“Let’s see where it lays.” Three strong women assert their right to wail.

By Anita Garner

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.

“Didn’t It Rain” – Rosetta

“Didn’t It Rain” – Mahalia

“Didn’t It Rain”  – Fern

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New book available everywhere: “The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life”

Blessed Assurance

By Anita Garner

“This is my story, this is my song…”
Lyrics from the hymn, “
Blessed Assurance”

I’m watching “The Black Church” on PBS and though I’m not Black, the Sister Rosetta Tharpe story is familiar, told over and over in my family.

My mother’s path is Sister Rosetta’s in reverse. Rosetta came up through the church, singing and playing guitar and eventually took her music into nightclubs where her church shamed her for it. My mother, less than a decade younger than Rosetta, came up singing in clubs and on the radio by age 12, encouraged by her mother to let loose with the blues.

But Mother married a Pentecostal preacher, became “Sister Fern” and took her blues from Saturday night to Sunday morning. Gramma didn’t like Fern leaving “worldly” music, where she felt a bright future waited. Rosetta’s and Fern’s circumstances remain a pure reflection of the times and the power of music to endure.

Here’s the same song sung, “Strange Things Happening” by Sister Rosetta and Sister Fern.

Rosetta: https://youtu.be/YDdQPId5HuI

Fern: https://youtu.be/CS6vKdNQHqA

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Nashville 1959 – Ryman Auditorium – WSM – Smiles Before The Storm

 

By Anita Garner

Sister Fern Jones (Mother) with a fan

Mother’s dream had several parts.  Write songs.  Get somebody famous to record them.  Get a recording contract.  A pink Cadillac.  A mink stole. Sing at Ryman Auditorium.

Most of these had come true by the time this picture was taken at Nashville’s Deejay Convention in 1959. She appeared on Wally Fowler’s All Night Singing, originating from Ryman Auditorium, broadcast on WSM, standing alongside many Southern Gospel greats.  See her in the lineup in photos below. But the next part of the story was a storm of her own making.

When this picture came back from restoration, I was reminded of how much this looks like Fern’s happy ending, but indeed it was not.  It was just the start of her battles with the head of her record label, legal wrangling, waiting for a single from the album to be heard on radio, and the greatest  deterrent to a long tour, being away from Daddy.  She was nearly paralyzed without him nearby.

I’m in the editing process of my book, now called The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life, which will be released early next year from University of Alabama Press. This is the part where old pictures are restored to go into the book while I spend the next two weeks on the final, final pass through the manuscript.  When I send this version back to the Press it moves into copyedit, design, legal permissions (lots of songs quoted) and all the rest.

I’ll be right here with updates about my own dream, which includes telling family stories with a few songs attached.

 

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New book available everywhere

Country Music Connections

By Anita Garner

We’re still talking about Ken Burns Country Music on PBS. People who know about The Glory Road asked, so I’m answering questions about my family’s music and how our history fits into the decades depicted in the show.

Early in the series Ralph Peer set up recording equipment in the South and pickers and singers came down from the hills to start a  country music revolution. Ralph Peer connects to our family in more than one way. (See  below.)

In the early episodes there’s shape-note singing, taught in small country churches and sponsored by sheet music salespeople. Daddy (Brother Ray) was there, sent with his brothers and sisters by his Mama, who insisted everyone in their house would carry a tune.

Governor Jimmie Davis, Louisiana’s Singing Governor, was already famous for You Are My Sunshine when  he recorded a song Mother (Sister Fern) wrote.  He was responsible for the earliest acknowledgement of her songwriting.

Johnny Cash heard Jimmie Davis sing I Was There When It Happened on the radio in the early 50’s and learned the song to please his mother.  When my Mother wrote it, the deal she was offered to get it published was to sell half the copyright to Governor Davis, whose publisher was Ralph Peer. Today our family still shares the copyright with Peer Music.  Johnny continued to record and perform the song throughout his career. (See link below.)

When Johnny auditioned for Sun Records, he and the Tennessee Two, Marshall and Luther, sang the song for Sam Phillips who, it turned out, didn’t want to record any gospel. This story appears in the movie, Walk The Line. Marshall Grant, one of the Tennessee Two, wrote a book about his time with Johnny and titled it with Mother’s song.  His book, I Was There When It Happened, is still available, I believe.  Through the movie I met Dan John Miller, talented actor/singer/musician, who played Marshall in Walk The Line.  Dan John was kind enough to play Brother Ray at a Los Angeles reading of my play.

Nashville’s A Team, fabulous studio musicians, played on Sister Fern’s recording sessions at Owen and Hal Bradley’s Quonset Hut in Nashville.  When I was writing my book and musical, Hal was still playing sessions, and was President of Nashville Musicians Union.  He was generous with his time and advice.

Mac Wiseman, bluegrass star, introduced Mother to Randy Wood, President of Dot Records, where she got her own recording contract.

The Joneses made their records later in the 50’s and their music mostly falls into the rockabilly/Southern Gospel sound, but Daddy kept his hill country/high lonesome tenor.  He married it with Mother’s blues wail and honky tonk attitude while they sang songs about Jesus.  When their music was re-mastered and released by Numero Group in 2005, some of the earliest fans came from progressive radio and college radio stations who’ve embraced roots music all over again.

I’m glad the series was produced during a time when so many of the people who played significant roles were still around to tell their stories in their own words.  Sadly, we’ve lost several of these pioneers since the show began filming.   Praise is due Ken Burns and co-producers, Julie Dunfey and Dayton Duncan.  I’m in awe of Dayton’s writing. He’s a beautiful storyteller.  And of course there’s no voice like narrator, Peter Coyote’s.

