The end of one story is just the beginning of another.
Contents (Click/Tap to Scroll)
- Primary Sources – books, documentaries, etc.
- Transcript of Episode – for the readers
- Liner Notes – list of featured music, online sources, further commentary
Transcript of Episode
The True Vine
“O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.”
This little William Blake poem, called The Sick Rose, from the 1789 collection Songs of Innocence is deceptively simple and, thus, open to infinite interpretations. Many who’ve studied Blake tend to view this as a piece about the futility of projecting imaginary ideals onto life in the natural world: any individual “rose” we choose to fixate upon as a perfect representation of beauty can only serve this symbolic function for so long before time and entropy reveal what’s what. It’s nearly certain Blake did intend to draw our attention to this idea, as each stanza of the poem contains the same number of words in its corresponding lines – first five, then three, then five, then four – but the pattern of syllables in each line is not mirrored between stanzas, leaving us with asymmetrical, lopsided verse. It’s also pretty likely he knew most people would believe they’d just read a poem about a rose being diseased and destroyed by a worm. But William Blake did not write this poem for most people. He wrote it for those who could grasp the mystic theology running through his entire body of work, where ideals matter more than the material world and the concept of a rose, unlike any individual rose, lives forever. In Blake’s theology, what is commonly called the human imagination is literally Christ within. He once wrote, “All Things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the divine body of the Saviour, the True Vine of Eternity, The Human Imagination.” So maybe we need to revisit the title of that poem – The Sick Rose – and recognize it could just as easily be a statement about the sick becoming healed and rising again. If the word “rose” in the title is a verb and not a noun, then this is a poem about resurrection, not death. Some versions of Blake’s accompanying illustration depict part of a caterpillar, no ordinary worm, burrowing into a rose blossom that, though hanging from a weak-looking plant, appears lovely and in full bloom, not sick at all. There are tiny humanoid figures on the sickly green stalks and they do seem similarly frail but there’s another woman emerging from the vibrant rose blossom who looks ecstatic, happy as a butterfly. So does the worm’s dark secret destroy the life of the rose? Or does the rose’s life destroy the dark secret of the worm?
A Ring around the Rose
All deciduous perennial flowers can be used for allegories of beauty and life commingling with pain or death but very few have been as often as the rose.
As with “Knoxville Girl,” the murder ballad “Down in the Willow Garden” can probably be traced back to one of the many derivative rewrites of “The Bloody Miller.” A common alternate title for “Down in the Willow Garden” is “Rose Conley,” the song’s victim. Though it’s not plainly stated, we can infer Rose has become pregnant with the narrator’s child, which would be a great reason to make good on promises to marry her, except for the narrator’s father has already voiced his displeasure at this proposition. In fact, the father has gone so far as to say the narrator should just murder Rose because he’d be better off without her and the family’s wealth will no doubt keep him out of serious trouble. From this, we can also infer Rose doesn’t come from a similarly wealthy background and this is probably what the father doesn’t like about her. All things considered, despite his true love for her and her great beauty, the narrator does decide to poison Rose, stab her and throw her into a river. But then it turns out the father was wrong about being protected by the family’s money. The narrator is caught and hung from the gallows.
