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 – Harmony In The Car

My brother and I were not happy little harmonizers on The Glory Road.   Daddy was following his calling to preach, Mother followed her calling to sing, but we two believed our true calling was to amble down a country road somewhere that led to a house of our own, a school we’d go to every day, and friends who’d know us from one year to the next. Just because you can sing harmony it doesn’t mean you always want to.

We were on the tent revival circuit, booked for months in advance and from time to time the family needed to refresh our presentation. Daddy said we’d best practice before we get to Amarillo. He enticed us into learning our parts by singing songs we liked on the radio. We started off with The Sons Of The Pioneers’ Tumbling Tumbleweeds and when we had our parts down on that one, he switched to What A Friend We Have In Jesus in the same key.

Long stretches of Route 66 through the Deep South offered nothing to look at except tumbleweeds, giant puffs of them rolling free on the highway or stuck to a fence.  Daddy played a game with them.

A huge tumbleweed clump was minding its own business somewhere in Texas and as we got closer it loomed about half-a-car size. The motion of our big old sedan invited it to dance.  It floated up and plopped on the windshield, covering the view.  Leslie Ray said, Daddy you better stop but Daddy said, watch this.

Instead of stopping and freeing the thing, his game was to keep driving and speed up, then brake quickly trying to get it to release itself.  Man against nature.  It wasn’t safe, but not much about car travel was back then.

Here are The Sons Of The Pioneers helping two young Gospel Gypsies learn harmony.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzxz0M7Wws0