As of June, 2021, I’ve lived longer than anyone else in three generations of my family, longer than grandparents, longer than Mother and Daddy, longer than my sisters and brothers. None of them got to be 80, the number I’m now celebrating. Getting to be 80 years old doesn’t feel like a random event. It feels momentous.
I’m not the only one among my kinfolk with hopes and dreams and plans and I’m mindful of many opportunities the people who came before didn’t have. I was present at the end of the lives of some of them and heard first-hand what they wished they could have stayed around to accomplish.
One of the last things Mother said to me was, “You’re lucky you were born when you were. You have choices I never had.” Both those things are true. I remain in awe of all she accomplished during her time, in places and ways no one could have predicted. I hope somehow she knows how it all turned out.
At the end of Daddy’s life, he exhibited no restlessness about his closing chapters. He spoke only of gratitude. “I have had me some beautiful morning walks.” I wish he could have had many more.
During my 80th year I have the privilege of holding in my hand a book just published. My family lived it but I was the one who lived long enough to write about it.
I’m a person of faith so none of this feels accidental or coincidental. Wherever the stories come from, in whatever form they want to take, written or spoken, I’ll keep putting them together, though perhaps not as driven as Mother and a bit more grateful like Daddy.
Mahalia Jackson, Born 1911, New Orleans, Louisiana Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Born 1915, Cotton Plant, Arkansas Fern Jones, Born 1923, El Dorado, Arkansas
These three women have much in common. The one pictured with a fan, bottom right, is my mother. Each of them, not far apart in age and born into poor families, sang church music in ways it hadn’t been heard before and took a lot of criticism for it. They moved obstacles to make things happen by force of talent and conviction, strong will, and once in a while a skillfully applied dab of charm.
I’ve recently watched profiles of two of them. “Robin Roberts Presents Mahalia”and from PBS, “American Masters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Godmother Of Rock and Roll.” Observing them at work brought familiar memories. Though I never met two of those ground-breaking women, our family heard much from mother about Mahalia and Sister Rosetta and we witnessed the one we were raised with displaying her own spine of steel, standing firm about every detail of her dream.
All three of them knew exactly what they wanted. Where did they get the gumption? The surety? The belief that the way they heard a song was the way a song was meant to sound, before anyone else sang like them? Each of them faced a combination of challenging circumstances: Poverty. Segregation. A recording industry that released only specific styles. Radio stations that didn’t play their kind of music. Fern moved straight out of honky-tonks in the Deep South into marriage with a poor country preacher and still she held onto her style until congregations eventually embraced the way she sang songs about Jesus
Fern didn’t sound like a white woman singing church music. She sounded like a Black artist and her gospel was infused with something about to become rockabilly or rock and roll, whatever the world would name it next.
Mother moved circumstances around to get every situation as close to what she envisioned as possible, all of this with no money and no connections. My brother and I watched her chatting with musicians, asking them to change something they were playing. No detail escaped her. Before letting loose with a song, she conferred with announcers and radio hosts and MCs about the exact introduction she preferred.
This display of willpower from a person with no power still surprises, but maybe it shouldn’t. Looking back at gatherings where our family was preparing to sing, I remember many times a musician would play something new, a changed tempo or a nice little run he’d thought up and Fern, employing both looks and charm, would place a hand on an arm, lean in a bit and compliment the player, then pause and say something like this,
“I like it. But let’s just try it this way first and see where it lays.”
“See where it lays” was Fern’s version of “Bless your heart, but we’ll be doing it my way.” She was committed to singing a song the way she said it “came to her.” Through the years she absorbed licks from other talented performers, of course she did, but they were always going to come out sounding like Fern.
Mahalia, Rosetta and Fern sang some of the same songs, “Precious Lord,”“Strange Things Happening” and “Didn’t It Rain.” Mother said after her Nashville recording sessions in the 50s, her record company president wanted the first single from the album to be one of the spirituals recorded earlier by Mahalia and Rosetta. Mother reminded him they had an agreement that her first release would be an original, one of the songs she wrote. As a result of their battle, nothing was released. The album was shelved in the late 50s and she fought the rest of her life to regain her masters. She won. We have them. Numero Group now handles all her music.
Here are these three women singing their versions of “Didn’t It Rain.”Rosetta takes out after it on guitar. Mahalia just flat lays it out for us, her way. Sister Fern’s having a great time with Hank Garland on guitar and Floyd Cramer on piano.
Our esteemed host, Don Barrett, invited me to tell the story about one more media person’s memoir – mine. It’s been in the works for a while and now it’s in the “Coming Soon” category. Here’s the cover.
