1950’s picnic on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

Nita Faye Jones & Reverend Raymond Jones
Birthday picnic at Narrows Dam, Arkansas, 1952

This picture represents groundbreaking, earth-shattering, modern behavior for our family.  I see wax paper and store-bought, sliced bread. We didn’t purchase either of those items often. Most of our everyday, carrying-around lunches traveled in brown sacks with contents wrapped in brown paper like the butcher used, so the rustle of wax paper meant excitement for Jones kids, no matter what it held.

We made our own bread at home:  Two kinds of biscuits, some for breakfast and another skillet of “cathead” biscuits to be sliced and used for sandwiches.  The name came from their size – “big as a cat’s head.”  Cornbread was cooked later in the morning and Daddy usually finished off the last of it at night, crumbled into a tall glass of cold buttermilk.

Daddy had no truck with store-bought food but Mother was my ally on this occasion. Because it was my birthday, and because she loved it too, she persuaded him to buy a loaf of “light bread” and a jar of smooth-whipped pimento cheese spread instead of our usual homemade kind.  Our other everyday sandwich staples were baloney or sizzled ham. Daddy fried them and tucked them into cathead biscuits and that’s what Leslie Ray and I carried to school.

Some of the unwrapped parcels of wax paper on this picnic table held big wedges of pie, which Mother baked in the middle of the night while she worked on writing her songs.

Soda pop was allowed when we traveled and for special occasions, but there was no stinting on the everyday intake of caffeine and sugar in our house. That snazzy thermos jug on the table was filled with Daddy’s sweet tea.  He made pitchers of it every day, stirring in gobs of sugar while the tea was warm.  We also drank jars of lemonade sweetened with simple syrup.  A slender thermos just out of sight held Mother’s very strong, very sweet coffee which went everywhere with her.

The expression on Daddy’s face here is probably because he was caught mid-chew, but it could also mean, I’m eating this store-bought stuff because it’s your birthday, but tomorrow it’s back to real life.

Note the preacher at a lakeside picnic in the Arkansas piney woods is wearing a dress shirt and tie.  That was also part of our real life.  Soon after our meal, we’d pack up the car, he’d drop us off at home, then he’d head out to spend hours calling on members of the congregation who needed him.

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Dinner on the grounds – Ambrosia on The Glory Road.

By Anita Garner

Desserts from the church ladies

Homemade food was a  highlight of every All Day Singing With Dinner On The Grounds. Tables were made of planks laid over sawhorses then covered with oilcloth, then the rows of sawhorse-tables were loaded with every Southern specialty from the best home cooks in the world.

At the end of many of these tables were stools that held washtubs filled with tea with big blocks of ice floating on top and tin dippers attached with string to the handles.

Find a picture.  Find a story.  If that’s not a rule, maybe it should be. I’m surrounded by boxes and files and albums and scrapbooks.  It’s the backbone of much of what’s becoming The Glory Road., the stories, the stage play and now the book.  A photo turns itself into a scene.

That’s Mother (Sister Fern) on the left in this picture. She’s changed from her performing dress made of clingy jersey into something cooler, and she’ll change back again after dinner, the midday meal in the Deep South. She’s  probably complimenting that church lady next to her on her fine contribution to this bounty.

I was off in search of my favorites.  Somebody mistakenly put Ambrosia over there on a table with all the fruit salads when to my mind Ambrosia was a world apart from ordinary food. It was the Alpha and Omega,  the beginning and end of every dinner spread laid out at every Singing, every Revival, and every Sunday afternoon potluck at every stop on Route 66.

Mother was partial to Jell-O and she’d choose from a whole table full of it, some of it made in intricate molds, some studded with fruits, and other bowls of the red and green and orange jiggly stuff were filled with mysterious chopped items. She loved them all.

Leslie Ray headed for the chicken wings, the potato salad, then the table with all the breads – biscuits, risin’ rolls and cornbread. Daddy piled up a plate with  barbecue and beans. He wandered the grounds balancing his plate and a Dixie cup of sweet tea, in search of the cook responsible for his favorite barbecue. Reverend Raymond Jones could talk beans with anybody til closing time.  One of us had to hunt him down when it was time for the family to be back onstage.

