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8 November 2017

Abner Jay - 'Folk Song Stylist' (Mississippi)

Last night was supposedly a great one for the Democratic party in America as they won a bunch of local elections and supposedly are making their way back to power. I'm pretty skeptical, as I think they'll continue to struggle as they allow the centrist side of the party to keep pushing status quo, neoliberal policies while ignoring the concerns of the working class – but this isn't the forum for that. I only bring it up because I think if they used Abner Jay's 'I Wanna Job' as their campaign song next year (instead of that stupid 'Better Deal...' slogan that Schumer and Pelosi cooked up) then they might start to be relevant to the lower-income voter again. Jay knew what was up - the song brags that he doesn't want to socialise, he just wants to work, and then reports a first-hand account of the Watts riots, which he claims were entirely caused by unemployment. It's a haunting parallel to today's social unrest, Charlottesville etc., and just goes to prove that history is cyclical. Or maybe 'Starving To Death On My Government Claim' would be a good song to rally the socialist masses - except that the welfare state has mostly been eliminated by now. I don't know exactly when these tunes were originally recorded or how Mississippi put this together; there's a dearth of contemporary liner notes here, as if it's trying to pass itself off as an original artefact, but that's OK by me -- the original Brandie releases cost a pretty penny if you can find them, and you likely can't. The title of this is pretty spot-on, because "stylist" describes Jay to a tee; his eccentricities and the one-man-band approach take the songs which are traditional and infuse them with an off-kilter rhythm, breathing a generosity into the material. 'Cotton Fields' has banjo chords which sound like cardboard, held into place by the rhythm of the simple drum accompaniment. There are some background vocals and overdubs on some tracks ('The Thresher' has some beautiful gospel chorus behind it) but I get the sense most of this was done live, except for maybe the lead vocals. Jay's voice is thick and hearty, unapologetically African-American, and passionate; the opening cut 'Depression' could be a game-changer if you've never heard anything like him before, and his 'Shenandoah' is the best version I've ever heard of it, like a one man sacred harp band that doesn't need to come up for air. Throughout, these originals and covers are rendered so beautifully that the one-man-band gimmick and the peculiar honesty of his delivery both become irrelevant to the enjoyment. If it's 'outsider' music, it stands up as just great music, which is what it should do. 

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