Friend of no notes Doug Schulkind surprised me the other day, as he often does, by sending along a version of “SJI” I’d never heard. It’s by Abner Jay, who I’d never heard of but who seems to have been a fascinating fellow. This 2007 piece from the Guardian says:
The self-described ‘last working Southern black minstrel’, Abner Jay was an itinerant one-man band who travelled across the American South in a converted mobile home that opened up into a portable stage, complete with amplification and home furnishings.
He was almost certainly the last living exponent of the ‘bones‘ – a musical tradition that involved playing percussive rhythms using various cow and chicken bones that had been dried out and blanched in the sun. Jay claimed to have a repertoire of over 600 songs, which he sung in a bone-shaking basso profundo voice, the legacy of a battle with throat cancer that almost felled him in his twenties.
The article says he died in 1993. It’s not clear to me precisely when the version of “SJI” that Mr. Schulkind sent along was recorded, and as of this moment I haven’t yet located an easy way for you to hear or obtain it. I gather that it’s on this Mississippi records LP, Folk Song Stylist, which collects material that Jay recorded between 1964 and 1973.
In any case, his rich, easy voice delivers the tune in a tempo that’s almost chipper, and that wraps up in a brisk two minutes. I’m not sure if there are any cow or chicken bones involved in the percussion, but it’s the version’s early rock n roll propulsion (like an old Johnny Cash tune, maybe) that makes it addictive. His read of the lyrics is largely traditional take on a fairly long version of the song, with minor flourishes. An incredibly pleasing performance.
Poking around for a version that you could easily listen to, I found this on YouTube — while it’s apparently Jay, it sounds absolutely nothing like the version just described. It seems to be live, probably from later in his career, and a stretched out to more than six minutes. It starts out as a more traditional folky reading, and nice in its way. It’s most notable, however, for a very long monologue in the middle in which Jay describes what I hope is a fanciful tale about his first marriage and the many problems that immediately ensued. It has nothing to do with “SJI,” but it’s weirdly entertaining. (The best line: “She fascinated me because I liked to run my fingers through her money.”) After he wraps that up he just toggles back to “SJI” and brings things to a close. Worth hearing.