Band members Related acts
- Abner Jay
(RIP 1993) --
- none known
Rating: *** (3 stars)
Title: The Backbone Of America Is A Mule And Cotton
Catalog: SoN 122161
Country/State: Fitzgerald, Georgia
Grade (cover/record): VG+/VG+
GEMM catalog ID: 4806
If this one doesn't fit under the weird/real people category, then nothing in my collection does. That poses a number of problems, including trying to describe an album as plain strange as "The Backbone Of America Is A Mule And Cotton".
Before getting to the album, a little bit of biographical information on the man. Born in Fitzgerald, Georgia Jay was a versatile musician playing a unique six stringed electrified banjo, along with guitar, harmonica, drums. Having mastered a gigantic repertoire of old time songs from his grandfather, in the early 1930s Jay became a member of The Silas Green Show which was a New Orleans-based circus/cabaret that toured the chitin' circuit from the 1930s through the 1950s. Jay's tenure with the group ended in the mid-1940s at which time he became a member of the Macon, Georgia-based WMAZ Minstrels. In the mid-1950s Jay began traveling and performing as a true one-man minstrel show performing a catalog that spanned everything from Americana to his own takes on politics and social events. Billing himself as the 'Last of the Minstrels' he worked out of his car, while finding time to record a series of now-highly sought after self-financed records.
First the usual warnings. This isn't rock, progressive, or psychedelic, rather a very strange mixture of blues, country, Gospel minstrel and freak-out. Starting to see how odd this album is? Next, making Leon Redbone sound like a young choir boy, Jay's voice is definitely an acquired taste. All hyperbole aside, this is one of those albums that can clear a party out in record time. Released on his own Memphis-based Brandie Records, "The Backbone Of America Is A Mule And Cotton" is a little different than most of his other releases in that it largely forgoes original material (the rambling title track being the lone exception). Call this Jay's covers album in that it finds him taking on a series of classic American songs like 'Way Down Upon the Swanee River' and 'Amazing Grace'. Here's what the album liner notes say:
"Abner has been singing and playing these same songs since 1926. He plays and sings these songs in the original style. A one man band, hambone and bone player. His banjo dates back to 1749. He plays banjo, drums, singes and play [sic] harmonica at the same time. This record is a true collectors item. It will be worth a lots [sic] of money when Abner is dead. Abner say [sic] he is just like Old Black Joe, my head is bending low. Abner is the same to this country as Toscanni is to his country, a classic. Abner loves the Ole Swannee River water. He feels he is to [sic] old man to lay down on his belly and drink from the Old Swanee like he use to. So now he drinks the water from a half gallon fruit jar. He drinks about a gallon of Swanee water per day. He claims this is why is voice is so deep and low, also the secret of him being the father of 16 young'uns. May God bless you."
Propelled by his deep growl and electrified banjo, the results are definitely strange in that Jay slows every one of these songs down to a funeral pace that will either drive you crazy, or make want to check the results out time after time.
"The Backbone Of America Is A Mule And Cotton" track listing:
1.) The Backbone Of America Is A Mule And Cotton (Abner Jay) - 4:00
Ole Black Joe
2.) My Old Kentucky Home - 5:00
3.) Oh Susanna - 1:30
4.) Camp Town Races - 1:30
5.) Old Folks At Home - 5:00
6.) Old Black Joe - 5:00
2.) Old Rugged Cross - 3:30
3.) Steal Away - 2:00
4.) Deep River - - 2:00
5.) Them Golden Slippers - 3:00
6.) How Great Thou Art - 3:30
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In an emerging era of political correctness, he was anything but. A native of Fitzgerald, Ga., and a veteran of Silas Green’s minstrel show, Jay was singing Stephen Foster songs like “Old Black Joe" when Stokely Carmichael was railing against institutional racism.
Yet Jay wasn’t exactly a shuffling Stepin Fetchit. On one of his songs, he sings, “I crave cocaine but I can’t find nothing here in Atlanta/’Cause them hippies done used it all up!"