Find an old photograph. Write some notes.  I don’t want to miss a memory.  They’re gifts that come and go when they please.

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Sending a child to do a grownup job on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

Brother Ray Jones and Nita Faye 1950’s

They had me singing on the radio in Columbus Georgia at the age of 3.  No adjustable microphone.  I stood on chairs or sometimes boxes or crates stacked up in front of a tall boom microphone. The mic faced the disc jockey/announcer/sometimes station owner operating the controls on the other side of the glass.

By the time I was 7 or 8, Daddy chose a new repertoire for me, deciding which songs would help him put across the message he was about to preach.  He taught me to sing  one of his favorites, a song with dramatic lyrics and a big buildup.  From the start it didn’t feel like something I’d ask a little girl to sing, but I performed it for years because he asked me to.  In this picture from the 1950s I’m singing “Then Jesus Came.”  Daddy’s playing steel guitar over there beside me, every now and then saying “Yes Lord” the way people in our churches worshipped out loud.

I didn’t get the full story told in this song until I heard George Beverly Shea sing it on one of Billy Graham’s early radio shows.  Then I thought, that’s how it’s supposed to sound and announced to Daddy I didn’t want to sing it anymore.

Here’s a version I like. This is Larry Wayne Morbitt, singing at a Gaither Gospel show. Larry toured with Phantom of the Opera and to my mind, his is the voice this story requires.

Look closely at the front of the pulpit in the picture.  Mother had just completed one of her chalk drawings (See previous blog) which would be auctioned off at the end of the service.

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It’s competitive out there on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

This publicity photo was taken in the early 1950’s as religion was becoming entertainment. Not all of these instruments belonged to our family’s basic traveling unit.  Some did, but others were added at different stops as musician friends joined us all over the South.

As we toured, we performed on the radio, in churches, in auditoriums, in theaters and under revival tents and as The Joneses’ popularity grew, the same thing was happening with other musical evangelists.

We’d roll into town and someone would show us the publicity flier from the last evangelist who came through. Disc jockeys at radio stations told us who played and what they sang and how they were received.

Mother was in charge of our publicity.  She handled it in an amazingly efficient way from the front seat of our big old sedan.  Occasionally we updated our photos, which were turned into wood cuts she mailed ahead for printing purposes.  She designed our fliers in advance of appearances, then as soon as we arrived in town, she talked with sponsoring organizations about whatever changes were required.

As I’m organizing photos from those years, I happened on this one, used for promotional ads in newspapers, and in programs and fliers and storefront posters.  See that picture on the easel on the right? That’s a chalk drawing done by Mother during the course of an event.  Yes, that was considered a legitimate attraction and several other evangelists did the same.

An announcer would say, not only is Sister Fern about to sing for you, but she will also put a blank canvas right up there on that easel, where she’ll create one of her unusual chalk drawings while you watch.  Music would play.  Those who’d  seen this performance before reached for their billfolds and purses.  The drawing would be auctioned to the highest bidder and  proceeds would go back into the community, into the hands of whomever booked us there.

I haven’t seen one of her creations for years now, but perhaps some of them still exist in homes somewhere along Route 66.

 

 

 

Our big surprise on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

Nita Faye Jones in the early 50’s.

We were in the Arkansas piney woods near Narrows Dam, which had just been built to harness the Little Missouri and Ouachita Rivers, creating Lake Greeson.  There were all kinds of fish for Daddy and Leslie Ray, pimento cheese on white bread and longneck bottles of Pepsi for Mother and me.

Daddy had been trying to convince Mother to settle down in a small town where he would pastor a church and tend his flock, but it was her calling we followed for years, performing, traveling the Deep South, singing, packing up instruments, moving on and doing it all over again.

One morning on the way to Hot Springs, Daddy said we were only visiting the Singing today because Mother had a new song she’d written and by tonight we’d return to our new house.

