Sister Fern’s California dream
Not her actual car, but one like it
Here are two things that happened for the first time when we moved to California in the 1950s. Daddy pursued recreational gardening. Mother got a Cadillac to celebrate her recording contract. She never wanted to drive but she wanted that car so she got a driver’s license.
Brother Ray pictured a delicate dichondra lawn –
– planted right up to the edges of the driveway. Those two-lane designs were called “ribbon” driveways.
A bit of background. Daddy, the oldest of ten, was recruited to work the cotton fields with his sharecropping family all through his childhood. After he became a parent himself, when we stayed in one place for a while he planted vegetables to help feed us. When we got to California he indulged in the joy of growing things just for the beauty of them.
We didn’t see much dichondra In the South. We saw lawns with hard-working grass like St. Augustine, so sturdy a farmer bragged, “You can park a tractor out there, move the tractor and that grass pops right back up.” But Daddy wanted the fragile stuff and that’s what he planted around their Glendale, California home. Dichondra isn’t really like growing grass. It’s more like raising a baby. Grown adults down on their knees trimming it with tiny clippers. He was willing to put in the work.
Picture that giant pink Cadillac operated by an uncertain driver, approaching lanes even thinner than the driveway pictured here. My brother, Leslie Ray, and I had moved into our own apartments but when we stopped by to visit we speculated about how the struggle between dichondra and Cadillac might go. We felt sorry for the green stuff. We figured If you were an innocent lawn growing right up to the edge of the driveway and you spotted that giant pink fishtailed hunk of metal coming at you, you’d probably be terrified.
It’s a wonder the dichondra didn’t die from Cadillac fright. It was obviously in some distress. Examples of previously missed driveway attempts by the Cadillac were starting to show when Mother parked. There were streaks of brown dirt where green once grew. Tires had wandered a bit. Mother didn’t mention it. Daddy didn’t mention it. We stopped by to visit, saw the damage and we didn’t mention it either.
Daddy took to watching the driveway when he expected her home. As soon as the pink chariot approached, he was out the door, gave her a big smile and held up his hand to stop her as she was about to turn in.
“Just a minute, Doll-Baby. Let me get that for you.”
She pretended it was normal to exit her car at the far end of the driveway out by the street. He pretended it had nothing to do with his lawn. He drove the car all the way to the rear when garages used to be behind the house. Backing out again? She never did. If there was no one around to back out for her, she’d wait.
Later, as she drove less, he finally persuaded her to sell the Cadillac and when she did she stopped driving completely. That seemed to work for both of them and the dichondra and we never heard Daddy complain about taking his Doll-Baby anywhere she wanted to go.
Leslie Ray’s first sports car, 1960s Glendale, California
This is my brother outside Gramma K’s house on Raymond Avenue in Glendale, with the Verdugo hills rising in the background. Gramma was the first of our Southern clan to move to California. Leslie stopped by to show her his latest car.
During his rebellious period in the late 50s, Leslie left our house in Louisiana to live with our mother’s mother. It wasn’t just teenage rebellion that brought him west. The car she promised to buy him had something to do with it. There was a great deal of bargaining between Gramma and our parents, who were always in motion, traveling the Deep South in their evangelist/pastor/gospel performing circles. Their nearly-grown son objected to every part of our life and threatened to run away from home.
This is not the car she bought. That first one was an old Pontiac that got him through Hoover High School, through plenty of traffic tickets and a months-long ban from Bob’s Drive-In. When the rest of our family joined him in California, Leslie taught me terrifying freeway merging lessons in that Pontiac.
The yellow car was many vehicles later, one of several sports cars he bought on his own and drove too fast. Then there was a plane, then motorcycles he raced. Nothing slowed him down.
This next picture was years later when we all gathered at Gramma’s for one of our Sunday suppers.
Leslie Ray is reacting the way he always did
when Gramma scolded.
She’s re-telling the story about how many times she took his car keys away during high school and hung them on a nail in the kitchen. She confiscated the keys after each infraction and threatened to leave them there, but he always knew he could charm her into giving them back. When the nail wasn’t displaying my brother’s car keys, it was holding her beloved Vidalia onions.
All of us who traveled Route 66 back and forth from the South to California brought her Vidalias when we could get them. Gramma added a thick slice of sweet onion to her morning biscuits, her Southern tradition continuing in Southern California. To hang onions from that nail, she dropped an onion into the toe of an old stocking, tied a knot, dropped in another one and kept knotting until she had a pearly Vidalia necklace.
