“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”

Planes, Trains And Automobiles

By Anita Garner

New book.  New tour.  We’ll get there.

We just clicked “live” on the new website built to introduce my book, “The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life.” It’s less than three weeks til release date. I hope you’ll check out anitagarner.com and let me know what you think.  If you read this blog regularly you already know bits of the story, but there’s more over there now and we’ll keep adding. Thanks to Steve Bradford and Authors Guild for their help.

I’m vaccinated and ready to travel if the good Lord’s willing and the crick don’t rise.  I’ve been planning a trip from California to the east coast this fall to combine book appearances and visits with friends in New England.  Rent a car in Boston and ramble around for a few days. I had in mind taking the train one way and then flying home. I pictured me in a little roomette on Amtrak with lots of magazines and coffee and snacks and waving out the window at places I used to live and working when I feel like it. It could be a leisurely and productive and celebratory kind of journey all in one.

Then I learned from Amtrak that wifi isn’t consistent on the train.  They make that clear.  I like my work and with all the connections I need to pursue, wifi is necessary.

My relatives were all train people.  Gramma K migrated from the Deep South to Southern California making several trips by train before enlisting all her Southern relatives to drive cars and trucks in caravans to move her belongings.  She never hired a moving van.  We were the van.  Every fall, she trained back from Glendale, CA to Arkansas to be with her kinfolks during leaf season.  Arkansas trees are spectacular  and worth the trip.  She  came off the train at Union Station in L.A. every time with a list of names and addresses and phone numbers from people she met onboard.

Mother never flew either, even when it would have been expeditious to do so.  We moved to California when she signed a recording contract, then the record company sent her back to Nashville to record with the backup singers and musicians they’d selected.  They said get here as soon as you can. She said, sure, I’ll be right there – on the train.  Later she went out on a tour but got homesick for Daddy, quit part of the way through and cried all the way home – on the train.

Here I sit with my hopes for making this book launch/friend visiting trip, but no set plan for travel yet. No sense buying a super-saver airline ticket months in advance if the savings will disappear due to travel insurance and change fees.

I’ll get there in person one way or the other. Meanwhile there are virtual appearances to plan,  which is how most books have been launched recently. Mother was an early adopter of innovation  (except for airline travel.)  She’d have been the first to understand my wifi dilemma.

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California Spring Break, 1950s Style

By Anita Garner

My brother, Leslie Ray, and I were the new kids in school all our lives.  We’d enroll, stay a short while,  then hit the road to tour the gospel circuit with our parents, sending homework back in the mail.  At every new school, I’d stand in front of the class while the teacher introduced Nita Faye Jones, just moved here from…fill in the blank.

In California, 1957  I was new again but this time shouldn’t be as hard since Leslie Ray had been there a year already, living with Gramma K because he and Mother couldn’t occupy the same house without eruptions. Similar dispositions, Daddy said.

Mother signed a record contract and we headed out west. This time it wasn’t just a new school.  This time the language was also unfamiliar.  Nobody else drawled.  The clothes were different.  Even tougher to understand was California culture, where teens seemed to have so much control.  No yessum and yessir.  These kids were in possession  of more than just spending money. They were confident.  By the time I arrived, Leslie, who was already tall and good looking to start with, had shed his Southern accent, was a big man on campus and evidently expert at assimilation.

Observe the ritual of Senior Spring Break, 1957.  The talk in the halls among seniors was, “Are you going to Bal?”  That would be  Balboa Island (also Newport)  where groups of seniors piled into rented houses for a full week of drinking and tanning all day, partying all night, and capped it off at the end of the week by bleaching their hair blonde to prove, on returning to class, that they’d really been to Bal.

Leslie Ray and I were  both redheads with fair skin.  Not meant for tanning.  Not safe on California beaches.  In the Deep South, tanning wasn’t done on purpose. It happened because of work.  We saw tans in churches and in the crowds at revivals and Singings, hard-working tans with shirt-sleeve marks.

Tanning for a redhead happens only through a lengthy process, if at all, and often involves a couple of trips to the ER on the way.  Both of us had over-sunned more than once and paid the price. It must have taken Leslie a long time to build up that color a little bit at a time, but he did it. The very thing we’d avoided in the South was his Southern California Senior Spring Break badge of honor. Of course he bleached his hair.  He had to prove he was at Bal.

I was invited over to Balboa just for the day if I could find someone with a driver’s license and a car to get me there.  I lied to my parents about where I was going.  Leslie’s friends treated me like a mascot as long as I didn’t cramp their style or tell stories later.  For my day at Bal, I didn’t even pack what we then called suntan lotion.  I packed a hat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leslie Ray and Nita Faye Jones.  Senior Spring Break, 1957

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I never tanned until self-tanning lotion became manageable years later, and then I applied it mostly for events.  But I bleached as soon as I got out of high school, blonder and blonder for several years.  I think the bleaching part made me half-assimilated and you can shorten that last word if you want to.