In one version of a story from Greek mythology, the beautiful Adonis was attacked by a wild boar – secretly the war god Ares in disguise, jealous over how much time Adonis spent with Ares’ lover, Aphrodite. As Adonis lay dying, white roses sprung from the ground touched by his blood. Aphrodite learned of the attack and ran to the crime scene, paying no mind to the cuts received on her bare feet and lower legs from rushing through untamed thicket, but she arrived too late. All she could do was weep over Adonis’ body, the blood from her feet and legs falling onto the white rose blossoms and turning them red. In The Iliad, Homer wrote of Aphrodite washing the slain Hector’s corpse with rose oil to prepare him for embalming. The Ancient Greeks did use rose oil and rose water for such purposes but, not yet having distillation, they made these solutions by steeping rose petals in oil or water. As this required a massive volume of rose blossoms to create liquid of potent fragrance, only the wealthiest members of any given Greek city-state could afford such infusions but they gladly paid the price because the mere scent of roses was believed to ward off disease. The “dog rose” is so named because Greeks believed its roots could be used to cure the symptoms of a bite from mad dog. Red roses were used in so many different medicinal concoctions this became an entire category of medicine, called “diarrhodon.” On the island of Rhodes, they minted coin money with the head of sun god Helios on one side and, on the other, a rose, symbol of Helios’ lover Rhode, the island’s patron nymph, sometimes said to be daughter of Aphrodite by Poseidon. The story goes Helios witnessed Aphrodite being unfaithful to her man and wouldn’t let it rest until all the wrong people found out, so Aphrodite cursed Helios, causing him to fall in love with a human woman and forget about the existence of poor Rhode, who hadn’t done anything wrong.
As anyone who’s studied these chapters of mythology knows, the Romans became obsessed with emulating the Greeks right around the time Alexander the Great established the second-largest empire that had ever existed by conquering most of the largest, The First Persian Empire. Though Alexander died young and his Macedonian Empire was split amongst the generals of his army through civil wars, the next several centuries of history in this corner of the world are known as the Hellenistic period because of how strongly the culture of Ancient Greeks (or Hellenes) influenced other Mediterranean peoples. This has often been portrayed as some innate superiority over inferior ways of life but that’s a severely naive interpretation of events. For example, Greek society had been in contact with and was influenced by Egyptian society for at least a few hundred years prior to Alexander the Great. Setting aside the pyramids, Egyptians planted sophisticated gardens to grow plants for food, medicine, religious rites and aesthetic beauty thousands of years prior to the relatively primitive orchards you’d find in Greece. It’s not possible to argue Greek society was so influential because it was simply “superior.” The truth is Greek currencies, bloodlines and social connections became more highly valued in areas where Alexander established Greek rule, which (again) happened in a lot of different places. Near the end of the 4th century B.C., one of Alexander’s generals, named Ptolemy, defeated his rivals to become pharaoh of Egypt. Since the locals had always resisted Persian rule, they regarded both Alexander and Ptolemy as “saviors.” Neither Greek warrior wished to undermine this love by attempting to eradicate and replace local customs or religions, so they didn’t. Alexander was known to adopt local fashions or participate in religious rites to ingratiate himself to citizens of lands he conquered and that’s what he did in Egypt. As pharaoh, Ptolemy followed suit, going so far as to push his heirs to adopt the Egyptian custom of marrying their siblings. And so it went for nearly another 250 years until the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra, who was the only pharaoh of her family in those hundreds of years who ever even bothered to learn the local language instead of speaking Greek. So that should give you some idea of who the ruling classes of these lands believed did and didn’t need to be included in the conversation during the Hellenistic period. The priorities of those looking to climb the social ladder adjusted accordingly.
In the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., Cato the Elder (a conservative senator in the Roman Republic) railed against what he perceived as Rome’s best citizens abandoning too much of their own cultural identity by trying to live as though they were Greek elites. It seemed like as soon as Romans of any means and status learned some custom of wealthy Greeks, they not only replicated it but took it to the furthest extreme. Just look at the craze over roses. Yeah, the richest Greeks had long used roses as medicine and perfume but now you may as well be a peasant to live in Rome without a private rose garden at your house or at least the funds to stay in steady supply of fresh roses. It was to the point where women of Rome used roses as some kind of currency. You almost couldn’t go to someone’s house for dinner without being served some dish featuring rose water, rose petals or rose hips. The thing that bothered Cato the most, though, was the wreaths. He took no issue with the way Greeks had fashioned the branches of olive or laurel trees into wreaths for crowning champions of prestigious athletic events or monumentally important battles, even great artists and philosophers. But now every Roman man hoping to look like a big shot seemed to view the wreath ceremony as the achievement itself rather than a token in recognition of some great achievement. What’s worse, Cato’s peers were all too happy to grant the wreaths (adorned with roses even!), probably hoping to have one bestowed on themselves in the near future. So Cato attempted to reduce the number of knights and senators in Rome (by taking such titles away from undeserving men) and he tried to pass sumptuary laws which would limit the number of people in attendance at any given party, limit the amount of wealth accumulated by women and limit various extravagant fashions worn by Roman citizens. And it’s safe to say he’d have lost his mind if he lived through the Year of the Lord to see Rome become an empire and the Rosalia one of its most popular types of festival.