A few months back we’d moved into the parsonage where in the vacant lot between the house and the church our lives changed.  A freshly planted garden grew alongside Leslie Ray’s rabbit pens and pigeon cages.  We had a chicken coop and a giant weeping willow tree with branches fluttering almost to the ground, creating a cozy space I claimed as a playhouse.

A few steps from these homey installations in no more than a minute we could be at church, then turn around and go the other way and walk to school.  Such convenience was previously unknown, and this was clearly how we were meant to live. Not in a car.

Our town was country all the way from the outer edge where a road led to a creek and back in the other direction to the cluster of buildings around Courthouse Square.  It was nothing like the bustle of Texarkana where we kept an apartment as headquarters while we traveled.

Soon it was apparent our settling down might have something to do with Mother’s changing wardrobe.  Instead of the slinky jersey dresses with the sweetheart necklines, she was sewing cotton tops with an abundance of fabric in the front.

Here’s what you don’t see in the picture up there – the real reason we stopped touring for a while.  We got us a baby who also seemed to enjoy life among the pines.

 

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Churning – Unusual Rebellion on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

By the time my brother was 13, he was getting slippery about his comings and goings.  His moods were unpredictable and he was nearly impossible for our parents to deal with.  His new weapons were anger and silence.  I envied him all that barely-contained rage.

For a while, Leslie Ray used his paper route for freedom. If he was late for church, he said the papers arrived late. Sometimes  he skipped church altogether, a sin for a preacher’s boy, according to Daddy, and instead he went door to door collecting on his route.  Freedom from Sunday School lasted only until Daddy set up other collection times. I wanted to be just like Leslie, brave and bold. So far the best I’d come up with was moping.  When things went wrong, I was the sad one.  He was the mad one.

This is not the face of a happy boy.

 We were interpreters for each other.

“What’s your sister crying about now?”

“Nothing.  She just cries sometimes.”

Not eloquent, but given that he always knew exactly what I was sad about, it was his attempt to let me keep secrets too.

“Where’s your brother?”

“Don’t know,”

I was a fairly competent liar myself by then and getting better at it all the time. Saying “I don’t know,” when in fact I did know, was necessary to keep them from engaging in a line of questioning that might have exposed Leslie Ray’s present sanctuary.  I assumed part of his enjoyment was derived from keeping them guessing.

We never tattled on each other.  Exercising an instinct shared sometimes by children born close together, we helped each other avoid incrimination.  We were dedicated to maintaining the dividing line between Them and Us.

Leslie practiced brinksmanship, magically reappearing just before a situation required someone to go hunt for him.  His arrivals back home were cut so close, he entered the house a cartoon character accompanied by screeching, braking sound effects.  Contrary to Daddy’s suspicions, my brother was not, at the present time anyway, doing anything our parents would consider sinful, but his history of misdeeds kept them alert to all possibilities.  I wished just once without jeopardizing Leslie’s privacy, I could say,

“Go ahead, ask me that again.  Ask me  ‘Where’s your brother?’ so I could answer,

“Churning.”

Churning for Sister Coker.  That’s where he was at least once a week. Churning and listening to the radio in the Cokers’ kitchen and chatting with the family while maneuvering their old wooden churn paddle into a happy slap, glug, slap glug rhythm that turned milk from their cows into butter.  Which was a surprise at first because he was impatient, full of energy, never could sit still, and everyone knows churning takes time.  It’s repetitive.  I never lasted a whole churn’s worth, but Leslie could sit there all night swooshing that dasher around.

Spending time at the Cokers’ house was never forbidden.  They were among our most faithful church members, and their farm was one of the places we were welcome any time we could slip away. That’s why it was so odd and somehow more fascinating that Leslie Ray kept his time with them a secret.

Just down the road from our parsonage, on the way to the creek, was the Cokers’ place, where a humble farmhouse boasted a wide front porch that welcomed a steady flow of neighbors.