I’m working on a collection of stories and essays and while the dramatic milestones, the setbacks and the triumphs get much of the attention, every now and then one of these small moments nudges, wanting to be heard. Today I’m thinking of my tall and charming, silly and stubborn brother.
It’s Hollywood in the 1950’s. It’s the high school cruise. We’re up and down Hollywood Boulevard then looping over to Sunset and back. We’re listening to the radio and sticking our heads out car windows, greeting students from other towns whose radios are also blasting KFWB.
KFWB’s disc jockeys, the Seven Swinging Gentlemen, are celebrities. We know where the studios are and we know we aren’t allowed up there on the second floor at 6419 Hollywood Blvd., but we like being close to the stardust, so we honk each time we pass the building.
Decades later, I met Elliot Field, the last of the Gentlemen, through Don Barrett, Los Angeles radio guru, and we were immediately friends and collaborators on two books.
Conversations with Elliot are adventures. He’s multi-talented. He’s brilliant. He’s feisty. And who gets to have hair like this in his 90’s?
Now he’s talking about a new book. He’s written a few pages and do I want to hear? What he read to me a few days ago is visceral and beautiful. Do I think we should do this one more time? He has things he’d like to say. About being one of the early polio cases during the gruesome era of iron lungs and leg braces.
As told in his first book, getting the job at KFWB presented challenges none of us listeners knew about. The fact that the Hollywood Boulevard studios were on the second floor meant planning ahead to navigate steps in heavy metal braces to get to the microphone in time to do his show.
He’d like to share some thoughts on what life is like now, about how polio affects aging and vice versa. I urged him to do it because when Elliot tells a story, it’s worth listening to. His goal this time is to write brief essays about different aspects of his life in Palm Springs today and he’s offering to share his experiences with individuals and organizations that can use the information.
One worry he has about putting together a new book is losing the word he’s reaching for. He said when we started this phone conversation he had a word in mind and now it was gone. Did I think we could put together a book, even if he loses a word now and then? Yes I do. I’ll try to help fetch lost words. One idea – I can be his thesaurus, suggesting words until one comes close. Another device that might work – changing the subject, stop grasping for the missing word and see if it’ll drift back in. We agreed to get started and were about to say goodbye when he said,
“Dinosaur. That’s the word I was looking for. That’s what I am,” he said. “Not complaining. Just stating a fact.”
Timeless. Wise. Witty. Those are words I’d suggest.
In his first book, Elliot wanted to end with his greatest hope, staying vertical, so here’s where we left off. Stay tuned for the next chapter.
It’s the last leaf in the plant pot.
It stands up straight and tall and proud.
I so admire its presence and strength.
The other leaves are bent, bowed, and almost horizontal.
One is vertical.
I’ve always admired vertical.
I think vertical is worth the effort.
It’s not an easy way.
It’s not uncomplicated.
But, I’ve always felt it’s worth the effort.
I water and feed Mister Vertical.
He responds with strength.
The other leaves also get water and food.
I’m always hoping they’ll stand up.
One of them is really making an effort.
We know the time will come when all of the leaves will lie down,
Will rest forever.
Meanwhile, I’m feeding all of them,
And cheering on the survivors.
After childhood years spent hanging around with prolific quilters, I remain untalented in that department, but I’m an appreciator. When Leslie Ray and I were little, quilts were a big part of our lives. We touring Gospel Gypsies slept on pallets on the floor made of piles of old quilts. When Daddy pastored, congregations furnished the parsonage with everything we needed. Colorful quilts arrived, many of them made from scraps of cloth that had already seen several lives.
Those were my favorites. Each square came with stories attached. Stories were vital for young children without roots. I remember specific quilt squares. I remember tears in the eyes of a woman piecing together a tribute to someone recently departed.
The quilts in our life weren’t fancy patterns. They were patchwork, a piece of a skirt a little girl wore to school, a snippet of one of her brothers’ shirts, flour sack remnants. Some quilts were thicker than others, stuffed with batting inside for warmth, and while they did the job during cold winter nights, the insides eventually separated and formed clumps. Nobody cared. Nobody treated the clumpy quilts different because of their shape.
We traveled the Deep South in the 50’s with old quilts in every condition. When they were finally no more than shreds, Daddy and Leslie Ray wrapped them around the amplifier and guitars and microphones and other equipment in the trunk.
When we stayed a while in parsonages, we kids went along to Quiltings. A Quilting was a regularly scheduled gathering of a group of women in the home of whichever one had a quilting frame. The frames were big wooden things suspended up near the ceiling and lowered by a rope pulley.