This wasn’t necessarily the drunken Bacchanalia influenced by Greek Dionysian orgies but it was also typically not a sober affair. Usually, Rosalias were held in honor of various gods, dead family members, military leaders, important figures or anyone rich enough to leave behind a fund for the sole purpose of ensuring a Rosalia was thrown in their memory once a year. Most of any given budget went toward the wine and the roses consumed and worn by guests. In the first century A.D., Roman emperor Nero began suspending thousands and thousands of rose petals from the ceiling of his banquet hall to shower them down upon guests at the beginning of a feast, establishing a tradition which persisted for hundreds of years. In the third century A.D., teenage emperor Elagabalus supposedly dropped three times an ordinary amount of rose petals from the ceiling and accidentally suffocated many attendees of a feast. Making it rain roses over these parties was obviously intended as a display of unrepentant decadence but that’s not all it was. During the centuries when Greeks had ruled Egypt without caring to learn its language, they misunderstood depictions of the sun god Horus’ child form to be holding his finger over closed lips in the gesture Greeks (but not Egyptians) tracked as the method for covertly telling another person to be quiet. Since the way Egyptians referred to the child form of Horus sounded kind of like “Harpocrates,” Greeks adopted this Harpocrates as their god of silence and secrecy, then plugged him in to their existent mythology. In one version of one story, Aphrodite gave a beautiful rose to Eros, the son she had with Ares. When Harpocrates later witnessed Aphrodite sleeping with someone she shouldn’t have been, Eros bribed him to keep Aphrodite’s secret by giving him the rose. So, centuries later, when roses were dropped from (or painted or sculpted on) the ceilings of Roman banquet halls, it was a reminder the party took place sub rosa, beneath the rose, and nothing said or done within the room was to be shared later with anyone who wasn’t present.
Umberto Eco’s first novel is a postmodern mystery which rejects the genre cliche of tidily wrapping everything up by revealing hidden logical forces behind initially confusing events. He once said he chose the title The Name of the Rose because “the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meaning that by now it hardly has any meaning left.” Being a professor of semiotics, it’s likely Eco’s view of this was colored by studying floriography, the so-called secret language of flowers which became one of the biggest fads of the 19th century in Europe and the United States. When socialites in Romantic era England found out about the recently published “flower language” dictionaries becoming popular in France, they rushed out to book shops to learn what type, color and number of flowers should be sent to communicate fun, coded messages to friends, family, would-be lovers, etc. The trend spread quickly to the rest of the Western world and publishers couldn’t print floriography dictionaries fast enough. They flooded the market with books on the subject and – whether trying to create products that were different than all the rest or trying to skip over researching tradition in order to quickly throw together some nonsense as a cash grab – there became a library of floriography books which ascribed many different meanings to the same flowers. As the fad persisted, until nearly the 1900s, “flower talkers” had to be sure they were using the exact same floriography dictionaries as whoever was on the other end of the conversation or they’d have no hope of understanding one another. This is one reason why trying to research the symbolic importance of, say, a white rose turns up just about any interpretation you can imagine and (again) presumably one reason why Umberto Eco said the rose has too many meanings to mean much of anything at all.
