Celesta Fern Jones (1923–1996)

Celesta Fern Jones was an American gospel singer, songwriter, and musician. Compared by some music writers to Patsy Cline, she is best known for her song “I Was There When It Happened,” which was recorded by Jimmie Davis, Johnny Cash, and others. Despite her talents as a singer and a flare for rockabilly, she recorded only one full album (under the name Fern Jones) and retired from the music business at a relatively young age.

Fern Salisbury was born on April 6, 1923, in Oil City, Louisiana. She was the daughter of Tennessee native Charles W. Salisbury, whose father was from England. Charles Salisbury served in the army during World War I as a private. Her mother was Zula Annie Burke Salisbury, a native of Arkansas. The family eventually moved to El Dorado (Union County), where her father worked in the oil business.

The family was poor. In the 1940 census, her father is listed as having no occupation, though her uncle lived in the house and worked as a repairman. The house was valued at only $25, though the family had a radio. Salisbury’s parents ultimately divorced, and her mother remarried not long after. Her father died in 1962 and is buried in Little Rock (Pulaski County); her mother died in 1976.

At the age of twelve, Salisbury got her first guitar from the Sears-Roebuck catalog. She learned songs by listening to the radio, becoming a fan of such artists as Bing Crosby, the Ink Spots, and Glenn Miller. She also was a fan of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and other African-American musicians. Once she felt comfortable playing, she performed at local honky-tonks on the weekends.

At the age of fourteen, she met Raymond Diazz Jones, a native of Hampton (Calhoun County). At the time, he was working as a cook in El Dorado, and he gave sandwiches to Salisbury in hopes of winning her over. On her sixteenth birthday, Fern obtained a marriage license. Three days later, on April 9, 1939, she married Ray Jones in El Dorado (her marriage certificate lists her as being eighteen). They had five children, three of whom survived into adulthood. The oldest was born in 1939 and the youngest in 1953.

Ray Jones became a minister in the Assembly of God church, a decision that took the family out of Arkansas for a time. In Americus in central Georgia, he preached in a tent, while Jones played music during revival meetings. Jones also had her children play with her. The Jones family traveled across the South, preaching and playing gospel music.

As a songwriter, Jones began with the title and worked back from there. “The Lord sends me my song titles,” she said. A busy writer, she liked to stay up late as her husband slept. She worked on “I Was There When It Happened” for years before finishing it.

It is unclear how country star and politician Jimmie Davis became interested in “I Was There When It Happened.” Davis agreed that he would split the royalties with Jones if he could record the song. He released his version backed by the Sunshine Boys in July 1955. It was also one of the first songs Johnny Cash played with the Tennessee Two, although his recorded version was not released until May 1959 on his first gospel album, Hymns by Johnny Cash. In 2006, Cash’s bass player, Marshall Grant, titled his autobiography I Was There When It Happened.

In 1959, Jones recorded her only album, Singing a Happy Song, for the Dot Records label. She cut the album in Nashville, Tennessee, with some of the best session musicians of the day—known as the Nashville A Team—including Hank Garland on guitar, Joe Zinkin on bass, Floyd Cramer (who later played with Johnny Cash) on piano, and Buddy Harman on drums. The Sunshine Boys provided backup vocals. Billboard magazine said the album was sung in an “enthusiastic style” with “interesting backing.” While her album holds up well many years later—and Jones toured the South in order to promote it—Singing a Happy Song did not sell well. Jones and the Dot Records president had disagreed about which song should be the single. Dot, in response, delayed the album.

Jones relocated to California not long after the release of her album. She lived there with her immediate family, and her mother and stepfather lived nearby. She gave her last performance on May 20, 1960, in Long Beach, California.

Dot Records did not survive. Paramount bought the company, and then Paramount was bought by Gulf & Western. Gulf & Western deleted Dot’s archive, but Jones’s recordings survived the purge. In 1968, the lease on her music expired. By then, her music was owned by MCA. It took her fifteen years to regain the rights to her music.

Jones died on September 23, 1996, in Palm Springs, California. She is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale next to her husband, who had died in 1987. In 2005, the label Numero Group released The Glory Road, a sixteen-track CD that contained Singing a Happy Song and bonus tracks.

Thanks in part to the Numero reissue, Fern Jones found a new generation of fans. In 2008, critic Tom Moon, in his book 1,000 Recordings to Hear before You Die, called the album “cultural dynamite” and “way ahead of its time.”

For additional information:
Kendall, Jerry. “Fern Jones: The 50s Gospel Pioneer.” Cross Rhythms, May 11, 2006. http://www.crossrhythms.co.uk/articles/music/Fern_Jones_The_1950s_gospel_pioneer_/21549/p1/ (accessed August 28, 2020).

Moon, Tom. 1,000 Recordings to Hear before You Die: A Listener’s Life List. New York: Workman, 2008.

———. “Fern Jones: The Road to Glory.” NPR, December 5, 2005. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5039625 (accessed August 28, 2020).

Selvin, Joel, and Ken Shipley. “Fern Jones. He Put His Hand in God’s. She Put Her Hand in His.” Liner notes for The Glory Road, by Fern Jones. Numero, 2005, compact disc.

“Singing a Happy Song.” Billboard, October 12, 1959, p. 41.

Colin Woodward
Hampden-Sydney College

Last Updated: 08/28/2020

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