Julian Lee Rayford (1908-1980), known to his friends as "Judy," was a novelist and poet and also wrote non-fiction works on folklore. In addition, he produced many sculptures, some of which can be seen in his native city of Mobile, Mobile County. Rayford also had a wide reputation as a story-teller and is credited with reviving the story of Joe Cain's role in reestablishing Mobile's Mardi Gras celebration after the Civil War.
Rayford was born in Mobile on April 7, 1908, to William Douglas, an engineer for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, and Julia Ogletree Rayford. He was the youngest of six boys. According to Julian, his father had been a co-worker of the legendary Casey Jones of Jackson, Tennessee, in the 1880s before Jones went to work on the Illinois Central Railroad and became a figure in American folklore.
Julian Rayford showed an early interest in art and came to the attention of Mobile artist Edmond de Celle, who gave the boy art lessons. De Celle soon discovered that Rayford was color-blind and recommended that he take up sculpture. At age 16, while a student at Barton Academy High School, Rayford began his training in sculpture making clay figures under the tutelage of Mobile painter Roderick MacKenzie. In his third year at Barton, Rayford studied English under Elizabeth Tyler Coleman (later a professor of English at the University of Alabama) and began writing poetry. Coleman encouraged Rayford to submit some of his poems to writer H. L. Mencken's magazine, American Mercury, and two of his pieces were published. The following year, he enrolled in college preparatory classes at Ensley High School in Birmingham, as Barton Academy ended with the eleventh grade.
In the fall of 1927, Rayford enrolled at Duke University and initially was assigned to a girls' dormitory because of his nickname. While at Duke, Rayford earned money for his tuition by painting stage scenery and doing odd jobs on campus. At the end of the spring term, Rayford hitchhiked to San Antonio to visit the studio of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who he had heard about from MacKenzie and who had carved both the Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain Park in west-central Georgia and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Although Rayford was able to observe Borglum at work for several days, he never got to talk to him. He left samples of his modeling work and some poems and hitchhiked back to Mobile. The following summer, he read an Associated Press story in the Mobile Press-Register entitled "Sculptor Seeks Ragged Artist from Carolinas" and thus discovered that Borglum had been looking for him. The two artists eventually met in North Carolina, and Rayford apprenticed under Borglum in the summer of 1928 in Connecticut and the winter of 1929 in San Antonio. In spring 1930, Rayford attended the Art Students League in New York and joined Borglum in South Dakota for the dedication of the head of George Washington at Mount Rushmore.
Rayford then set out on a career as a sculptor and created a series of portraits in Durham, North Carolina. He later went to Nashville, Tennessee, and studied anatomy at Vanderbilt University, where he made bronze reliefs of poets John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. While there, he met writer Jesse Stuart, who urged him to publish his poems. In 1932, Rayford produced a collection called Ancient Doorways and dedicated the book to his high school English teacher, Elizabeth Coleman.
In 1933 and 1934, Rayford was employed with the Public Works of Art Project in Washington, D.C., making plaster models of American folk heroes, including Uncle Remus, Davy Crockett, Mark Twain, Casey Jones, and John Henry. These were to be cast in terra cotta, but instead were painted and placed in the lobby of the John Eaton School in Georgetown. He also carved a bas relief of Paul Bunyan for the public library in the city's Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
On his return to Mobile, Rayford worked as a reporter for the Mobile Press-Register. He turned his interest to creative writing and began work on a novel entitled Cottonmouth, a somewhat autobiographical story of a boy growing up in Mobile between World War I and World War II. It was published in March 1941, the same month he was inducted into the U.S. Army. He was discharged from the service the following December, however, when it was found that he suffered from narcolepsy. Rayford then found work making recruiting posters and later worked for Kaiser Shipbuilding Company in Vancouver, Canada, where he painted camouflage on warships. He returned to Mobile after the war and resided there for the rest of his life. In 1947, he published The First Christmas Dinner, an imaginary nativity scene in the form of an "old-time" sermon, and in 1951 published the novel Child of the Snapping Turtle. Returning to sculpture, Rayford did a series of masks for the Joe Jefferson Playhouse, a memorial panel for the Mae Eanes Middle School, a series of historic figures, and the Farragut-Buchanan sculpture, located in Mobile's Bienville Square that commemorated the centennial of the Battle of Mobile Bay. He also did a bas relief of his friend Jesse Stuart.
Rayford's next publication was a collection of Gulf Coast folklore entitled Whistlin' Woman and Crowin' Hen (1957). In 1962, he published a history of the Mardi Gras, Chasin' the Devil Round a Stump, and was later instrumental in honoring Joe Cain, the local store clerk who resurrected Mardi Gras after the Civil War. In
1972, Rayford was commissioned to create two sculptures for the entrance to the George Wallace Tunnel that passes Interstate
10 under the Mobile River. The seven-foot figures of Mobile founder Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville and an Alabama Indian were unveiled on May 11, 1974. Rayford also performed and recorded folk sounds. Julian
Lee Rayford died of cancer on August 3, 1980, and special permission was granted by the city allowing him to be buried in
the Church Street Graveyard in Mobile. He never married.
Selected Works by Julian Lee Rayford
Ancient Doorways: The Poems of Julian Lee Rayford (1932)
The First Christmas Dinner (1947)
Child of the Snapping Turtle, Mike Fink: A Novel (1951)
Whistlin' Woman and Crowin' Hen: The True Legend of Dauphin Island and the Alabama Coast (1956)
Chasin' the Devil Round a Stump (1962)
Creedy, John A. "Private Rayford, Writer and Sculptor, Returns for Reunion." Durham Morning Herald-Sun, June 8, 1941.
Rayford, Julian Lee. Cottonmouth. With an introduction by Benjamin B. Williams. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.
Walter, Eugene. "Julian Lee Rayford—The Dragon is Gone." Azalea City News and Review, August 14, 1980.
Benjamin Buford Williams
Auburn University at Montgomery
Published May 17, 2010
Last updated June 23, 2011