Quilts-in-progress came down when the ladies arrived and chairs were situated all around, where a roomful of women making tiny stitches connected colorful pieces of cloth. Their hands moved in age-old rhythms while they engaged in conversation.
In addition to plain old everyday necessary quilts, a quilting group took turns working on each other’s special items. A quilt for a new baby. Graduation. Engagement. Hope chest. Wedding. Shut-ins.
We kids were allowed to stretch out on the floor under the quilting frame and because we were out of sight, the ladies forgot little children were listening. After any Quilting, my brother and I left with more information than we should have.
When it was time for refreshments, we made our presence known. In every Southern home, whatever the economic resources or lack of them, some cook had a specialty that showed up when the quilting sisters came over.
A few years back, I mentioned to friend, Barbara, that I no longer have even a remnant of a family quilt. She, a San Francisco jazz singer with many other talents, took my sad story to heart and made me this lovely piece. She handed it over saying, “Now you have a quilt.”
I still love most old things better than most new things, but this wall hanging Barbara made is the exception. Not long after she completed it, she was gone. Another quilting story for another time.
This is one of our good Sundays. Preacher’s son in a respectable suit. Preacher’s daughter in a cotton print. New baby…they’ll get to her soon.
Here comes summer in the Deep South, early 1950’s. Daddy in white dress shirt and tie, double-breasted seersucker suit. Panama hat. Polished shoes. Leslie Ray wanting nothing more than one of those suits for himself. He was still in his old gabardine. He liked dressing up and wasn’t interested in everyday clothes.
Cotton was what kids in our town wore to school. Nicely faded shirts on farm boys, girls in prints, some made from flour sacks, others from the yard goods store in Courthouse Square. Everybody looked alike. We started out fine in our new school and then Mother got restless.
She was a creative insomniac. At night she wrote songs. She painted. She baked risin’ bread and clover leaf rolls. She sewed. After she invented her famous plastic and nylon net corsages and sewed up all the clingy jersey dresses her closet could hold, she turned her attention to us. We’d been down this road before, roped into her projects, protesting all the way. Daddy was exempt because a Southern Preacher dressed a certain way and that was that.
Mother announced she’d bought some McCall’s patterns for boys’ shirts and girls’ dresses. She put them together with slippery, man-made fabric in big flowered prints and sent us off to school, me wearing an unusual dress with loads of trim and my brother in a short-sleeved flowered shirt with fancy shaped pockets. We hated those clothes. We didn’t want to be polyester kids in an all-cotton world.
My brother was quick with a solution. His new shirt didn’t remain intact even one full day. He came home with both pockets dangling and some flimsy (to my ear) story about how it happened. I was jealous I hadn’t thought of a way to injure my new dress. Playing tag at school soon did it. One sash pulled right out of the back and before going home, I helped the other one rip. I put on a sad face when I revealed the damage. Mother said,
“You won’t be getting any more pretty dresses like that one, missy.”
And to my brother,
“What were you thinking, playing rough like that in your good shirt?”
Our reprieve came when we learned we were getting us a baby. Gramma K came back down South from California to stay a while. She was an expert seamstress, with her own peculiar tastes in children’s clothes. The baby arrived and immediately Sister Fern and Gramma K started their competitive back and forth about what the baby would wear. Though both designed original garments, their output was nothing you’d want to see on an infant. Here’s a scene from The Glory Road:
Mother was confined to bed. Church people immediately adopted our baby as their own. The Women’s Missionary Council made baby blankets and quilts with thousands of tiny stitches. They chose pink and jonquil colored flannel and sewed it into soft gowns and they prepared the baby for her attendance at future church services by trimming the smallest dresses I had ever seen with embroidery and crocheted edgings.
These women who looked after their own husbands and families and kept clean houses and cooked three meals a day and worked in the garden too, also produced exquisite handwork and with their investment of time, they rendered the start of a new life profound.
Their work was so delicate, it was like Cinderella’s ball gown in the movie. Disney creatures brought Cinderella’s dress to life, all of it removed from reality, with fantasy embellishments drifting into place. That’s how beautiful our baby’s new wardrobe was.
Churchwomen came over and stayed to talk with Gramma K , who appeared at the kitchen table wearing full makeup and flashy jewelry and her California clothes. Sister Coker was the voice for all the other churchwomen, and she enjoyed a special relationship with Mother. Nothing Mother did or said seemed to bother her, and vice versa. Sister Coker assured Gramma the Jones baby would want for nothing.