But if we could erase the influence of a brief floriography craze from history, wouldn’t we be left with the core ideas of a rose, ideas that have lasted for thousands of years, only receiving minor alterations when incorporated by a newly dominant culture? Ancient Greeks wore rose oil as perfume and threw rose petals at victorious athletes and great performers. Rose oil is still one of the most common scents in perfumery and used in some of the most popular perfumes of all time, including Chanel No. 5. The winning horse and rider of the Kentucky Derby are still draped in a blanket of hundreds of rose blossoms when they enter the Winner’s Circle. Matadors who give an especially crowd-pleasing performance still have roses thrown to them in the bullring. The Latin word used to refer to a rose garden in the home of a wealthy Roman was rosarium, the source word for the collection of prayers which came to be called the Rosary in Roman Catholicism. Some early Christians objected to this word being used to refer to these prayers (and, later, the associated string of beads) because they felt “Rosary” called to mind the Rosalias thrown in honor of various Roman gods. These objections were ignored and Christianity inherited the rose much the same as Romans received it from the Greeks. When you see roses carved into the wood of a confessional booth, it is a reference to the Roman sub rosa policy of secrets.
The five-petalled rose in Christian art often represents the wounds Christ received in crucifixion, prior to the resurrection, when he rose again. The Luther rose was developed by Martin Luther for use by him and his followers as a symbol of Lutheran theology. He specified the insignia should contain a black cross at the center to represent pain and suffering, placed inside a red heart to represent salvation through faith in the Crucified, placed inside a rose which should be white because white is the color of the spirits and angels that bring us joy and comfort and peace not found in the material world, placed inside a field of blue to represent a heavenly tomorrow, placed inside a golden ring to represent eternity. Valentine’s Day began as a Roman Catholic holiday, a feast thrown in honor of one or two 3rd century Christian martyrs named Valentine, and had nothing to do with flowers as displays of love and affection until that association was fabricated wholesale during the age of chivalry in the 14th and 15th centuries. One of (if not the) most popular chivalric texts of the 14th century was titled The Romance of the Rose, an allegoric (and vulgar) commentary on dating in the era of courtly love. It’s important to recognize the word “romance” in this title was not a reference to love. At the time it came out, everyone would have understood this title to mean “A Story of the Rose, Written in a Language Descended from That of the Romans.” Because that’s what the word “romance” originally meant, until fantastic stories of knights and magic and chivalric love became the only thing most people wanted to read about in that language for two or three centuries, which eventually led to our modern use of “romantic” when describing the survival of such themes in fiction written after the chivalric age.
While the association of roses with love and tragedy dates at least as far back as Aphrodite, without doubt, no single storyteller has ever availed himself of this device to greater impact than William Shakespeare. Just the word “flower” appears over 100 times throughout his body of work and there are several instances of characters explicitly stating the symbolic importance of various flowers used or referenced in a scene, like in Hamlet, when a grieving Ophelia finally loses her mind and breaks into song while handing out flowers with explanations of their meaning. But Shakespeare must have regarded the rose as especially significant because it alone is mentioned over 70 times in his work, from the early comedy and history plays all the way through his great tragedies. Aside from Hamlet‘s “to be, or not to be,” perhaps the most famous lines in the history of theater are “What’s in a name? That which we call a ‘rose’ by any other word would smell as sweet,” from Romeo & Juliet. And it’s only fitting because a theater named The Rose was probably the first to stage a production of any William Shakespeare play, which was probably part of his Henry VI trilogy.
