Last Sunday our three-member quarantine family enjoyed a socially distanced brunch on the patio of a Mexican restaurant. With mariachis!! It’s just around the corner but it’s a new world when your family hasn’t been to a restaurant in ages. There’s a charming fence around the patio so the musicians can strum and stroll and be seen and heard. I had my song request and tip money ready.
In the 1950s, traveling with our family on The Glory Road through the Deep South, the revival circuit took us to Texas many times and during one long stay in El Paso, Daddy began learning Spanish. He loved Spanish guitars, was drawn to all songs played bolero style and he made a special effort to learn some of Mother’s favorites.
My brother, Leslie Ray, and I grew up listening to Daddy’s Southern drawl stretching out lyrics in places where perhaps they hadn’t originally stretched. His Spanish version of Maria Elena was Mother’s favorite.
Leslie and I adopted a love for Latin beats and for visiting restaurants with strolling mariachis. Leslie’s Latin favorites lived in the jazz world, Cal Tjader and Poncho Sanchez among them, while Daddy gravitated to Jose Feliciano, Trio Los Ponchos, Los Indios Tabajaras and Eydie Gorme’s Spanish language album.
On Sunday, between renditions of Happy Birthday in Spanish and English, we were treated to some beautiful ballads. One of them was my request for Sabor a Mi. I added a version of it below, along with Maria Elena. It’s sung in Spanish but it’s missing Daddy’s Southern drawl. And a bonus, Eydie singing Nosotros with Trio Los Ponchos.
This right here is a tile. A very heavy tile. Aged and glazed and whatever else are the processes by which it turned into artwork. It’s evocative. It’s personal. It’s rustic, which suits my taste perfectly. It’s everything a gift can be when someone talented and thoughtful has an idea and the ability to execute it.
And so it came to pass this Christmas Eve, this arrived from a studio in Maine, carefully packaged, along with a duplicate tile. I reached the artist to let him know I’m astonished and grateful.
This is the original artwork for my play, The Glory Road, which is about to become the book, The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life, and the artwork appears on everything to do with the story so far, script books, manuscript submissions, correspondence, websites – everything.
I love it. Of course I was curious about the duplicate tile in the package. Steve said the first one he made didn’t survive the process, so he made two in case that happened again. He said when The Glory Road gets famous, I can give the second one as a gift to someone who’s been helpful in launching these projects.
Daughter, Cathleen, and The Grand came into the office to look at this new addition to my Steve Bradford collection and I was explaining what he said about the duplicate. I’d only gotten to the part about how I could present it to someone who helped, when Cath took it and said thank you with her best award-show-acceptance face.
I’m sharing office space right now with stacks of scrapbooks and photo albums, with boxes and bins filled with photos, searching for pictures meant to be in my new book.My forthcoming book (“forthcoming” is such a lovely word) will contain photos and the publisher’s waiting for me to decide which ones. I’ve decided. I just can’t find them.
There’s no shortage of pictures available, but I have specific memories in mind. Later, The Glory Road website will be updated for the book’s release and there’ll be room for lots more there, but where are the ones I’d set aside for the book? They were here a few days ago.
It’s time to invoke St. Anthony (specializing in finding lost objects) and St. Jude (specialist in hopeless causes.) When we lived in Louisiana Bayou country, all my friends were Catholic. I envied them their array of saints who are apparently available all the time. We little Pentecostal preachers’ kids were advised to talk to Baby Jesus, but then we were also cautioned about when we should and shouldn’t be specific with our requests so we weren’t always sure we were doing it right. With St. Jude or St. Anthony you can say, “Will you help me find my keys?” and sometimes they will.
I don’t want to put things away until I find what I’m looking for. In old movies, Irish characters sometimes said, “Saints preserve us!” If the saints know exactly where my misplaced photos are, this would be a good time to show me. I’ll be most grateful.
I’m unloading the dishwasher. Music is playing. Randy Owen (Alabama Band) sings one of my favorite old hymns with The Isaacs and I’m right back there in places where I first learned the song. Follow the music to the Deep South during the ’40’s and ’50’s and find a story.
Off the highway and down a dirt road, nearly impassable during heavy rains, in a clearing just big enough to embrace a small building, stands a sweet little church. It was built long ago by a community who walked miles to get here or rode in wagons carrying food to share after worship. We make the trip decades later in our big old very used sedan.
This church has no full-time pastor. It’s not much different from the circuit-riding preacher days of Little House On The Prairie. Daddy, one of several ministers from other towns, travels here to conduct worship or sometimes to say words over a departed member of the congregation. They don’t meet every Sunday. They meet when a minister is available. Today it’s our family’s turn.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, after Daddy has already preached at our own church. Mother’s home resting, waiting for the birth of our new baby. If she’s well, she sometimes comes along to sing, but today it’s Daddy, my brother, Leslie Ray and me. A visiting preacher might bring his own guitar, but it’s not necessary. It doesn’t take many souls to fill this chapel with song.
