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 grasp the story told in this song the way it could be until I heard George Beverly Shea sing it on one of Billy Graham’s early radio shows. Oh that’s how it’s supposed to sound. I announced to Daddy I didn’t want to sing it anymore.
A voice like this is what the song requires. This is Larry Wayne Morbitt singing at a Gaither Gospel TV show. Larry toured with Phantom of the Opera. He can hit those notes.
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.
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.
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?”
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 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.
A version of this story appeared in Reminisce Magazine.