He also liked to inject raunchy jokes into his concerts. Most of them were pretty awful, but they show a mind that leaned more toward Redd Foxx than any Uncle Tom moralist.
You may have heard of Jay. He was one of the musical attractions during the 1970s at Underground Atlanta (which also employed the undeservedly obscure Dr. Feelgood, aka Piano Red, aka Willie Lee Perryman).
Otherwise, Jay toured the South in his camper, which converted to a portable minstrel stage. Stopping at flea markets, shopping centers or wherever he thought he could draw a crowd, he would tell his jokes and stories, sell his homemade records and sing his songs, performing as a one-man band.
He played an amplified six-string banjo as his left foot kept time on a chugging high-hat cymbal set. At the same time, his right foot walloped out the beat on an antique, oversized bass drum, its head painted with his name and a somewhat incongruous Western desert scene. On top of it, tied on with heavy string, was a clear plastic water pitcher that served as a tip jar.
A metal rack for a harmonica, possibly made from a wire hanger, was looped around Jay’s neck. When he blew into the instrument, he sounded much more like Woody Guthrie than Sonny Boy Williamson.
If the mood hit him, Jay also would clack out a rippling rhythm on the bones. They were the traditional instrument of a minstrel show’s “end man," who sat at one end of a line of performers on stage and generally cut up.
The chorus of Stephen Foster’s 1849 composition “Dolcy Jones" refers to the instrument.
Bye, bye my darling!
Sleep to de rattle ob de bones!
Slumber till morning,
My lubbly Dolcy Jones!
But Jay, while competent as a one-man band, was no instrumental virtuoso.
“I play banjo in an old cotton-picking style," he told one interviewer, “ -- real smooth, real quiet. There’s not a whole lot of fancy licks. I play melody style, just like my grandparents did. Sometimes I play on harmonica with it.
“Singing is the most important thing.
“A good musician is 10 cents a dozen. Entertainers are born. Musicians are made. I’m a born entertainer."
And so he was. Listening to Jay’s recorded output, it’s easy to imagine Silas Green’s strutting tent shows of the 1930s, or the on-stage antics of the WMAZ Minstrels, a group that Jay performed with in the 1940s and '50s.
“Royal Palm," for instance, begins with a long monologue about matrimonial troubles, declaimed like the veteran vaudevillian that Jay was. Then he wangs into a leaping buck-and-wing rhythm on the banjo and sings about escaping on Southern Railway’s Royal Palm, which ran from the Northeast through Atlanta into Florida.
Reissued recently on a small Swedish label, Subliminal Sounds, it’s strongly reminiscent of the work of another “outside" one-man-band, the late Hasil Adkins of West Virginia.
But whereas Adkins was a cult star, Jay never approached even that kind of popularity. His self-produced albums, on the Brandie label, probably sold in the hundreds, or may even the dozens. They’re almost impossible to find today.
But it’s worth the effort (and in most cases, the money -- Abner Jay releases are big-ticket items on Internet auction sites, when they are available) to seek them out. They literally wear their homespun origins on their sleeves.
If I had to guess, I’d say Jay composed their liner notes, lettered by hand in capital letters like a chalkboard menu in a small restaurant.
“For forty two years Abner has been playing banjo, drums, harmonica, and singing all at the same time," the outside of his “Underground Atlanta" album proclaims proudly. “When Abner was born his Pa kept the birth records on the side of the house, the house burned down. The birth records were destroyed, and Abner hasn’t been able to find out how old he is. Abner is now enjoying his seventh wife, and he claims she is just about wore out too. His worst tragedy was the first time he got married. Now it’s buck dancing time!"
I have one of recordings titled “The Backbone of America is a Mule and Cotton."
“Abner is the same to this country as Toscanni [sic] is to Russia, a classic," the notes say. (Don’t tell Italy.)
