Revival tents on The Glory Road.

We evangelists’ kids were curiosities even back then.  I still get the most questions about 1) The tents 2) The music 3) The tents.

Our family’s revivals started with tents seating a few hundred people, and eventually held about 3,000. That was as big as Daddy was willing to get.

This tent resembles some of our earlier ones. Most evangelists didn’t own their tents. They were rented and arrived in a truck for local assembly.

By the mid-50’s, a different kind of tent revival appeared. Brother Oral Roberts was out there on the same path we followed, with a huge difference. Instead of the two and three-pole tents most of us rented, he owned his own,  billed as “The world’s largest fireproof tent.” It seated close to 20,000.

 We visited his tent the night a storm in Amarillo lifted up the heavy metal center poles and set them swinging, the biggest fear of evangelists in the Deep South.

Here are excerpts from The Glory Road (both the book and stage play) about getting ready for a tent revival.  This was repeated countless times by The Joneses in many states all over the South.

******

Our gospel caravan was fueled by Hershey bars and snow cones, Co-Cola and Dr. Pepper, Moon Pies from every gas station, Royal Crown Cola on the road to Oklahoma, Peanut Patties in Georgia, Orange Crush in Mississippi, biscuits and grits in Arkansas, tamales in El Paso, Po’ boys in Louisiana and baloney sandwiches all over the place.

Daddy went off to meet with the ministers of the region and the construction crew and the electricians and the people who rented us folding chairs, and a couple of roustabouts, strong men who earned their keep as soon as trucks carrying the tent and equipment rolled up to the edge of the field.

He supervised every detail of our tent going up. Leslie Ray and I could go along with him all day if we wanted to, over to a church office, to a midday dinner in a cafe with local backers and then out to the field, where sponsoring ministers floated around the site watching Reverend Raymond Jones, the charismatic evangelist, swinging a mallet and driving tent stakes into the ground alongside the crew.  We’d seen and heard all these details many times, but we went along to remove ourselves from the case of nerves that struck Sister Fern Jones before just about every revival.

That first day while Mother unpacked at the motor court, the field where the tent would be was already buzzing.  Trucks arrived filled with people who drove out to watch the tent go up. Children stayed home from school to see it. A circle of onlookers surrounded the proceedings all day.

Workers would lay the tent sections flat on the ground, push them up with big tent poles and stretch the guy-wires tight.  Before departing , roustabouts taught volunteers how to work the flaps every night, some flaps up, some down, employing a specific choreography intended to outsmart the weather.

Daddy and Mother always conferred about how everything would look, the sign out in front, the cross behind the podium, the altar, and Daddy had specific measurements he was comfortable with for the platform.  Several steps were needed and a ramp was built for loading sound equipment and a piano. A generator was concealed behind a tent flap. Our car became our own backstage area. Every night, Leslie and I carried music and instruments and helped set up.

Another truck would roll up and unload a piano. Daddy would direct them to place it at a specific angle so the crowd could see Sister Fern  and also so the music-makers could see the congregation.

A bunch of kids, including us, sprinkled sawdust on the ground under the tent.  When we heard the putt-putt-putt of a small crop duster, we looked up as handbills about the revival floated down from the sky. The pilot swooped away, going on to drop the brightly colored fliers all around the area.

Rain or shine, by late afternoon long before the service began, parking fields filled with carloads and truckloads of families eating the food they packed for their trip.  Crowds were already milling about even before Daddy made his last stop on the platform to check the sound. No matter how many times the sound system was checked in the afternoon, he always made one last check as the seats filled. He asked a sponsoring pastor,

“You got us some people working the flaps tonight?  Sky’s mighty dark.”

“Got volunteers standing by.  They’ll open every other flap if they need to.  Keep it cool in there ’til we have to close ’em.”

Daddy looked up, gauging the clouds.

“I reckon we’ll just have to let the mosquitoes and lightnin’ bugs in with the sinners.”

“That’s right.  If we close those flaps and a good wind comes up, y’all will all be lifted up to heaven way ahead of schedule!”

******

 

 

Saturday Night Versus Sunday Morning on The Glory Road.

See those rhinestone clips on Mother’s dress in the picture? She snuck them into the studio for this 1940’s publicity photo of “The Joneses” and they weren’t seen again.  She  promised Daddy she’d give up makeup and jewelry when they took a church to pastor but her love of all things shiny remained undiminished.

Gramma K told Leslie Ray and me Mother’s necklines were a lot lower before she found Jesus.  Gramma never forgave her daughter for leaving a promising music career to follow a country preacher around the South.

Here’s a rhinestone excerpt from my  book, The Glory Road.

– – – – –

Glendale, California 1955

When we set out on this trip it was with a dual purpose. First, because Gramma K lived in California, we visited when we could, and second (or first, depending on who was making the list) Mother would be performing . She was booked on the bill with several Country and Southern Gospel stars at El Monte Legion Stadium, where Cliffie Stone broadcast his Hometown Jamboree.