Turning the tables on Don, I should let you know that he’s been part of this project from way back. We met when he was writing his first book, “Los Angeles Radio People” in the 90s. Thousands of people from around the world visit his site, laradio.com, every day. Click his artwork above to join them.
Don was conducting one of his thorough interviews about my time on the air and we bonded over the fact that both of our mothers had ALS and we were caring for them.
I showed him a short story, material planned for a someday book about my gospel-singing family and our life in the Deep South during the 1950s. He sent the story to a friend in the movie industry whose wife was an agent. She liked the material and asked if I’d adapt it for the stage. I did and we had play readings in Los Angeles, so though I haven’t been steadily working on this book since the 90’s when I met Don, pieces of it did exist back then.
I knew I needed to finish telling the stories I’d begun, so I set myself the task of finishing a book manuscript by a certain date in 2017, pulling out reams of stories and rough chapter outlines and notes on scraps of paper and putting in long days and nights until it was ready.
I submitted to a university press in the Deep South. The Glory Road:A Gospel Gypsy Life, is a first-person memoir, but it’s more like a novel about some colorful characters I’m related to, singers and songwriters and musicians, with American music history woven through. It takes place during times of enormous change in music and religion, when Saturday night came to Sunday mornings, when my family’s gospel music merged with rockabilly and church became entertainment.
My brother and I sang harmony with the family and lived much of our lives on Route 66 moving from tent revivals to radio stations to All Day Singings to churches and just about any place a microphone and amplifier and speakers were set up. I wanted this material and the music the family made to become part of Southern history. I learned that many university presses keep their books in circulation and keep printing for years into the future. That matters to me.
What does this have to do with radio? Just about everything. Without radio, my parents’ music wouldn’t have been heard by people who eventually recorded it, and who later offered Mother her own recording contract. We appeared on radio stations where the studio was in the antenna shack outside of town and other stations located in fancy hotels. My first radio appearance was on WDAK, Columbus, Georgia, at age three. No adjustable booms. Stand the little girl on a chair stacked with stuff until she can reach the mic and she’ll sing her part.
After my parents passed, a record label re-issued their music and it appears everywhere these days – movies, TV shows, downloads, wherever there’s music. I’ll post a couple of links that’ll take you to a current Netflix show soundtrack where my mother, Sister Fern Jones is singing and a wayback link to Johnny Cash singing a song she wrote.
My book releases April 21, 2021. Here’s the publisher.
And here’s a nice thing someone said about them.
“University presses have long been key in the literary ecosystem when it comes to issuing original, risky work, and ’Bama’s is one of the most innovative.”
Just this week, the contract arrived from my audio book publisher. Media people, especially voiceovers, tend to record their own manuscripts. I’m not doing that. I want to sit back and listen to someone else tell these stories.
I write a new blog about once a week here at this site Dave Williams (KLIF/Dallas) and I share. I write often about The Glory Road and sometimes I include excerpts from those days.
Here’s a song from Sister Fern. You can find others on You Tube.
And here’s a song she wrote, recorded by Johnny Cash with the Tennessee Two
Thanks, Don, for the invitation. It’s good to visit laradio.com. I do it every day.
This show is filled with good music – all kinds of music. Click the picture to hear my mother’s contribution.
Sister Fern’s on the soundtrack of the second season of this hit Netflix show. I watched the episode she’s in and it’s equal parts action and music, more music per show than I’ve seen, maybe ever.
Thanks to Numero Group, the fabulous restoration label that introduces Fern’s songs to a world she couldn’t have imagined. Bravo to show creators and producers, writers and directors and music supervisors for their choices of vintage music.
Mother’s heard in the first episode of season two, singing a song she wrote and recorded in Nashville in the 1950s. Here’s a sample of other songs in that same episode.
“Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale
“My Way” by Frank Sinatra
“Comin’ Home Baby” by Mel Tormé
“You Must Be An Angel” by Richard Myhill
“Beyond The Sea” by Bobby Darin
“I Wonder What the Future Holds for Me” by Glenn Snow
“You Only Want Me When You’re Lonely” by Jim Boyd
Right there in that list we’ve got some doo wop, some twang, some groovy finger-snappers and Sister Fern, who is sometimes unclassifiable.
Show description: Created for Netflix by Steve Blackman and developed by Jeremy Slater, it revolves around a dysfunctional family of adopted sibling superheroes who reunite to solve the mystery of their father’s death and the threat of an impending apocalypse.
A creative show with inspired music choices. Rock on, all y’all!
A tad fuzzy but I wanted to get closer on that corsage
The church lady on the right looks exactly the way many ladies looked in our Louisiana congregation in the 1950’s. On the left, Sister Fern is the gospel singing pastor’s wife wearing a slinky black dress and the big corsage.