These days, most people describe Henry VI (along with Shakespeare’s Richard III) as an epic series about The Wars of the Roses but nobody would have said that when the play came out because the term didn’t exist at the end of the 16th century. When Henry VI of England’s House of Lancaster became regarded as a weak-minded and weak-willed king, it led to thirty years of civil war over the throne, fought primarily against an ambitious rival branch of the family, the House of York. In the end, every legitimate male heir of both houses died, leaving Henry Tudor with a claim that his mother having descended from a Lancaster born out of wedlock meant England’s crown was his by right, so long as he killed Richard III in battle, which he promptly did. As Henry VII, Tudor married his third cousin, a princess from the House of York, making her Queen of England and their male children heirs of the newly-founded House of Tudor. To symbolize this union between two houses previously at war, Henry created the Tudor Rose by placing the white rose used as an emblem of the House of York atop the red rose used as an emblem of the House of Lancaster. Truly, though, the Lancasters had almost never used a rose in their heraldry and when they did it was usually gold, not red. Still, Henry VII had a knack for branding and knew what he was doing. Since his claim to the throne hinged upon the notion he was a Lancaster, he did not use the new Tudor Rose as a seal during his reign but the red rose he needed everyone to start believing the Lancasters had used for centuries. Then, when his son eventually took the throne as Henry VIII, the Tudor Rose entered regular use by the crown, wrapping up the whole story as neat as a bow. And William Shakespeare was happy to carry on the tradition. For Henry VI, he fabricated a scene where noblemen in a church rosarium revealed their allegiance to either House York or Lancaster in the coming war by picking a white or red rose, respectively. And we know this is the scene Sir Walter Scott had in mind when he referred to “the wars of the White and Red Roses” – soon shortened through popular use to The Wars of the Roses – because the title page of that 1829 installment of the Waverly novels includes a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VI.
Though he attracted crowds of theatergoers in London, Shakespeare was not widely regarded as a genius or even particularly influential during his lifetime. The critical reevaluation of his work only began in the 18th century but, by the time we find Sir Walter Scott quoting him on title pages, consensus had landed on Shakespeare being the greatest playwright in the history of the English language. And his rampant use of flowers as symbols certainly helped set the stage for floriography to become popular in the 19th century, potentially muddying the “language of flowers” from that point forward.
But perhaps the rose is still as sick as it ever was.
In the mid-1960s, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead debuted in London. Here, two minor roles in Hamlet become title characters and we see what they get up to while off-stage in the tragedy, which it turns out is a lot of hilarious argument over how confusing they find the events of Hamlet, their inability to remember anything prior to the start of the play (or even which one of them is Rosencrantz or Guildenstern) and all around failing to recognize the mounting evidence they are, in fact, fictional characters in a play. Especially as performed by Gary Oldman in the film adaptation, Rosencrantz (whose name means “rose wreath”) is particularly childlike, confounded whenever Hamlet says things such as “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” and often on the verge of discovering some law of physics (or an absurdly impossible example of his reality failing to obey such laws). Yet, he just never seems to grasp much of anything, which makes it a bit more heartbreaking when he joins the angrier and more violent Guildenstern in fulfilling the promise of the title.
Considering the plot of Rosemary’s Baby is fundamentally an inverse of the Immaculate Conception, it’s likely Ira Levin’s title character is not a reference to the plant rosemary but a combination of the names Rose and Mary. Long before becoming the recipient of Rosary prayers, the Virgin Mary was associated with roses in Roman Catholic imagery and writings, which is yet another remnant of the Rosalia, as certain Roman festivals allowed only women who were virgins to wear rose wreaths. Like everything else about Roman Polanski’s adaptation, these associations only become more disturbing when one ponders the references (both conversational and visual) to roses throughout the film, including a rose print on a bare mattress in a scene you definitely don’t want to watch if you’re susceptible to nightmares.
One of the folk tales collected by The Grimm Brothers at the beginning of the 19th century was published as The Rose. A poor woman lives by the woods with her two children. It was the youngest child’s job to go out into the forest every day and bring back wood for use in the fire. One day, he had to go much further than usual to find enough and was dreading the thought of walking all the way home carrying all that wood when another child he’d never seen before showed up out of nowhere offering to help. The first kid wasn’t sure what to do until the stranger offered him a gift of a single rose. It was a young rose so the stranger told him to take it home, put it in water and when the bud opened into full bloom then the stranger would come visit again. The young boy accepted the rose and the help carrying his family’s wood. They made the return trip much more easily than he would’ve alone, so he turned to thank the stranger and was surprised to find nobody there. When he told his mother what happened, she thought he was making up a story. Her son presented the rose as proof, relating the stranger’s promise to return when the flower was in full bloom. The mother put the rose in a cup of water and waited to see what would happen. A couple days later, when her youngest child didn’t get out of bed at his usual time, she went to check on him and found him dead. She looked over at the rose on the table and saw it was in full bloom.