Sister Lastena Coker with our Baby

Sister Coker was sometimes a little absent-minded but she continued to absorb information even while seemingly in a trying-to-remember state so you didn’t want to underestimate her, because she could drop a cogent remark into a conversation when you least expected it.  You had to let yourself stay relaxed about whichever state you found her in.  She was always occupied with the farm and family and church and always offered the world a kind demeanor.  She said, about most any problem,

“Everything will work itself out directly.”

She repeatedly misplaced one or another of her favorite butter molds and when Leslie Ray showed up ready to churn, she first dispatched him to help her get everything rounded up again.

“Leslie Ray, climb up there and see if you can find that one that’s shaped like a rose. That was my mama’s favorite.  I want you to see it.  Be careful now.  Use that ladder.”

He was already on the counter, part monkey, part growing boy, and was feeling around at the very top of the cabinets where somebody, probably Sister Coker herself, kept stacking up the old, prized butter molds, and when the stack tumbled, some of them lodged in odd spaces. Leslie said,

“Here it is! It slipped down back there.  We better fix that shelf.  It’s pulling away from the wall. You got a hammer handy?”

She answered with another subject.

“Now what’d I do with that dasher?”

From his perch up on the counter, he performed a quick scan and spotted it.

“It’s over yonder. You probably took it out to clean it.”

He came back home to our parsonage carrying his handmade and quite artistic fresh butter, acting like the Cokers had made it and asked him to give it to their pastor.

Daddy was an appreciator of everything homemade and he thought Sister Coker was responsible for the recent abundance of beautiful butter on our table.  He called to Mother,

“Doll-Baby, c’mere and look at this butter Sister Coker made.  This one’s shaped like a rose.”

Leslie delivered butter to us every few days and we spread it on warm biscuits and didn’t even bother with preserves, the butter was that good. Not once did my brother reveal himself as the maker of this bounty.

When Daddy thanked Sister Coker for the butter, she said,

“Oh Leslie Ray’s such a big help,” and her statement rolled right on into that great ball of Southern church-speak where people say nice things they think someone else wants to hear, so Daddy thought Sister Coker was just complimenting him on his very trying son’s behavior.

Leslie’s secret would have been uncovered if Sister Coker had ever once said something more specific like “He’s so helpful with the churning,” or “So sweet the way he makes butter every week,” but the words never happened to fall that way into a conversation, so nobody was telling a lie.

While we lived in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, my brother spent as much time as he could with that family, helping them at butchering time, working in their garden whenever he wasn’t required to work in ours and finding something there that he needed, something more important than just being able to disappear now and then.  Leslie Ray needed to be in charge of something. The Cokers let him.

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Storybook House on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

A song can change everything.  At a crucial point in childhood, an Oklahoma pastor and his wife introduced my brother and me to new thinking about what was and wasn’t a sin, and the lesson came with a Broadway soundtrack.

Reverend and Mrs. Franks –  Sayre, Oklahoma, 1950

Sayre  was a convenient stop on Route 66 between our revivals in Amarillo and Oklahoma City.  When we were there we didn’t stay in a motor court, the way we usually did. There was plenty of room for all of us in the Franks’ farmhouse just outside of town.

It was a big old house, once filled with their kids, now all grown and gone.  Nothing inside was new, but it was spotless and every possible surface was covered with handmade doilies, starched and ironed.  A lace runner decorated the top of the old upright piano in the front room.  There was often a vase of flowers up there too.  A house like that which once sheltered a large family needs a big dining table and they had one covered in embroidered tablecloths, so many different tablecloths you could change them every day if you wanted.  After supper, Sister Franks let me decide which cloth to put on for tomorrow.

I memorized everything; comfortable upholstered furniture, lace curtains at the windows, soft faded rugs on the floor, family photographs everywhere, fragrance of cookies just baked and a hint of dinner to come from the kitchen.  It may have been much like other homes up and down the roads leading into that small town, but it was unique to Leslie Ray and me, a revelation to  young travelers on The Glory Road.

I was 8 and had been singing with our family since my debut on the radio at age 3.  Leslie was 10 and about ready to refuse to sing anymore.  He moped at every stop in every town until someone handed him a fishing pole and pointed him toward a creek or a lake or a stream.  Anyplace would do so long as he could be up and gone at sunrise.

