to bring context to traditional standards. With three of his seven wives dead from drug overdoses, his version of “St. James Infirmary Blues” resonated with his personal tragedy. In his epic tall tale, “The True Story of Dixie,” Jay mined the folklore of the blackface minstrels to craft an immortal tribute to nineteenth-century songwriter Daniel Emmett, who wrote “Dixie” as a proposal song for his bride. According to Jay, Emmett wrote it “as a love song, a happy song, a footstamp-stomping song, handclapping song, loving song, drinking song. Song you eat by, song you spend money by, song you get engaged by. It was intended to be this way and no other way.”
In 1982, at a flea market in San Jose, California, noted guitar player, writer, and editor Jas Obrecht heard a strange and “primitive” Deep South music. He followed the sound of songs older than any blues or jazz until he encountered Abner Jay on his homemade stage in the back of a converted camper trailer.
A seven-hour interview followed, in which Jay revealed an expansive knowledge of the history and evolution of black music in America. The interview appeared in Guitar Player magazine in June of that year. Jay told Obrecht, “Ain’t nobody living or dead been in music consecutively as long as I have and nothing big ever happened to me. I’ve always made a living with music, and raised sixteen kids doin’ this.”
Asked what kind of music drew the best crowd at flea markets, Jay stated most emphatically: Not blues. “The blues will chase away everybody but that guy who has had two or three beers and ain’t got a dime left, or if he got a dime, he ain’t going to give you one. I’m talking from years and years of experience. You don’t make no money out there playing the blues. You would starve to death.”
“Amazing Grace” was his most requested song. “I get so tired of singing it,” he said. “It make my ass tired.” “Oh Susanna,” “Old Rugged Cross,” and “How Great Thou Art” were close behind on his list of favorites.
For ten more years to the end of his days, Abner Jay continued to travel and sing and play the classic American songs that people at flea markets loved to hear.
In 1992, banjo players from all over the world were invited to the Banjo Meltdown in Knoxville, Tennessee, hosted by the late John Hartford. The roster included esteemed banjo pickers of all styles. The video produced at the event features a riveting performance by Abner Jay outside the formal venue. The camera pans through the back of his traveling camper wagon, moves slowly around the homemade stage, and lingers over a tray of cassettes for sale, the LP record albums on display, and the hand-lettered liner notes of seven album covers. Surrounded on his small stage by pictures, signs, photographs, and souvenirs of his long and storied career, Jay plays the banjo, harmonica, drums, and sings all at the same time.
Full of surprises, the song he sings is a hard and bitter blues:
“It was a thundering and a thundering and lightning
On the day this poor boy was born
I ain’t never known nothing but your trouble
Well, your trouble and your hate and scorn
My Daddy died in a train wreck
My Mama, she was born to lose
My natural born name is trouble
My middle name is the blues”
The following year, Jay died of cancer in a veteran’s hospital in Augusta, Georgia. He was seventy-two.
To recognize him as the father, grandfather, godfather, and patron saint of independent recording artists is no great exaggeration of his largely unsung role in music history. A roadside attraction until the end of his days, Abner Jay toured the country performing American classics, gospel standards, and Stephen Foster songs while accompanying himself on banjo, harmonica, and drums. From the shadows of the minstrel tradition, Abner Jay, “born entertainer,” emerged as a true folk original.
K.C. Wilson, a North Florida writer, author of The Route, songwriter for The Rubes and winner of the 2016 Wexford Film Festival screenplay contest, is a graduate of FIU and ScreenwritingU. His short fiction has appeared in Cavalier, Faraway Journal, Sheepshead Review, and Kerouac’s Dog. His second novel, Saint Bob Day, forthcoming soon from Cawing Crow Press was a 2012 Nilsen Prize finalist.