O, Rose, thou art sick.
Goin’ to the Chaparral, Gonna Get Married
The Jones family came to Texas from Alabama all the way back in the early 1800s. George Washington Jones’ mother was only fourteen years old and knew she was pregnant when she decided to leave her husband. After the baby was born in 1895, she gave him to her parents and resumed her dedication to drinking. From his first job at the age of eleven, working as the water boy in a sawmill, all George Washington ever knew was getting by however he could. As he grew up, “getting by” often meant hard labor in the logging trade and he became an ox of a man with the muscles of a lumberjack stacked over six feet tall. When he wasn’t working, he drank and danced his worries away. He did know how to hammer out a few chords on guitar and blow a little harmonica but, by all accounts, his singing voice was no smoother than sandpaper. The Pattersons came to Texas by way of Mississippi. A deeply religious family, Clara Patterson’s father built a small country church where he served as deacon and all his children were taught to worship the Lord through song. He was devastated when, in 1915, his twenty-year-old daughter Clara eloped with George Washington Jones, a no account, hard-partying hand at a local sawmill.
All of this took place in an area of east Texas known as the Big Thicket, a region covering the spectrum of ecosystems from swampland shared with Louisiana on the state’s eastern border through densely wooded forests and, eventually, prairie lands as one travels further west. But, for most of human history, the Big Thicket wasn’t an area anyone was doing much traveling through at all. More often, people chose to go around, both because of the difficult terrain and the castoffs of society who had no choice but to call such an unwelcoming place their home. In the thicket, bandits and murderers hid from consequences. In the thicket, the poorest of folk driven by economic circumstances did dangerous work or scratched out whatever other kind of life they could from the land. The other thing about the Big Thicket, common to such impoverished places, is folklorists and faux historians long ago understood they could sell outsiders all manner of lie and legend, combining garden variety classism with a fetish for outlaws to depict residents of the Thicket as a bunch of uneducated deviants living by some backwards but locally-codified sense of thieving trickster’s honor, like the Court of Miracles in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In truth, the only lives and people to be found in the Thicket were hard and made harder by hard times.
It’s unclear whether marrying Clara Patterson was enough to inspire a change in George Washington Jones’ lifestyle or if this change came about three years later, when their first child, Ethel, was born. Either way, he reined in his drinking to step into the role of father for a family that continued to grow one and two children at a time over the next fifteen years. Most of the honest (and dishonest) labor in the Thicket came from the timber and oil industries. If you didn’t work near a saw or an oil rig, you probably provided a service to (or stole from) those who did. George Washington supported his family by taking any job he could find, often two at a time, supplemented with various random gigs on the side. He could work on cars, so people sometimes paid him to do that. He built all his family’s furniture with his own hands, so other families sometimes paid him to do that. And life in the Thicket had taught him enough about patching up a human body for the local doctor to sometimes call if he needed assistance with a patient. Clara made their children’s clothing from used flour sacks. She’d played piano in her father’s church and, like all Pattersons, sang in a voice the neighbors found pleasant, some would even say beautiful. She sang to all her children until they started singing back and George Washington loved to sit and listen to his family sing. In the Thicket, music was free entertainment, as long as you could make it yourself. Nothing else came as easily but the family got by alright.