When Daddy was a pastor and we lived in a parsonage, Mother’s sheet music was stacked on top of the piano.  Every knock at the door required hiding the music, the songs  Daddy considered worldly. He didn’t want church people to hear Mother playing and singing that kind of music because he said all talent must be devoted to Jesus.  At the Franks’ home the sheet music was right up there on the music rack where everyone could see it.

Sister Franks was a wispy little thing.  Her worn piano bench easily held one older church lady and a skinny gospel gypsy.  We two sat there for hours. She seemed to own all the sheet music to every popular song. She nodded when it was time for me to turn the page for her.

She asked,

“Nita Faye, are you learning to read music?”

“No ma’m. Not yet. But Daddy does and Mother does some and Leslie Ray’s taking piano.”

“Well I think it’s just wonderful, you and your parents singing together the way you do.”

“Daddy says if he had any kids who couldn’t sing, he’d have to send them back.”

She laughed and laughed.  I was thrilled she enjoyed my joke.  My only joke.  Well, Daddy’s joke really, and always well received by church people.

She played while we talked.  “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.” I hadn’t heard it before.  She explained it was based on music by Chopin.  I hadn’t heard that name before either.  Then she changed the mood and the style and the tempo and asked,

“Do you know this one?”

“I heard it on the radio.”

It’s “Surrey With The Fringe On Top.”  It’s from a Broadway show called “Oklahoma.”

“You and Brother Franks go to the show?  Picture shows are a sin.”

“Broadway’s not a picture show. It’s a place in New York City where people put on plays and sing and dance.”

“Dancing’s a sin.”

“Not that kind of dancing.  They don’t hold onto each other.  They just dance around on the stage is all.  I’ll tell you what.  If they ever make this into a picture show, I’ll be sneaking in to see it, even if I have to drive into Oklahoma City. Do you want to learn the words?”

She hummed a pitch note, plinked it on the keyboard, indicated the words on the sheet music for me, then started off.

“Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry.”

We sang together,

“When I take you out in the surrey,

When I take you out in the surrey

With the fringe on top!”

Mother called from the back of the house somewhere. Sister Franks said,

“Run see what your Mama wants.  When you come back, we’ll go into Elk City.  You can help me pick out curtains at Penney’s.  Maybe we’ll get us a grilled cheese and a Coke at Woolworth’s.

I was reluctant to leave until she promised,

“And then I’ll teach you the words to the rest of the music from the show.”

That visit to Sayre, Oklahoma was a first glimpse for Leslie and me into the daily lives of other preachers in the same sect, and with it the realization that people in the same church were allowed to believe in different ways.

The house became a snow globe memory I traveled with for years.  Out on the gospel trail, I could shake it just a little and see the chairs with doilies on the arms and Sister Franks’ purple irises in a vase on the coffee table.  Shake it again and hear the music from Oklahoma.

Father’s Day – The Gardener on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

Daddy – 1937.
Newlywed.  Newly ordained preacher, Reverend Raymond D. Jones.
Brother Ray.”

The oldest of ten, he’d already helped raise his brothers and sisters, picking cotton, tending gardens, plowing fields and cooking for his family when he should have been in school, riding his motorcycle, drinking too much, honky-tonking on the weekend and dancing with the teenage singer who became his wife.  She was the rose. He remained the gardener.  After my brother and I came along, she was the performer. He was the teacher.

He taught us how to plant potatoes, how to cook them, how to make biscuits and gravy, and the behavior required of Southern preachers’ kids in all kinds of situations.  Example:  Because he came up poor and was always conscious of someone else’s lack of funds, when we had supper with members of the congregation and were offered second helpings, he asked us to say,

“Much obliged, but I have had sufficient.”

We were eager for stories of his wild days but he only told us bits and ended every telling with,

“Course I’d-a never done that if I was a Daddy then.  That’s not how a Daddy ought to do.”

