Listen to this track by itinerant musician, self-styled last minstrel man and “World’s Worse (sic) Businessman” Abner Jay. It’s “I’m So Depressed”, a cut from his independently produced and distributed album Swaunee Water And Cocaine Blues. The song was also re-issued as a single in 2009 through Portland-based Mississippi records, a label that compiled Abner Jay’s somewhat scattered output.
Abner Jay seems like more of a figure that someone invented rather than an actual person. He was the ultimate self-contained act in the medicine show tradition, traveling in a mobile home that opened up into a makeshift stage, roaming from town to town playing for country folks at flea markets and store parking lots, and selling records from a cardboard box. Amazingly, he performed his material while playing all of the instruments himself in a live setting, including a six-string banjo he claimed was made in 1748 and handed down to him by his grandfather who had been born a slave. Maybe in some ways then, he really was invented, or rather self-invented.
There has been some question as to how to qualify Abner Jay’s music, too. Is it authentic? Could it be described as outsider music? I suppose all of that is determined by how you define each of those terms.. Maybe the clues to Abner Jay’s position on the authenticity spectrum can be found in this song.
When you hear this tune in a certain way, it almost comes off as a lampooning of the blues. “Oh Lord! I’m so depressed” kind of plays into the unstudied cliché that the blues is depressing, negative, self-absorbed, and worthy of mockery. But when you listen with other ears, more easily done as this song goes along, it becomes less about the somewhat haphazard components of the song and more about how it connects to more universal themes in an unadorned and unguarded way. Any parodic element to be found in the song easily gives way to a kind of existential cry to the heavens instead.
I think it’s Abner Jay’s status as a possible outsider that plays into how heartfelt this factor found in this song and on others in his catalogue actually is. There isn’t anything contrived or planned about it. At least it doesn’t sound that way! On this song, it almost sounds wholly improvised, as if he is pulling directly from his own memories as he is singing. In this sense, the song is wholly the opposite of a parody of anything. I think the element that makes this seem like outsider music not to be taken seriously is the persona of the artist himself; a “character” who is symbolic of a certain place and time, and once again like someone who seems more invented than born.
There is certainly much to call into question about what Abner Jay claimed about himself and his own history. I think that’s because he was a showman who fashioned his presentation with stories that appeal to an audience, whether true or not. As we know, though, it is often a mistake to conflate an artist with his art, that if there is an element to the ridiculous and unbelievable in one, it does not mean that it reflects necessarily on the other, and vice versa. With that in mind, “I’m So Depressed” can be looked upon as a singular statement of honesty and candour on a level that may be more believable than most, even if the vessel for its delivery might be a questionable source.
Abner Jay continued as an itinerant musician, recording artist, and self-promoter until his death in 1993. He often intoned at the conclusion of his shows that everyone in the audience should “hurry up and get your record! They’ll be worth a lot when I’m dead!” And so they are, mostly due to how rare they are. Yet, thanks to modern platforms like Spotify and others his music has been made accessible again along with being championed by independent labels in the 21st century. Abner Jay stands largely outside of any one era or even any one style. Having said that, he was a living breathing embodiment of a certain type of American cultural tradition, so tied was his approach to traveling minstrelsy of the late-19th and early 20th century that had mostly died out even as he continued to cut records and tour the country on his own steam for decades afterwards.
Like the blues itself, Abner Jay was a mysterious figure with an affecting voice to convey raw human experience for the benefit of all who opened their ears to him.
To learn more about Abner Jay, check out this BBC program that talks about him, featuring interviews with those who knew him, including his daughter Brandie after whom her father named his record label.