Daddy said yes to the show, even though it was on television because his wife was using her music to testify.  And also because he was crazy about her.  Since they’d found Jesus, their agreement was that no matter where she sang she would carry forth the banner, witnessing by singing only gospel. She’d already stepped in front of cameras when she sang over at Brother Daly’s Tabernacle in New Orleans.

Raising his wife required all the reassurances Daddy could muster and so far it was taking up a good deal of his time on this trip.  Gramma was thrilled her daughter would be singing on television in California but no amount of church music was going to be enough for her. Gramma said gospel would never make Mother famous.

Mother was wound up tight about the TV show and that was no small problem. She was high-strung during the best of times.  Added pressure sent her spinning off. Her latest concern on this trip seemed to be what to wear.

Since becoming a preacher’s wife, Mother’s sweetheart necklines were raised a bit higher.  She brought out one of the dresses under consideration to show Gramma and hung it on the back of the door.  Too plain for television,  said Gramma, who plunged into a jewelry box on her vanity table and pulled out rhinestone clips.

The two of them continued picking through all the sparkle. Mother grabbed an especially large piece and attached it to her dress, using the clip to gather the fabric downward to a greater dip. She looked in the mirror and said,

“Could you just D-I-E!”

Gramma held out matching earrings.  Big earrings with so many stones they would tax the earlobes of a timid woman. As soon as she saw the earrings in Gramma’s hand, Mother snapped,

“Mother! You know I can’t wear jewelry.  I gave Raymond my word.”

“You’re not dressing for church right now. You’re singing on a program where a lot of stars wear custom outfits. I guaran-damn-teeya every woman there will have on something like this.”

There was no denying how much Mother wanted to wear them. Here was my thinking.  What I’d have done in her place.  I’d have taken that jewelry with me and clipped them on just before singing.  Then anybody who wanted to say something about it could just go ahead.  It’d be too late.  Mother didn’t do that.

– – – – –

Mother often sang this with gospel quartets backing her.

‘I Am A Pilgrim And A Stranger”

Fern Jones with the Sunshine Boys from the album
Fern Jones/The Glory Road (Numero Group)

This version was recently featured on NBC‘s new show, AP Bio.

 

 

 

 

The Glory Road – From Louisiana to HBO’s The Leftovers

Mother believed her music would travel and it did, long after she was gone.  Her song, Let Tomorrow Be, recorded in Nashville in the 1950’s. traveled to HBO’s The Leftovers.  The show made poignant use of it with Fern singing over the credits. From my book, The Glory Road, here’s an excerpt about the song’s beginnings.

The setting:  Bogalusa, Louisiana, 1956. Junior is helping build a new house for the preacher and his wife. He and Reverend Ray and Sister Fern are close friends during a time of volatile  segregation in the Deep South.  Junior comes over to work every day from the other side of town where only black people live. He’s trying to get Fern to make up her mind.

**********

“Miz Jones, You got to pick a color today for the outside.  I brought some more samples.”

She glanced at them.

“Not any of these.”

“The painter’s needin’ to get started.  Once he gets here, we got to pay him for the whole time every day. Can’t bring him all the way over here and…”

‘I know, but these aren’t right.  I want the house to be this color.”

She patted the chaise.

“Pink?  Miz Jones, I mean the outside.”

“Yes, the outside.  Pink outside, and a sparkly white roof, you know the kind?”

“I’ve seen them.”

“So pink outside and a white roof, okay?”

“Okaaaay. That’s a whole lotta pink.”

“Pink’s the most important color today, Junior. Everybody’s wearing pink and black.  Elvis Presley had his picture made in a pink shirt and black jacket that looks exactly like an outfit I designed to sing in. Junior can I tell you a secret?”

“You like pink?”

“Yes I do but this is something else. I just finished writing a new song. I’m gonna tape it and send it around to people and see if somebody famous will record it.”

“Miz Jones, you oughta be recording your songs your own self.  Nobody sings like you do.  I oughta tell you what my Margie sez.  No I better not.”

“Oh yes, you better.”

“She heard you sing on the radio Saturday morning over at WHXY and she sez, Margie sez to me…”

“What?”

“She sez, Junior, that’s Rev’s wife on the radio.  I sez yes I believe it is and Margie sez, Miz Jones sings like a man.  And then she sez…she sings like a colored man.”

“No!  She did not!”

Mother put her hand over her heart.

“Junior, please tell her I am honored. Do you want to hear my new song?”

“Course I do.”

“I got the idea from my mother.”

She picked up her guitar, strummed and sang,

Don’t try to cross that river that you cannot see
Don’t try to tunnel through that mountain that may not be.

She stopped to explain the arrangement she heard in her head.

“And then backup singers come in behind me and then,”

For by tomorrow all your fears
May up and slip away
All the clouds of darkness
May turn to day
For all the trouble you have feared
You’ll find there’s grace to borrow
So let tomorrow be until tomorrow

Junior, always an active listener, said,

“Uh huh.  You tell it.”

“What do you think?”

