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Fern Jones: 'The Road to Glory'


Among the songs featured in the current movie "Walk the Line" about Johnny and June Carter Cash is a little-known gospel number called "I Was There When It Happened." The song was co-written by a singer named Fern Jones, who was born in Oklahoma. She made just one album in her lifetime, called "Singing a Happy Song," which came out in 1959. It didn't do well commercially and by 1960 Fern Jones had stopped performing. Now a small reissue label has rereleased Jones' album and several singles on a CD titled "The Glory Road." Tom Moon has a review.

(Soundbite of "I Was There When It Happened")

Ms. FERN JONES (Singer): (Singing) Well, I know Jesus loves me.

Backup Signers: Yes, he saved my soul.

Ms. JONES: (Singing) The very moment he forgave me.

Backup Singers: And he made me whole.

TOM MOON reporting:

This must have sounded mighty strange in 1959, when church was church and rock 'n' roll was rebel music.

(Soundbite of "I Was There When It Happened")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) Satan tried to make me doubt it.

Backup Singers: Satan made me doubt it.

Ms. JONES: (Singing) A feeling I'm a-gonna shout it.

Backup Singers: That's why I'm gonna shout it.

Ms. JONES: (Singing) Because I was there when it happened and I guess I ought to know.

Backup Singers: Guess I ought to know.

MOON: Fern Jones specialized in do-right hymns and up-tempo Pentecostal praise songs with a rockabilly twitch. Her voice had some Patsy Cline in it and a flirty Wanda Jackson girlishness. It's the kind of spirited music the early rock pioneers talked about when they said they listened to gospel.

(Soundbite of "I Was There When It Happened")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) I was there when it happened and I guess I ought to know.

Backup Singers: Oh, I guess I ought to know.

MOON: In the late 1950s Fern Jones and her husband, a preacher named Raymond Jones, were minor lights on the South's revival tent circuit. Fern got good at galvanizing the restless crowd. She became the rare white singer who could credibly interpret the songs of the guitar-playing dynamo Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Check out her version of the Tharpe standard "Strange Things are Happening Every Day."

(Soundbite of "Strange Things are Happening Every Day")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) Oh, we hear church people say they are in this holy way, there are strange things happening every day. On that last great judgment day when they drive them all away, there are strange things happening every day.

MOON: Right away you can tell this rhythm section knows how to rock. It's the Nashville all-star group that backed Elvis Presley in 1958 with the mighty Floyd Cramer on piano, Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland on guitar, bassist Joe Zinkan and drummer Buddy Harman.

(Soundbite of instrumental music)

MOON: The CD has several Fern Jones originals. They're simple Sunday school odes with wisdom she picked up from her mother. Here's one called "Let Tomorrow Be."

(Soundbite of "Let Tomorrow Be")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) Don't try to cross that river that you cannot see. Don't try to tunnel through that mountain that may not be. Don't try to bear that burden that would bring you sorrow. Just let tomorrow be until tomorrow.

MOON: When she recorded these songs for Dot Records, Fern Jones had high hopes, but not long after her album was released, Dot closed down its gospel operation and Jones retired. She knew her recordings were worth something. When her contract expired she petitioned MCA Records, which then owned the Dot catalog, for her master tapes. It took her 15 years, but she got them back. And now, nine years after her death, we get to savor the art of someone who should be more than a footnote, whose recordings amount to a key connecting piece in the patchwork of gospel, country and rock 'n' roll.

BLOCK: The CD of Fern Jones music is called "The Glory Road." Our reviewer is Tom Moon.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. JONES: (Singing) ...and I ain't got time to stop today. Well, I ain't got time to stop today.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Moon
Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.