I Was There When it Happened: Fern Jones’ The Glory Road

January 26, 2016

Fern Jones

After a season of heavy rain, my dad and I were investigating a long shaft of running water that was trailing its way through my grandparents’ back yard, continually moving downward until disrupting the banks of a creek that ran through the front. This stream of running water, that gathered somewhere among the trees behind their house, seemed so unassuming, yet it was causing substantial shifts in the ground. Years from now, my dad noted, the entire landscape would be different. More earth would be carved out. The banks of the creek would continue to collapse and the creek would widen.

Following that trail of water, examining the damage it was causing, and speculating on the future of my grandparents’ farmland, I started thinking about the fickle passage of time. I’m pretty attached to that homestead. I spent a childhood roaming the hills and trees around their house. But time has a tendency to disrupt our nostalgia. The people and places that we invest in here and now will look different a little further out. Sometimes it’s for the worst, and sometimes it’s for the better.

At the same time that all of these thoughts were coming to me, I had also been listening to the music of Fern Jones and reflecting on her brief stint in the gospel music business of the 1950s. Though she wrote a hit gospel song that would be covered by many in the years that followed, Fern would never reach a substantial audience in her lifetime—at least beyond the Pentecostal tent revival circuit. She may have developed a new way of singing and playing gospel music—something closer to rockabilly and early rock and roll—but unfortunately, it would happen just before shifts in the industry would allow for more diversity in the gospel sound.

Fern was probably a bit too innovative and a bit too early. She recorded an album’s worth of rockability-infused gospel songs with some of Nashville’s finest session players, but after a splintering of her record company, the album would be shelved for decades, somehow surviving a house cleaning that saw many of her contemporaries’ records destroyed. Watching her record fade into obscurity, having no power to do anything about it, she would retreat from the spotlight and quietly fight to win back her masters in the years that followed. It would be decades before she would win that fight, and it wouldn’t be until after her death that her songs would re-emerge as the Glory Road on the Numero Label.

Born in 1923, Fern absorbed all the sounds she was hearing over late night radio waves—pop and country and especially blues songs. She learned the tunes and strummed each chord on a catalog-bought guitar. Her voice sounded as if she had lived out every heartbroken word. She sang in juke joints and country bars, until a local chef in El Dorado, Arkansans swept her off her feet. Fern was only 16 when she married Raymond D. Jones. Before long, Raymond would covert to Christianity, and Fern with him. Raymond became the fiery Reverend Raymond D. Jones in the strict Assemblies of God Church, and Fern’s musical ambitions would henceforth be veered toward the ministerial. But she found a way to make it work, harnessing the energy of those juke joint numbers into guitar heavy gospel songs. The two evangelists hit the tent revival circuit, carrying their message throughout the south on a rockabilly beat.

Like a lot of gospel musicians in those days, Fern and Raymond printed their own records, and sold them out of the back of their car. It was when Fern hitched her wagon to the great gospel machine that she experienced, firsthand, the somewhat seedy side of salvation songs. She had the opportunity to get “I Was There When It Happened” published, but only by putting someone else’s name beside her’s in the credits of the song. And then there were those recordings—a batch of gospel songs that bounced along to an electric guitar; that swayed to a boozy saloon piano; that professed a love for God with all the conviction of Patsy Cline walking after midnight. She saw her songs forgotten and nearly destroyed. And then she was gone.

*          *          *

So what does all of this have to do with a crumbling backyard and a rising creek? I suppose that the music Fern was playing all over those Southern roads seemed to have little impact on the culture of the 1950s. Her music would come and go in just a few years, and she would fade away like most of her contemporaries. Fern perhaps, was that tiny stream of water, carving her way through a sea of dirt. But the sounds that she was making, the styles she was integrating into spiritual music, would have major impacts that the artist herself probably won’t get credit for. Fern’s daughter, Anita Garner, reflects upon her mother’s legacy this way: “She was an original. One magazine referred to her as ‘A Southern Master’.  I still marvel at the way she used her gifts and her skills to get her music into the world, when every bit of logic would say it was impossible. She wrote songs, she found tape recorders to record demos, she found people to listen to them…”

Fern may not have seen it or felt it, but the ground had been shifted in her wake. The earth had been moved.

 

Information for this essay was gathered from an interview I conducted with Anita Garner, and through the liner notes of Numero Group’s The Glory Road release.

For more information on Fern and her story, visit Anita’s website at http://thegloryroad.com/thegloryroad/index.htm

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