Today’s record is the True Story of Abner Jay, a compilation Mississippi Records put out in the early 2000s featuring eleven tracks of heartache and longing recorded by a one-of-a-kind one-man blues/folk musician from my own home state of Georgia.
What makes a one-man band? It’s not a man on stage alone with a guitar, that’s just a troubadour. Even if you strap a harmonica around his neck, he’s not yet a one-man band. Perhaps the addition of feet drums is what does it. It takes an artist from a Bob Dylan or Neil Young clone to a different plane altogether.
In some instances, it’s a novelty, I suppose. It brings to mind Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, drum beats sounding as he walks down the street. The term conjures up images of Hasil Adkins, who started playing as a one-man band because, with no MTV to correct him, when he heard songs on the radio, he just assumed it was one person playing all the instruments at once, while singing.
There’s an appeal to the one-man band thing, if you think about it. No messy fights on the road. No break-ups. No annoyance at your band mates for showing up to a performance late, drunk, or not at all. It’s the perfect model for a loner. Or a control freak. Or perhaps a unique artist whose style is so all his own, so individual, that adding more people to the band would water down the message.
It’s hard to imagine Abner Jay playing any other way. He was a musician, a singer, a songwriter and a philosopher. And like a preacher standing before his congregation, he needed no back-up to captivate his audience. He held them with the aching in his voice, his hands on the guitar, drums at his feet, and his tales of woe.
Abner Jay lived a helluva life. The liner notes for this record include his story, written in his own words, spinning a tale of struggle and failure. Born in 1921 in Georgia to former slaves, Abner Jay was intimately acquainted with struggle, and it became somewhat of a constant in his life. He worked in the music business, in radio stations and as an agent and manager for Little Richard, James Brown and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. His own career took a while to take off. He had his own band in the 60s, one he traveled to New York to try and make it on Broadway, but in the 70s, he found his relative success by taking his one-man show to clubs around the Atlanta area, where he found an audience in college kids who appreciated his words of wisdom, spun from the stage like a professor addressing his pupils, and his revivalist approach to music.
There are other Abner Jay records you can buy. I bought this one because it seemed a good start, and includes some of my favorites that he performed. His songs are peppered with soliloquies, life lessons and observations from a man who truly lived, as perhaps evidenced by the sixteen children he left on this earth, born from his seven wives, two of whom died of drug overdoses.
From start to finish, these songs weave tales in a rare and real way. Every word rings true, and you can feel the passion in Abner Jay’s voice, in every tap of his feet. An Abner Jay record is a must in any record collection, really. He was an American treasure, a success story, and this record is a peek into his heart and soul, like a recovered diary from the past, as open, honest and pertinent as ever.