Julian Lee Rayford was born and grew up in Mobile, Ala. He began making sketches as a small child and worked as an artist all his life. When Rayford was ten, he was discovered to be color-blind, and it was recommended that he become a sculptor. Rayford began writing poems in high school, publishing two in The American Mercury magazine in 1925. In 1926, Rayford took college preparatory courses at Ensley-Howard High School in Birmingham, working as a janitor to pay his tuition. He enrolled at Duke University in 1927, where his nickname, “Judy,” caused him to be assigned to the women’s dormitory initially. The following year, instead of returning to Duke, Rayford apprenticed himself to Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor responsible for the Stone Mountain and Mount Rushmore monuments. For the next few years, Rayford studied art and worked around the country. In 1932, Rayford published Ancient Doorways, a book of poems. In 1937, he returned to Mobile and worked as a reporter for the Mobile Register. Rayford’s first novel, Cottonmouth, was published early in 1941, just before he was drafted into the US Army. He was soon given a medical discharge due to narcolepsy. His contribution to the World War II war effort was making recruiting posters and camouflaging ships at a shipyard in Vancouver, Wash.
Rayford spent the summer of 1945 on a USO tour of military hospitals, entertaining wounded soldiers with folk songs and storytelling. After the tour, he returned to Mobile and lived there for the rest of his life. Rayford’s interest in American folk songs and stories continued, and he gave concerts and made recordings and radio and television broadcasts well into the 1970s. He also published a novel about folk hero Mike Fink and a collection of Mobile area folk stories. In 1951, Rayford began writing book reviews for Amateur Book Collector (later American Book Collector), which he continued to do for the next twenty years. He also wrote for the Chickasaw, Ala., newspaper, the News-Herald, in the 1950s and again in the 1970s. Rayford continued to work as an artist, as well, creating sculptures for local organizations, including the Farragut-Buchanan Monument in Mobile’s Bienville Square. He was active in the Mobile Mardi Gras culture, publishing a book about its history, founding a local marching society, and lobbying to move the body of Joe Cain (founder of the modern Mobile Mardi Gras) to the Church Street Graveyard in Mobile. After Rayford’s death from cancer, he was buried in the same cemetery, near Cain’s gravesite.
Subjects of Julian Lee Rayford's work include American folk legends and the city of Mobile. His novel, Cottonmouth, is based on his boyhood in Mobile.
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Last updated on May 30, 2008.