“This is real show nough bicentennial music," the cover adds.
I’m assuming that dates the record to 1976. The first track references the Arab oil embargo, which then was still a wound in the American psyche:
“Folks, don’t worry about energy crisis," Jay says in his resonant, Deep South-baritone, “because Standard Oil, Shell, Gulf, Mobil, Texaco, Amoco, Esso, Sonoco, Exxon, Nixxon, Standard Oil, General Motors, Chrysler, George Wallace and Ford is not the backbone of America. The backbone of America is a mule and cotton."
Then he goes on to make a pretty credible case for why that is.
As it turns out, however, that’s the only original piece on the album. One side is devoted wholly to religious songs (ranging from “How Great Thou Art" to “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers") while the other is nonstop Stephen Foster.
It’s the Foster side that fascinates me. To hear a black man in the mid-1970s sing pieces like “My Old Kentucky Home" and “Camp Town Races" without a hint of mockery is more than a little disturbing at first.
But the way Jay sings these American classics also is riveting. He may have targeted them for the same kind of audience that would gather to hear him at flea markets and toss a few coins into his water pitcher; but they sound as if he cares deeply about each song, regardless of the incorrectness of the lyric.
For the first time, the emotional impact of some of these pieces struck me.
Just as you’ll find Mark Twain on many lists of banned books, it’s hard these days to find a straightforward recording of vintage Foster. Most recent collections focus on his frothy parlor ballads like “I Dream of Jeannie." His minstrel-flavored pieces, which were the rage of the country 150 years ago, have fallen precipitously from favor over the past few decades.
For some of these songs, the oblivion is deserved. In even his most popular compositions, Foster was apt to include a thread of thoughtless racism.
One good example is the second verse of “Oh Susannah," a song that took he world by storm. It refers -- humorously -- to a steamboat explosion that “kill’d five hundred Nigga."
Many of us grew up on “Oh Susannah!" and never heard that verse. For that, we can be thankful.
But at the same time, Foster -- who only once traveled below the Mason-Dixon Line -- could produce strongly affecting lyrics on the world of the slaves.
A good example is Jay’s reading of “Old Folks at Home." He captures every nuance of the song’s mix of weary resignation and bittersweet memories of a vanished childhood that many a slave “sold up the river" must have experienced.
Just as moving is take on “Old Black Joe." Written on the eve of Civil War, it’s a vision of release from earthly bondage. Jay’s deep, rootsy vocal underscores the weight of the world that lies on the song like a 100-pound cotton sack.
It’s true that these pieces and other Foster compositions are full of racist caricatures. But they’re also full of humanizing qualities, like Joe’s bended head as he listens for voices of friends “now departed long ago" or the narrator’s simple joy over the beams of sunlight on his cabin door in “Old Kentucky Home."
Frederick Douglass, a revolutionary firebrand, was nobody’s Uncle Tom. But he lavished praise on some of Foster’s songs.
Pieces like “Old Kentucky Home," Douglass said in a speech to an anti-slavery society in 1855, “can make the heart sad as well as merry, and can call forth a tear as well as a smile. They awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish."
Foster’s compositions touched hearts high and low. They entertained Queen Victoria. Black rivermen on the Mississippi and the Ohio adopted them as their own.
He was, in fact, the most popular songwriter of his day. Yet he died at age 37, a demoralized alcoholic, the apparent victim of a drunken fall, with 38 cents in his pocket. And unless you’re fortunate enough to stumble on an old recording like Abner Jay’s, you’re unlikely to hear an unvarnished performance of some of his most famous works today.
This is not to lament the fact that we have grown away from the racist stereotypes or caricatures of Foster’s era (or maybe we haven’t -- for a provocative discussion, read John Strausbaugh’s book, “Black Like You.") It’s just to say that in a way, time has made Stephen Foster as “outside" as an artist as Abner Jay -- one of his greatest interpreters.
Reach Editorial Editor Ben Windham by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0193.