Abner Jay-Swaunee River and Cocaine Blues
July 13, 2009
Swaunee River and Cocaine Blues(1967)
There is something about the way Abner Jay tells a tale. You wish that each song lasted an eternity because he has that rare gift of a true storyteller that is able to spin a yarn into a scarf that seemingly runs on for miles and miles. Yeah, they end around the three-minute mark, but Swaunee River and Cocaine Blues’ songs kind of run together into one long cautionary tale about the perils of love, substance abuse and the consequences of poor decision making. What makes Abner Jay utterly transcendent is his loose, rambling guitar licks that approach mantra status as the combo of instrument and voice hypnotize you and suck you into his narratives. I know the ending of each tale, but listen to each repeatedly because Abner Jay is an entertaining motherfucker who plays the holy hell out of a guitar and is one of the few artists who can make a song literally come alive for you late at night when you want to bathe in your own imperfections. These are tales of souls who make the same mistakes over and over again, but never lack the stubbornness to try to make things right no matter how many times shit goes down the wrong chute.
The ramshackle charm of Abner’s music is only highlighted by the fact that he was literally a one-man band. Playing guitar, harmonica, banjo and bass drum, his music is surprisingly mesmerizing and complex despite being looser than a necktie after a long day of drinking at a wedding. He learned much of his repertoire from his grandfather who was a slave in Georgia. Abner was one of the last souls trafficking in minstrel music, but his performances aren’t offensive, but sincere odes to the past and its accumulated storybook of mythology while adding his own spin on what his elders taught him. Even his take on “Ol’ Man River” takes new life in his hand as he wrings every ounce of frustration, pain and weariness from its lyrics and instrumentation.
The song which originally introduced me to the world of Abner Jay was “Cocaine Blues” after hearing Tim Hardin’s take on “Cocaine Bill.” I think I googled Hardin only to discover the world of Abner Jay and I haven’t looked back since. His “Cocaine Blues” may be the most effective ode to drug abuse while serving as its most chilling warning. A simple, bluesy lick eats its own tail throughout its seven minutes while Abner Jay champions its effectiveness while decrying how it has possessed his heart and soul. You know how many blues songs talk of the devil’s influence. Well, Jay’s “Cocaine Blues” replaces Satan with Cocaine to chilling effect while romanticizing its influence and relating that it is the real deal, not the wash of psychedelics readily available in the 60s. He is part salesman, part drug counselor as he tells of its peaks and valleys and what a misguided soul will do to get a fix. The song isn’t about judgement for misdeeds, but a depiction of what addiction will make a man do and think about at his lowest moments. It’s a love song and death ballad all at once. For that reason, it sticks in my craw each time it is heard in this neck of the woods.