Then, in 1926, the five Jones children began passing around malaria to each other. The eldest, Ethel, was 8 years old when she caught the fever and died. The whole family loved Ethel dearly and everyone old enough to understand what happened was surely traumatized by her death but George Washington never recovered from losing his first child. Soon, he started drinking again and not like before, when he drank for fun. This was drinking to forget, to put a layer of insulation between his mind and his memories. But since the family’s survival still depended on him, he continued to white-knuckle it through the work week. Only, now, every payday he had to meet Clara at the village store and give her enough money to pay off enough of their tab for the family to be able to get the groceries needed to survive the coming week. Because if Clara didn’t get the money before George Washington made it to the local saloon, there wouldn’t be any left when he came home drunk, however many days later that was. And he never came home happy again. During the work week, he’d walk in sober and kind to his family but also always a little sad. After a weekend (which he’d sometimes turn into a four day thing), he’d walk in drunk, easily angered and physically abusive. He threw things, broke things, hit Clara, hit their children. The kids often wished she’d just be quiet instead of criticizing and shaming him for coming in drunk because that only made him angrier. But it’s unclear whether Clara couldn’t keep herself from yelling at her husband or she did it to make sure he focused his wrath on her before there was a chance to become upset with one of the children. Sometimes George Washington’s rage was so explosively violent, Clara got too scared to stay in the house and took at least the youngest children to the nearest neighbors.
In the late 1920s, the Great Depression hit and George Washington lost his primary job delivering huge bricks of ice from a local icehouse to paying customers in the area, nearly all of whom instantly disappeared along with most of the honest work. By 1931, he’d resorted to sneaking on land owned by timber companies, sawing down trees in the middle of the night and dragging them back home in the dark to turn a profit selling whatever furniture or useful goods could be made from the poached lumber. He was also known to have a working still, should anyone need to buy or make some moonshine liquor. And 1931 was the year he and Clara had their last child. George Glenn Jones weighed 12 pounds at birth, which all his family agree contributed to the arm bone fracture he suffered during delivery, though some say the break was a result of the backwoods doctor’s struggle to pull such a huge baby from his mother and others say the surprising weight made that doctor drop the baby on the floor. Either way, he came into this world the already-broken youngest son of George Washington and Clara Jones.
With two Georges now in the house, everyone took to calling the baby George Glenn or, more often, just Glenn. The other kids adored their baby brother and helped take care of him but nobody doted on little Glenn like Clara, who favored the boy as though she knew (after birthing eight children, including two sets of twins) this would be her last, forever the baby of the family. She sang to Glenn all the time. The first song she found he enjoyed was a folk ballad, called “Billy Boy,” in which a young man responds to questions of where he’s been lately by listing attributes of the girl he’s courting, then regretfully admitting she’s too young to marry. There’s a comedic twist at the end of “Billy Boy,” when the woman is revealed to be much older than Billy, thus insinuating the entire song is him foolishly believing her absurd excuses for not wanting to marry him. Several sources suggest “Billy Boy” is a sanitized rewrite of a much older murder ballad, known by the titles “Lord Randall” or “Henry, My Son,” in which we glean from the young protagonist’s responses the woman he was trying to marry has mortally poisoned him. Another of Glenn’s early favorites was “Give Me the Roses While I Live,” written in the 1920s by James Rowe and R.H. Cornelius but first recorded by the Carter Family in 1933, when Glenn was barely two years old.
During the Great Depression, many children in poor communities – growing up amid such extreme starvation, disease and death while knowing there were other people out there with far more than they needed – developed a strong distrust and some would even say hatred toward the wealthy of the world. Young Glenn certainly noted the effect a lifetime of poverty had on his own father. Later, he’d say, “You never would see my dad smile or laugh about anything. You could tell a joke and he’d be just as solemn.” In 1938, nearing the end of the Depression, George Washington’s job opportunities started to pick back up and the Jones family was able to buy their first radio set. Living in Saratoga, this radio brought in Cajun music from KVOL in Lafayette, Louisiana plus hillbilly and norteño music from XERA, a high-power station in Mexico, which also broadcast many supernatural-themed talk programs hosted by astrologers, fortune-tellers and numerologists. Saturday nights, George Washington was likely to be drunk or passed out on the ground somewhere far away from home and unlikely to return until at least the next day, so everyone felt free to relax and have a little fun. Saturday nights also meant the Jones family radio dial stayed tuned to their local NBC affiliate for the Grand Ole Opry. In 1939, Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys made their Opry debut with Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues.” Young Glenn knew he was liable to get comfortable and fall asleep during the broadcast, so from then he gave his mother strict instructions to be sure he was awake if Bill Monroe came on. The other artist he forbade Clara to let him miss was Roy Acuff. From the time he was 8 years old forward, Glenn remained a fan of both artists but, to him, Roy Acuff was something bigger: a hero, an icon. (Before it recently closed, the George Jones Museum in Nashville held his personal collection of Roy Acuff memorabilia on proud display.) It’s unclear when George Washington Jones first began coming home drunk, waking up his children and making them stand in a line to sing for his entertainment with threats of a beating for anyone who stopped or didn’t sing well enough but one of the songs Glenn remembered singing on these occasions, which he later recorded, was Roy Acuff’s “Precious Jewel.”