“It’s a good one. You sure do turn a song into a lesson.”

“It’s the way my songs come to me. Back when we were gettin’ our last baby
and I was so sick, I called up my mother and she was upset that I was
expecting again but then when I told her I was scared about it she said, ‘Don’t borrow trouble.  Let tomorrow be.'”

“I don’t know how you do that.  Write a new song good as any on the radio.”

“It’s my gift from the Lord, Junior.  All my songs will be on the radio.  I know they will.”

********

Here’s Fern’s recording of Let Tomorrow Be from the 1958 album
Fern Jones/The Glory Road
Featured in
The Leftovers HBO Season 2, Episode 1, “Axis Mundi”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzNRpKeEfPI

 

On The Glory Road – The Music Moves

While Daddy was a young man attending shape-note singing lessons taught in a country church by traveling sheet music salesmen, Mother was lying about her age to sing in honky-tonks.  When they got together, things got interesting.  They mixed her Saturday night and his Sunday morning sound and made a whole new thing.  After WWII they moved their music out of  churches and took it on the road.

I hope you’ll follow along each week as I  post updates from The Glory Road projects.  It began with short stories and essays, next a stage play (a story for another day) and now a book manuscript. My goal is to help preserve the music and these glimpses of American history.

Early recordings blended Mother’s honky-tonk alto with Daddy’s hill country tenor.  Years later, their recordings have been re-mastered, re-released and are heard everywhere, on television, in movies, on the radio, on streaming services and everywhere music is available.

Here’s an excerpt from the book manuscript.

 All Day Singing With Dinner On The Grounds.

Kousin Karl took the stage and the crowd shook off their post-dinner torpor, ready to be entertained.  He welcomed everyone back and made a few announcements, ending by reminding us there’d be plenty of food left out there at suppertime.  After the crowd rustled and scraped and quieted some, he hollered,

“Ladies and gentlemen – THE JONESES!”

Daddy called out the key to the pickup band. A piano player started off and the crowd laughed as they caught on to what was happening.  Brother Janway eased in from the side, chasing the first piano player away.  He bounced around, playing some boogie woogie first, then slid into the intro to the familiar song Daddy and Mother were about to sing.

Daddy paced and grinned, guitar strap slung over one shoulder, strumming as he walked over to the piano shaking his head, pretending to be shocked at Brother Janway’s antics.  The two buddies always had fun up there and their schoolboy foolishness had everyone smiling.  

When Mother joined Daddy onstage, he moved over next to her and leaned in so close it looked like he was about to kiss her, then he stepped away again, always in motion before returning to share the mic with her. They started off on one of Daddy’s favorites, with Mother taking the lead and him singing harmony.

       By and by, when the morning comes

       All the saints of God are gathered home

       We will tell the story, how we’ve overcome

       And we’ll understand it better, by and by

Daddy was always a crowd-pleaser yet it appeared to be accidental. He never held onto a note any longer than he had to.  When she sang she laid every ounce of emotion she could muster into a note before sending it out to the audience.

Here are Sister Fern and Brother Ray singing “By & By” from their first album, “The Joneses Sing,” recorded in the 1950’s.

On lead guitar, fellow evangelist, Brother Gene Thompson

On The Glory Road

The Glory Road is where I spend most of my time these days, immersed in the book manuscript. Interested parties ask, why aren’t you blogging about that?   Starting with this week’s post, I’ll share some of the process while putting together this multi-media project about the life of my family.

We traveled the Deep South in the 1950’s, carrying songs from then to now.  Today the music Mother and Daddy recorded, much of it written by Mother, Sister Fern Jones, is heard everywhere.  Brother Ray Jones (Daddy) added harmony and rhythm guitar.

I’ll add photos and music from time to time and if you want a reminder about each week’s post, you can sign up on this page where it says “Subscribe to blog via email.”

Here are a couple of paragraphs from The Glory Road book manuscript:

Daddy was the sheriff of Mayberry with a deep Southern drawl and a Bible in his hand. Tall and good looking and enormously likable, he was in possession of both the strength and the patience of a natural leader. Mother was a pretty and provocative teenaged honky-tonk queen turned into a preacher’s wife and gospel singer. 

We were gospel gypsies, short on money, heavy in equipment, stopping to perform at Singings, at churches, under revival tents and at radio stations. We spent much of the 1950’s in our old sedan, traveling the Deep South wherever his calling to preach and her calling to sing took us. The front seat made the decisions while the back seat waited to see where we’d be living for the next few weeks….

Here’s gospel-to-rockabilly in one song, “Keeps Me Busy”  from the album “Fern Jones, The Glory Road.”  Re-mastered by Jeff Lipton at Peerless Mastering in Boston and released by Numero Group out of Chicago.  The original was recorded in the 1950’s at the Bradley Brothers’ famous Quonset Hut in Nashville. Guitar licks from legendary Hank Garland. While recording this album, all the studio musicians were also working with Elvis over at RCA.

More about projects at http://www.thegloryroad.com/