Today, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, when I hear families blending like Randy Owen and his cousins in Alabama and The Isaacs’ exquisite harmonies, I think of my family singing our own homey version when any one of us started off with this song.
Click the picture for Randy Owen with The Isaacs, I Need Thee Every Hour
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.
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.
I gobbled up all eight episodes of Ken Burns’ Country Music along with countless other fans watching to see what we’d hear about our favorites. I’m among a huge population of transplanted Southerners all over the world watching and making connections between the music and the writers and performers and the places in our hearts
As soon as the first episode aired, I began to hear from people asking how this telling of country music history connects with The Glory Road and the music my family recorded during some of the times depicted in the series. In every episode, there are people and places and songs and trials and triumphs connected to my parents’ own musical history
The Joneses in The Hollywood Reporter when The Glory Road play came out right after “Oh Brother Where Art Thou.”
Brother Ray and Sister Fern’s Southern Gospel and country music are part of the same family. If country music is a place, The Glory Road runs through it. If country music is a community, they’re next door neighbors. It’s all one big, colorful quilt.
There’s much about this in my book, but until that comes out, I’ll put some of the pieces together and in a couple of days I’ll post specifics.
Homemade food was a highlight of every All Day Singing With Dinner On The Grounds. Tables were made of planks laid over sawhorses then covered with oilcloth, then the rows of sawhorse-tables were loaded with every Southern specialty from the best home cooks in the world.
At the end of many of these tables were stools that held washtubs filled with tea with big blocks of ice floating on top and tin dippers attached with string to the handles.
Find a picture. Find a story. If that’s not a rule, maybe it should be. I’m surrounded by boxes and files and albums and scrapbooks. It’s the backbone of much of what’s becoming The Glory Road., the stories, the stage play and now the book. A photo turns itself into a scene.
That’s Mother (Sister Fern) on the left in this picture. She’s changed from her performing dress made of clingy jersey into something cooler, and she’ll change back again after dinner, the midday meal in the Deep South. She’s probably complimenting that church lady next to her on her fine contribution to this bounty.
I was off in search of my favorites. Somebody mistakenly put Ambrosia over there on a table with all the fruit salads when to my mind Ambrosia was a world apart from ordinary food. It was the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of every dinner spread laid out at every Singing, every Revival, and every Sunday afternoon potluck at every stop on Route 66.
Mother was partial to Jell-O and she’d choose from a whole table full of it, some of it made in intricate molds, some studded with fruits, and other bowls of the red and green and orange jiggly stuff were filled with mysterious chopped items. She loved them all.
Leslie Ray headed for the chicken wings, the potato salad, then the table with all the breads – biscuits, risin’ rolls and cornbread. Daddy piled up a plate with barbecue and beans. He wandered the grounds balancing his plate and a Dixie cup of sweet tea, in search of the cook responsible for his favorite barbecue. Reverend Raymond Jones could talk beans with anybody til closing time. One of us had to hunt him down when it was time for the family to be back onstage.
Find an old photograph. Write some notes. I don’t want to miss a memory. They’re gifts that come and go when they please.
This publicity photo was taken in the early 1950’s as religion was becoming entertainment. Not all of these instruments belonged to our family’s basic traveling unit. Some did, but others were added at different stops as musician friends joined us all over the South.
As we toured, we performed on the radio, in churches, in auditoriums, in theaters and under revival tents and as The Joneses’ popularity grew, the same thing was happening with other musical evangelists.
We’d roll into town and someone would show us the publicity flier from the last evangelist who came through. Disc jockeys at radio stations told us who played and what they sang and how they were received.
Mother was in charge of our publicity. She handled it in an amazingly efficient way from the front seat of our big old sedan. Occasionally we updated our photos, which were turned into wood cuts she mailed ahead for printing purposes. She designed our fliers in advance of appearances, then as soon as we arrived in town, she talked with sponsoring organizations about whatever changes were required.
As I’m organizing photos from those years, I happened on this one, used for promotional ads in newspapers, and in programs and fliers and storefront posters. See that picture on the easel on the right? That’s a chalk drawing done by Mother during the course of an event. Yes, that was considered a legitimate attraction and several other evangelists did the same.
An announcer would say, not only is Sister Fern about to sing for you, but she will also put a blank canvas right up there on that easel, where she’ll create one of her unusual chalk drawings while you watch. Music would play. Those who’d seen this performance before reached for their billfolds and purses. The drawing would be auctioned to the highest bidder and proceeds would go back into the community, into the hands of whomever booked us there.
I haven’t seen one of her creations for years now, but perhaps some of them still exist in homes somewhere along Route 66.