Park Hill is the mansion Ralph Peer owned in the Hollywood Hills.  My daughter, Cathleen, later worked for Peer Music (with Ralph Peer Jr. in charge) while I was on the air at KBIG radio just around the corner. Here’s one view of the Peer mansion.  Tucked away in and around the estate are guest houses, a grotto, and Monique Peer’s (Ralph Sr.’s widow) prize camellias.  Lots of camellias.  This magnificent estate housed the headquarters of the publishing company.

Here’s where Cath sat at her desk, inside the entryway, writing the company newsletter.

Peer Music represents all the works of the man who some say started it all – Jimmie Rodgers.  Daddy revered him and Cath arranged for her Grandpa Ray to have copies of all Jimmie Rodgers’ recordings.

Here’s Johnny Cash singing Mother’s song, I Was There When It Happened, at Town Hall Party in Los Angeles.  Click the picture for the video

Here’s Mother, singing, Keeps Me Busy, a song from the Numero Group album, Fern Jones The Glory Road recorded with Nashville’s A Team.  Click the picture to listen.I wrote a story, Hank Williams Was A Friend of Mine, which won several awards, including a Marin County Arts Grant.  The friendship in the title refers to Daddy, who prayed for Hank every day. I’ll post it here one day.

For years I was a voiceover (V/O) for KCET-TV, PBS for Southern California.  Once in a while I got to say things like “Coming up tonight, Ken Burns’ (fill in the name of any of his films.)”

And one almost-connection.  I lived in Mill Valley, California for years.  In that very small town I often spotted fellow Mill Valley resident, Peter Coyote, actor/narrator, and I always meant to say, “Nice job on the Ken Burns (fill in the name of the show)” but I never did.

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How Daddy Got Us Our Mother

By Anita Garner                      Teenage Bride – Wedding day

A very short Mother’s Day story.

In El Dorado, Arkansas in 1939, Raymond Jones cooked at a local cafe where Fern Salisbury stopped after school for a Co-Cola. He’d learned to cook in Roosevelt’s CC camp, then took to riding the rails, cooking in town after town, working his way back home to Arkansas.

Fern Salisbury lied about her age (with her Mother’s knowledge) and sang in honky-tonks on the weekend while going to high school during the day. She loved steak and he cooked it well, frying it a special way for her in a huge cast iron skillet, browning the outside the way she liked it.  She ate steak at the cafe counter several times a week.  He flirted while she enjoyed meals like she didn’t have at home.

He started hanging around the honky-tonk.  Turned out he was the best dancer in town.  He danced with all the girls while she sang. Then he danced with her. Then he danced with her mother too, Gramma said just so she would let him keep seeing her daughter.

They married and both my brother and I were born while she was still in her teens.  They gave up dancing because of his new religion but they made music together all their lives and Reverend Raymond Jones (Brother Ray) cooked steaks for his Doll Baby (Sister Fern) in a cast iron skillet that went with us everywhere we traveled.

Depending on who was telling the story, when they talked about falling in love it was either the steaks or the dancing.

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Sister Fern sings on TV 60 years later

Turned on TV Thursday night to watch a favorite show, A P Bio on NBC, and there’s Mother (Sister Fern Jones) singing “Didn’t It Rain”

It’s a funny show about a naughty-to-bad teacher.  Love the cast. These two pictured are Glenn Howerton and Patton Oswalt. Everybody’s at the top of their game.  The classroom’s filled with young talent. The teachers’ lounge is charmingly off-center and the school office has its own quirks.

I’m glad the writers and producers and music supervisors invite Sister Fern from time to time.   Her feisty rockabilly/gospel fits right in.

 

 

Memories and music stick together.

Mother was our scrapbook keeper, saving stories about us and our evangelist and musician friends during the 1940’s and ’50’s. These books were much too big to travel in the car on The Glory Road.  They stayed on a shelf in the apartment we rented in Texarkana while we toured the South.

When we made a quick stop before hitting the road again, she tucked  clippings inside, often adding handwritten captions. Something about watching her work with them set her apart for a few hours from the mostly unsentimental person we knew.  Always nocturnal while the rest of us were early risers, you’d find her at the kitchen table long after we’d gone to bed, still drinking strong coffee, adding stories with her scissors and tape.

Every time I turn a page now, edges crumble, leaving a trail of scraps on the floor.  I’ll preserve these using whatever technology works best.

 

 

The Glory Road – From Louisiana to HBO’s The Leftovers

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’s The 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.

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“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…”

“What?”

“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.”

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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”

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

 

On The Glory Road – Johnny Cash changes things.

By Anita Garner

Fern Jones, my mother, a transplant from juke joints and honky-tonks, was the wife of a small town preacher in Arkansas when she started writing gospel songs.  She married In her teens, got religion and turned her church songs into rockabilly.

In a story from my book, The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life,  (Spring 2021 from University of Alabama Press) Johnny Cash heard a song she wrote and sang it for his audition at Sun Records (performed in the movie Walk The Line by Joaquin Phoenix.) Though Sam Phillips at Sun recorded the song, he didn’t take to gospel at the time and didn’t plan to release it until he got Johnny to sing some grittier stuff first.

Johnny became a star who sang what he wanted to sing.  He performed I Was There When It Happened  everywhere throughout his career and included it on several albums, so this one song Mother wrote was recorded by a big ol’ bass-singing country boy on his way up and it changed everything for her.

Watch Johnny and the Tennessee Two perform  I Was There When It Happened on the Town Hall Party  TV show in Los Angeles in the 1950’s.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pp70V6a8r00

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