All his people sang parts and played instruments and studied shape note singing at a country church out in the woods.  He believed in music to spread The Word, but he didn’t care much about having a featured role. His part was usually singing harmony and playing rhythm guitar.

When The Joneses’ music, recorded in the 1950’s, was re-mastered and released a few years back,  the only song on the album featuring Daddy’s voice on lead was soon heard all over the place.  He’d have been surprised.  I can see his grin and hear his drawl.

“Well, I never!”

In honor of Father’s Day, click the picture and hear Daddy’s distinctive hill country lead on “This World Is Not My Home.”

The Glory Road – It’s the hokey pokey all over again

By Anita Garner

So many rewrites.
Put stuff in.  Take stuff out.  Shake it all about.

This project was bass-ackwards from the start but in a lovely, unexpected way.  If you’ve heard some of this chronology before, don’t stop me now or I’ll lose my place.

My brother and I had a pact since childhood that we’d tell our stories in a book someday.   Probably after both parents had passed.  After both Brother Ray and Sister Fern were gone, it was time. Leslie Ray turned into an attorney.  I turned into a writer/broadcaster, so guess which one had the writing to do.  And guess which one asked all the time, “Got anything I can read?”

I started to write a book, but short stories came out first.  Don Barrett, broadcast colleague and dear friend,  read what I wrote and referred me to literary agent, Carol Schild Levy. Don worked with her husband in the movie industry and made the introductions.

Carol read my story, Musical Houses, from the collection that was meant to become The Glory Road.  She said she’d like to see it onstage.  Why not turn it into a play?  So we did.  Carol and her husband Marvin Levy and directors, David Atkinson and Greg Zerkle North and actors and singers and musicians from all over contributed to multiple staged readings in Los Angeles.   The talent!  Busy performers who  act and sing and create  goosebumps find time to participate in so many ways between their own shows, keeping odd rehearsal times, to help new works find a place onstage.

Then comes feedback from professionals, from audience members and from the creative and management teams.  The comment repeated most often was “more music.”  There was another problem. The cast was too large. In one version, we removed the young kids.  Cast minus two.  In another version, we removed the older kids. Cast minus two more.  Then more performances, concentrating on the couple, Ray and Fern.  That seemed a big enough story to tell, but everyone missed the kids.

The last reading at the Hayworth Theater in Los Angeles was the next-to-last time I saw my brother alive.  Within weeks he was gone. I stopped writing anything for a long time.

I needed to finish the book that began with stories that turned into a play.  So I did.  Finishing the book sent me back to the play, where I’m working now. Revising.  We’ve put the kids back in, which means taking out something else.  And we still need to add more songs.

Gramma K (you’ll meet her in both the play and the book) used to say if she had her druthers, she’d make three new dresses instead of altering one.  I hear you, Gramma.

Now the cast size is larger than the last version of the play, but the kids are back and talented young actors who can sing parts will find work onstage because of it.   When we finish this version, there’ll be another reading and we’ll see where The Glory Road takes us next.

Click the photo below to hear “Precious Lord.”

 

 

 

Worth a thousand words?

By Anita Garner

It’s not just the picture that tells the story.  Though I love photos of castles and British country homes and follow many of them on Instagram, this time it’s the words that get me.

For all my colleagues who’ve toiled in the marketing/ad agency/broadcast production world, always looking for fresh ways to describe available merchandise, when I read the description of this gorgeous place on Instagram and came to the part in green  below, I applauded the copywriter.

Who thinks to describe plants growing up the side of a building like this?

Eastwell Manor is a Great British country house originally built for Sir Thomas Moyle in 1550, located in Ashford, Kent.   Much of Eastwell Manor, the building that now serves as a hotel, was built in the neo-Elizabethan style during the 18th century.

Eastwell was occupied by Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of Queen Victoria, for a long period of time. He lived here with his family until 1893.

This property is Grade II listed and a gorgeous display of period neo-Elizabethan architecture, and has been shackled and enthralled by a wave of moss, ivy and other vine shrubbery.  We adore this overgrown aesthetic which was allowed to progress over the last century, do you?