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Is that really the way you say it?

By Anita Garner

The audio book is now in production.  Thank you for asking. It’ll release the same day as the hardcover and e-book, April 13th. I’m not narrating. I never planned to.  I’m eager to hear another voice tell this story.

Jesse, the production company’s (Blackstone) audio proofreader went through every page plucking out things that need to be spelled phonetically for the narrator and sent a word list to me to double check.  In the 1940s and 50s, there was the way country people said a word, then the way some others said it, and then there were places where southern accents varied so much they felt like different languages.  Our narrator, Pamela, is earning her keep on this one.

I was in the 7th grade in Louisiana when a teacher commented, “The king was not named Louise.”   Sliding over “Louis” turned into “Looz” and there are more ways to say New Orleans than there are Mardi Gras beads in the street after the parade.  We never said anything but  Noo-OR-luns.

When we landed in bayou country, our Arkansas drawls absorbed Cajun and Creole pronunciations with dollops of French stirred in.  French and Southern together create melodious conversations and going over it all to write this book, then reading the proofreader’s suggested phonetics pinged the senses all over again.

It’s lovely that 50-60 years later the audio book will replicate the quite specific language in my stories.  Today I listen to people saying Louise-e-anna and maybe that’s considered correct, but when we were there, it was Looz-e-anna in our  house.  I’ve asked our narrator to say it the way we did. The narrator’s mother is Georgia born and this daughter of  hers with the lovely alto voice knows to ask which of many ways I’d like to hear the word.  When I asked her if she’d just slide over a few middle syllables in specific words, but not eliminate them altogether, she knew exactly what I meant.

Book ordering update:  Again, thanks for asking. You can now order from your favorite bookstore. It’s available all over the U.S. and in other countries.  Since there’s not much in-store browsing happening right now,  go to your bookstore’s website or call them and ask for “The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life” and they’ll find it in the publisher’s catalog.  (University of Alabama Press)  Amazon also has it available for pre-order now.

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Spring’s arriving a little early.

By Anita Garner

It’s pure joy to see the listing for my memoir, “The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life” along with the editorial reviews on Amazon.   That means it’s really happening.  Spring will arrive if Amazon says so.  You can order right now for April delivery.

Everything accomplished this year feels like a miracle and I’m celebrating each step. The Kindle version and audio books  are coming soon and when that happens, I’ll probably have another piece of pie.  By the time we hold this book in our hands I’m going to be one round little writer.

Here ‘s the publisher’s (University of Alabama Press) description, followed by reviews.

“Stories and songs from a childhood spent in a vanished world of revivals and road shows

Anita Faye Garner grew up in the South—just about every corner of it. She and her musical family lived in Texarkana, Bossier City, Hot Springs, Jackson, Vicksburg, Hattiesburg, Pascagoula, Bogalusa, Biloxi, Gulfport, New Orleans, and points between, picking up sticks every time her father, a Pentecostal preacher known as “Brother Ray,” took over a new congregation.

In between jump-starting churches, Brother Ray took his wife and kids out on the gospel revival circuit as the Jones Family Singers. Ray could sing and play, and “Sister Fern” (Mama) was a celebrated singer and songwriter, possessed of both talent and beauty. Rounding out the band were the young Garner (known as Nita Faye then) and her big brother Leslie Ray. At all-day singings and tent revivals across the South, the Joneses made a joyful noise for the faithful and loaded into the car for the next stage of their tour.

But growing up gospel wasn’t always joyous. The kids practically raised and fended for themselves, bonding over a shared dislike of their rootless life and strict religious upbringing. Sister Fern dreamed of crossing over from gospel to popular music and recording a hit record. An unlikely combination of preacher’s wife and glamorous performer, she had the talent and presence to make a splash, and her remarkable voice brought Saturday night rock and roll to Sunday morning music. Always singing, performing, and recording at the margins of commercial success, Sister Fern shared a backing band with Elvis Presley and wrote songs recorded by Johnny Cash and many other artists.

In her touching memoir The Glory Road, Anita Faye Garner re-creates her remarkable upbringing. The story begins with Ray’s attempts to settle down and the family’s inevitable return to the gospel circuit and concludes with Sister Fern’s brushes with stardom and the family’s journey west to California where they finally landed—with some unexpected detours along the way. The Glory Road carries readers back to the 1950s South and the intersections of faith and family at the very roots of American popular music.”