In our church, babies were dedicated, but not sprinkled. The water was saved for later. By age 12, which was considered the Age of Reason, there would be full-immersion baptizing in a nearby creek.
There was talk of the women making a special dress for the dedication. Gramma got her dander up.
“I believe I’m capable of making what my grandbaby will wear.”
Sister Coker, experienced with the opinions of strong women, put on her most reasonable tone.
“Oh Miz Kalbaugh, we thought with all you have to do…”
“Yes, I am busy…”
Gramma was in charge now.
“…so I guess we could put our heads together and come up with something…”
“Oh having your help will be such a blessing!” Sister Coker beamed as if she had all the time in the world and nothing would give her greater pleasure than to come over to our house and soothe the two high-strung women in residence.
Daddy would say the prayers of dedication over his infant, and Mother, when she got well enough, would stand in front of the congregation holding our new baby, the way it had been done forever. Sister Booty said,
“Maybe we should wait on the dedication until Sister Fern feels better and let her decide about the dress. Lord knows she’s so artistic, she might already have something in mind.”
Mother sent word out from the bedroom that she would be happy for the church’s assistance with the dedication dress. She did have a preference. She wanted the dress made of dotted swiss, the softest they could find, on a pastel colored background. If the yard goods store had only the stiffer kind of dotted swiss, would the women please soak it in Ivory Snow first to soften it? And could they make a little slip of lawn to wear underneath, and trim it with grosgrain ribbon to match the dotted swiss? No sooner were her wishes expressed than the women were on their way to turning them into reality.
From her bedroom and with the help of the women in our congregation, Mother began designing clothes for the baby like nothing she’d made before. They were beautiful and appropriate. Our baby had a few years ahead of looking good until Sister Fern regained her full strength.
While choosing photos for my book, The Glory Road, here’s one that fell out during scrapbook page-turning. Find a picture, tell a story. It’s the law. If it isn’t, it should be. Here’s a story with a song from the 1950’s.
My curly-headed Mother, Sister Fern, on the right with her bobby pins springing out all around, next to her wavy-haired Mother, Gramma K, whose hair did what she wanted it to.
Curls were never going to be all right with Mother, when what she craved were some of those wide waves women made with giant metal wave clips. No matter how many clips she used, within hours her curls defied her.
There might have been no performances under all those revival tents without Vaseline. She greased up her curls and pinned then down with high resolve and after a short while, the bobby pins squirmed out again and she re-applied her Vaseline, sometimes several times on a particularly troublesome day. Then the tears started.
Curly headed girls, she told us, were not presently in style. She took it as a personal insult that she was forced to remain curly-headed during a wavy-haired fashion period. On the way to performances in the Deep South during the summer, sometimes her largest concern was frizz. Not what she would sing. Not which musicians and quartets would accompany her, but how long before curly became frizzy. The weather could turn on you just like that.
The remarkable thing was the amount of patience Daddy showed. No matter how many times she burst into tears worrying about her hair, he rushed to reassure her, his voice never showing a hint of strain.
As Leslie Ray and I became more proficient at saying things we didn’t mean, we imagined Daddy must have been answering by rote all those years. If so, he’d never admit it. That wouldn’t be chivalrous. One of the traits that made him a popular preacher was his ability to reassure over and over again as if this was the first time he’d ever been consulted about a particular dilemma.
From The Glory Road play, here’s a glimpse of Brother Ray and his favorite curly-headed singer.
1950’s. Deep South. Outside a big revival tent. A quartet sings inside while Sister Fern waits to be introduced by her husband, Brother Ray. But she’s not inside yet so he asks the quartet to keep singing while he goes to check on her.
RAY There you are sugar! I was
startin’ to get worried. How’re you feeling?
FERN Honey, is my hair frizzy? Because it feels frizzy.
All this humidity.
RAY (moves in close, touches her hair)
No, darlin’ your hair’s not frizzy. It’s curly is all.
You’re my big ol’ doll-baby with big ol’
FERN (takes out compact mirror, checks herself)
Are you sure? Because I can’t sing when my hair’s frizzy.
RAY (closes the compact gently, his fingers over hers)
One of Brother Ray’s favorite duets with Sister Fern.
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 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 laid the tent sections flat on the ground then pushed them up with big tent poles and stretched 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 rolled up and deposited a piano. Daddy directed 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!”
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.
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’sThe 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 his wife, Marge, Brother Ray and Sister Fern are close friends during a time when white people and black people live on different sides of town. Junior comes over every day to work on the house and on this day, he’s trying to persuade 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 new 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 made 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…”
“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”
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