Whispering Hope on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

Here’s Mother’s new pastor’s wife costume. At Daddy’s request, she’d already raised her plunging necklines and toned down the amount of cling in her skirts, but this was as far as she was willing to go.  She left honky tonks behind to follow him, but she never renounced her fondness for clothes that were shiny.

My brother and I heard Daddy’s carefully chosen words about the proper apparel for each church occasion and when Mother stepped outside the parsonage to go to the funeral that day, we caught a glimpse of his expression in the second it took him to hide his surprise with a compliment. He told her she looked so beautiful he should take a picture.  She beamed.  He clicked this one and off we went.

It was a summer funeral on a day hot enough to require the use of the paper fans provided by the funeral home.

Past rows and rows of men in dark suits and church women wearing black and brown and navy, Sister Fern, a beacon glowing in satin and perspiration,  stepped near the coffin to sing.

One of the songs requested often for funerals during the 1950’s in the Deep South was “Whispering Hope.”  Mother loved a church organ, but not many of our churches had one, and when she recorded her first album this is the only song she  recorded with an organ.

Here’s “Whispering Hope,” written in the early 1900’s and interpreted here in the 1950’s by Sister Fern Jones with The Revelators Quartet.

 

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.

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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!”

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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/

 

 

 

Bacon has magic in it.

 

Bacon has magic in it.  The aroma.  The sizzle.  The taste.  The grease.  Bacon grease is a staple for Southern-born cooks.  We put it in cornbread and biscuits and a good gravy roux isn’t possible without it. Sometimes it’s butter and bacon grease creamed together, but only one of those is crucial.

Gramma kept a grease can like this near her stove.  It had a strainer inside because some people filter out the chunky bits.

 

 

Here’s my jar.  Layers of delicious bits are in here. I scoop them up and they go right into my cooking.  When the jar runs low, I render bacon just to refill it. Put bacon on to cook and every creature in the house gravitates to the source. Two times lately I’ve been cooking up a couple of pounds of bacon while repair people were here working. The refrigerator service person and the pilot light fixer both left with slices of bacon and paper towels.

I come from a family of gospel gypsies, led through life on the road in the Deep South by a preacher and a singer. Our big sedan was filled with musical instruments and Daddy’s cooking implements. A cast iron skillet went everywhere with us, providing suppers from hot plates in motor court kitchenettes. A jar of bacon grease made every trip.  Sometimes supper was only cream gravy, featuring fresh milk from a nearby dairy, poured over anything – rice, potatoes, or leftover biscuits, and in a pinch, over white bread we picked up at our last stop.

If we stayed at a tent revival site for a couple of weeks, we’d get fresh churned butter nearby, which of course, didn’t go on the road with us when we left, but the bacon grease jar, refreshed, emptied and cleaned, was the constant companion.

A sale on thick-cut bacon is still cause for celebration around here.  There’s always room in the freezer.

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Music this week is “Tea For Two” from our friend, Colin Tribe, in England.

 

 

 

Children at funerals

What is the advantage in taking young children to funerals?  In my humble opinion, their presence exposes them to indelible images that may later prove even harder to deal with.

I was raised in the Deep South during the 1950’s and our culture of dealing with death and the departed included the family’s insistence on an open casket if at all possible.  Coffin lids were closed only in cases of extreme disfigurement.  After the service at the home of family members or in the church social hall where casseroles were consumed, much was made over how the deceased appeared in death.  “Didn’t she look good?  And words meant to be a comfort – “They did such a good job with his hair, didn’t they?  Looked just like he did last week.”

Funerals were loud affairs with sobbing and moans mixed in among the amens and exhortations from the preacher.  Demonstrations of grief were many and varied.  Eulogists offered proclamations about the virtues of the departed while singers invariably waved handkerchiefs around – using them to mop sweat during humid summer events  or to dab tears away when the singer knew the departed, and sometimes a handkerchief was merely one more dramatic device. 

Good music at our funerals was a matter of pride and if a home congregation didn’t boast singers of the right caliber, a call went out to find someone who could offer the best interpretation of the songs the family chose.  A funeral was quite a show and I guess our people considered them a healthy way to get it all out, because folks would respond to a wail with, “That’s right!  Let it go, sister!”

Children attended these services.  I was a child myself when my preacher-father required me to sing at funerals.  Very soon (I started singing at funerals at the age of 9) I learned to avert my eyes because gazing on a coffin, even when I’d never met the departed, was disconcerting.

Some people today believe that taking children to funerals provides “closure” or at least a step toward that desired condition.  I believe nothing can provide closure to a fatherless or motherless child.  Of course many parent-less children grow up to thrive and even devote resources to championing help for other children without parents.

But all of this is to say that I wouldn’t voluntarily open up a discussion with a young child based on the theme, “He’s gone and he’s never coming back.”  Those discussions will come soon enough and will likely last a lifetime.

Ó Anita Garner

Paperwhites – Bloom Where You’re Planted

My southern-preacher daddy often advised his congregation from the pulpit to “Bloom where you’re planted.”  He meant it in terms of doing good works, no matter where life takes you.  Another meaning of the phrase was evident in all his sermons as he exhorted the church to quit complaining and get on with what you’re put here to do.  

As a masterful gardener, daddy had an aversion to forcing blooms.  When pressured by mother, he’d cut flowers for her and bring them inside, one bloom at a time, in a small vase.  But he refused to buy hothouse flowers because of what he considered their unnatural growing conditions.  His theory about blooming where you’re planted was at odds with an industry’s need to “force” plants.

The root (sorry) of his aversion to cutting flowers may have been the fact that his family were farmers by occupation.  Some of them were sharecroppers and at other times they grew vegetable gardens and sold produce for a living.  Daddy gardened with his own daddy in order to survive. There was never time or space for recreational plants.

When we moved from the deep south to southern California, a new world grew outside.  Birds of Paradise.  Avocados.  Camellias.  For the first time, he had a pleasure garden and he delighted in tending plants that nobody had to have.  

At first he was apologetic about the rows of irises he planted around his vegetable patch, but soon delicate pansies lined the driveway out front.  He was fearless.  He’d try anything.  He coaxed to giant size some plants that shouldn’t have been able to thrive in Glendale, and later Palm Springs, California. 

To the end, he resisted indoor plants.

Daddy had been gone for years by the time I began putting narcissus bulbs in a pot on the windowsill during the winter. This year my small granddaughter helped pat the soil around the bulbs and give them a good long drink.  Every day we watch the shoots grow taller. 

I can’t wait to see her face when the first lacy white bloom pokes out.  Who am I kidding?  I plant these for me, for no purpose other than the pure enjoyment of watching them send up green shoots and then those blooms with the intense fragrance. 

If this is a kind of sinful excess, it’s one I intend to commit every year that I’m lucky enough to enjoy the winter light.  If Daddy were here, if he’d had a chance to meet his great-granddaughter, I’m guessing he’d make an exception.  He might find a way to include our windowsill garden in his definition of blooming where you’re planted.

Ó Anita Garner 2008