Editorial Reviews

Review

“This is a story so central to the origins of country music: the marriage of Saturday night and Sunday morning, and the literal marriage of two musicians, sometimes at odds with each other creatively and personally. The song written by Fern Jones ‘I Was There When It Happened’ was performed around the world by my dad and the Tennessee Three, became the title of the memoir of Marshall Grant (the bass player in the Tennessee Three), and was revived yet again when I performed it every night on a recent tour I did with Ry Cooder. Anita Garner was ‘there when it happened,’ and her book tells us what we ought to know.”
—Rosanne Cash
The Glory Road takes us to an important cultural crossroad of America––where gospel met rockabilly, and Saturday night collided with Sunday morning in the late 1950s in the Deep South. It’s also a very personal family story of a deeply religious preacher, Raymond Jones, whose wife, Fern, had a big voice and even bigger musical ambitions. Anita Garner’s recounting of her parents’ lives––their tensions and travails on the ‘gypsy road’ of tent revivals and recording studios––echoes one of her mother’s most famous songs: ‘I Was There When It Happened.’”
—Dayton Duncan, writer/producer of Ken Burns’ Country Music

The Glory Road touches several bases: southern culture, family life, the evangelical ethos, commercial music, migration, and spousal relations. It will appeal to both a general and specialized audience.”
—Michael T. Bertrand, author of Race, Rock, and Elvis

“I’ll admit I didn’t know the music of Sister Fern and The Joneses until now. So, The Glory Road has introduced me to some exciting and important music. But, even more than that, the story itself will stick with me. I don’t expect to forget these characters.”
—Burgin Mathews, coauthor of Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man

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L.A. Radio Guest Columnist – I’m it today.

Anita Garner

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

Johnny Cash - I Was There When It Happened

 

Thanks, Don, for the invitation.  It’s good to visit laradio.com.  I do it every day.

******

 

 

Gospel Gypsies Adapt

By Anita Garner

Early publicity tour
The Joneses traveling The Glory Road
Oklahoma 1950

That’s my family on the road, stopping at every radio station to sing a couple of songs and let people know we’d be coming soon to an All Day Singing or a tent revival near them.  Our parents, Brother Ray and Sister Fern Jones, made it through the 1950’s with limited-to-no resources, touring with a car full of musical instruments and harmony-singing kids. We were the advance team  driving from town to town with Leslie Ray and me mailing homework back to schools where we registered before leaving again.

When I signed a book contract last year  I already had a publicity tour planned. I was eager to get going.  The ways authors tell people about their books today keep expanding, but even with the boost from social media, the path to book sales still includes suitcases and planes and stops in many towns.

The publisher has two catalogs a year, Fall and Spring.  I hoped my book would make the Fall, 2020 edition.  I thought, oh yeah I can do that, get all my tour stops confirmed and hit the road by then.  Two things became clear.  1) I knew little about the process and 2) Authors would not be hitting the road in the second half of 2020.

Getting a book into the world via a University Press is a much longer process than I knew. Having now been through acquisition, vetting, peer review, board review, editing, design and working on marketing plans while moving into production, Spring, 2021 makes sense. Today I feel a pang for every writer who worked long and hard on a manuscript and counted the days til their Spring 2020 or Summer 2020 or Fall 2020 release.

I’ve now received more release details. The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life arrives in April, 2021 from University of Alabama Press, 232 pages, 22 photos and lots of stories.

April, 2021 is soon enough.
We have stuff to do.

Everything we’d planned for publicity is being retooled. There’ll now be a different kind of launch, one I’m excited about.  There will be guests. There will be music. How could there not be music?

I don’t accomplish this by myself.  My part of the marketing plan for The Glory Road involves many people.  Thank God for talented friends.  We’re right this minute creating the ways we’ll share this show. If Daddy and Mother could see all this communications magic, they’d immediately adapt to using everything at their disposal. I saw them do that many times.

At the end of my book, there’s a list entitled, Gospel Gypsies Know.  In light of the events of this year so far, the caption above, Gospel Gypsies Adapt feels more appropriate.

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California sports car, part of our Southern migration on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

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.

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The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life – book cover is here!

By Anita Garner

University of Alabama Press moves forward with production of my book  scheduled for Spring, 2021.  This book still feels like a miracle,  considering how many decades the story waited for me to finish writing it.

Book publishing is a long process.  It’s complicated and sophisticated stuff and for me every stage is exciting.  I plan to keep enjoying it.  I can’t think of a different way to say “uncertain times” “unprecedented” or “challenging” so let’s just say everything about book tours, appearances and marketing in general continues to shift.  The new approach may be a marathon rather than a sprint.

My heart goes out to writers whose books were released earlier this year, who had extensive appearances confirmed, then, poof, all gone.  I have heaps of admiration for authors who bestirred themselves to find ways to connect with people who really want to read what they write.

Who knows how we’ll meet readers in 2021? However we decide to connect to discuss The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life, I’m looking forward to it.  Meanwhile, I’m going to keep enjoying this cover.*

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*Lori Lynch, Senior Designer, University of Alabama Press

 

 

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