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.
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.
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.
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!”
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
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.
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.
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.