From time to time we came off the road from our gospel tours when Daddy pastored a church for a while. On the road she wore jersey, which clung in the right places and moved even when she stood still. When she married the preacher, she gave up wearing makeup and raised her low-cut necklines a bit, but she still sought enhancement wherever she could find it.
She found it down at the yard goods store where she discovered polyester and nylon and plastic/vinyl in thin sheets and stiff netting and every other difficult-to-wear, artificial material available.
She made those corsages, huge prickly things they were, in every color. She cut out the petals using pinking shears, then wired the parts together with florist’s tape and bunches of nylon net. She formed all the parts into shapes resembling prom corsages – big ones – some even bigger than the one pictured. She was tall and her impressive front was built for displaying her creations and she wore some version of this every Sunday. Responding to compliments which may not have been solely directed at her corsage, she was happy to pass along details.
“You can suds them right in the sink, shake them and they’ll dry right off.”
Which doesn’t sound like a great endorsement for items meant to resemble flowers, but people kept saying nice things. This pleased her so much she made new ones, brighter and bigger, and gifted them to many church ladies. When I stood at the microphone on Sunday to sing with the family, I looked out at a garden of plastic and nylon net occupying the fronts of ladies in their cotton print Sunday best dresses.
Then her attention turned to making school clothes for my brother and me. Memories of a nylon dress and Leslie Ray’s matching shirt are still fresh and painful. More about them another time.
Meanwhile, here’s Sister Fern doing what she did best. Click the picture for a song.
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!”
Bogalusa, Louisiana 1955, a church under construction.
On the left, back row, are Brother Ray and Sister Fern Jones, Daddy and Mother. In the front row are deacons and farmers in their Sunday clothes, but it was the women in the back row holding everything together. Church Ladies helped raise my brother and me
Pioneer pastoring is what Daddy was good at. He conducted tent revivals, found followers, raised funds, built churches, grew congregations and then we moved along, back to the revival circuit where Mother sang for large audiences. Whether we were criss-crossing the Deep South or settling in one town for a while, church ladies were the constant.
At any gathering, an All-Day Singing or a regular Church Supper, the food was magnificent. Giant pots of soup and covered dishes with treasured family recipes, biscuits and risin’ rolls and cornbread and Jello molds and tables of baked goods and washtubs full of sweet tea at the end of each table.
Daddy’s sermons mentioned how we need to work down here to gain our rewards up in heaven. He told churchwomen they were earning extra stars in their crowns with their fine cooking. I gave an extra star to the ambrosia. Leslie Ray picked the platter of crispy chicken wings and deviled eggs on the side. Daddy hugged a woman over a pot of pintos with ham hocks. Mother, owner of the family’s most ardent sweet tooth, always started with dessert first.
Our Church Ladies didn’t have Costco or Crock pots, but they turned out food that fed multitudes of believers with plenty to share with backsliders.
Here’s Mother with a song that surely has some Church Ladies in it.
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.
Here’s how The Glory Road book became a play first. I began writing the book years ago, put it aside and turned to short stories. A Los Angeles broadcast buddy, Don Barrett, introduced me to estimable literary agent, Carol Schild, who suggested I make the stories into a play. Entertaining friends got together and we put on a show.
Multiple talents made up the casts, offering suggestions all along. There were revisions and more revisions, all valuable lessons for a first-time playwright. I was new to it. They weren’t.
Both directors, David Atkinson and Greg (North) Zerkle, (accomplished actors and directors – and boy can they sing!) are friends I met at church in Los Angeles. The casts for each show started in our congregation and kept extending out to performing friends of friends. The church we had in common was Little Brown Church in Studio City which grew into Church Of The Valley, Van Nuys. These two congregations were (and still are) populated with singers and musicians and dancers and writers and actors and radio and television and movie and Broadway babies.
I keep rewrite notes attached to each of these script versions in the picture above. Once the new book is launched, I hope to see The Glory Road onstage again, full throttle, lots of music and our show’s Southern Gospel quartet in matching jackets, beautiful harmony, Ray and Fern and their big love story and big conflicts.
Here’s a version of the song we opened with onstage. Our quartets rocked! Written in the 1950’s by Lee Roy Abernathy, this version of “He’s A Personal Savior” is performed by the Gaither Vocal Band.
Bonus – another Lee Roy Abernathy song he’s most famous for. Performed here by The Blackwood Brothers. Originally titled “A Wonderful Time Up There,”it quickly became known as “Gospel Boogie.”This one’s made for a bass singer. This version is by Brian Free & Assurance.
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.