Out of the Thicket
Near the end of 1941, The Jones family moved a little deeper into the Big Thicket to a town named Kountze, where George Washington had found a legitimate job in the timber industry. But, then, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December and the United States entered World War II, creating all manner of work in the Port Arthur shipyards near Beaumont, where the Jones family moved in early 1942. Even though they’d only lived in Kountze a few months, it was long enough for Clara to find a new church, The First Gospel Tabernacle, led by a Pentecostal minister everyone called Brother Burl. His wife, Sister Annie, taught the Sunday school for children Glenn’s age. While there, Glenn’s favorite part of Sunday school had been when Sister Annie led singalongs with her guitar. He often hung around after everyone else left to ask questions about music and have Annie show him how to play things on her guitar.
Then his family moved away, into an apartment unit in one of the housing projects rapidly thrown together in Beaumont after the war brought so many new jobs and new people to the area. As a pipefitter, George Washington made decent money, enough to buy an officially licensed Gene Autry acoustic guitar built to 3/4 scale, a manageable size for its recipient, his youngest son. Glenn was inseparable from the instrument. In nearly every picture of him as a young child he’s holding either this or another guitar. The year his father gave him the Gene Autry guitar, Autry’s version of “I’ve Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle” was a #12 pop hit and sold over a million copies. In 1943, Ernest Tubb joined the Grand Ole Opry and brought a new honky-tonk sound with him. Now, a lot of people who owned radio sets reacted to the start of a country music program by changing the station to see if anything “less different” was on. So for everyone who missed Ernest Tubb when “Walking the Floor Over You” was a minor pop hit in 1941, Al Dexter’s “Pistol Packin’ Mama” was the first honky-tonk country song they ever heard. And everyone heard this song because it was one of the most ubiquitous records of World War II, charting at #1 country and #1 pop in 1943. These were the sounds of country music Glenn heard on the radio and figured out how to reproduce with his voice and his Gene Autry guitar.
And his family’s life in Beaumont was very different from what they were used to in the Thicket. Not that Clara ever made her baby boy do chores anyway but – with only a two room apartment to keep clean, no garden or farm animals to tend, not even any need to bring up water from a well – there simply weren’t many chores to do. Since Glenn was mostly left alone to do whatever he wanted and all he wanted was to play guitar and sing, that’s all he ever really did. A lot of days he even blew off school to just find some place and practice. There are a couple different versions of how he first came to perform on the streets of Beaumont but it did happen when he was about eleven years old. According to Glenn, he was hanging around with his guitar outside an arcade, playing songs purely for his own amusement, when he looked up and saw some people had stopped to watch him, so he quit playing. When some of the crowd began tossing money to him and told him to keep playing, he kept playing. Each time he finished a song and stopped for a minute, more people threw more money to him, so Glenn ran through every song he knew a few times, then checked to see how much money he had. Back then, $24 was roughly equivalent to several hundred today. The boy went in the arcade and blew it all on games and candy. Telling the story many years later, he said, “I gave those pinball machines hell that day.” (It would be another ten years before they met but it’s exceedingly likely those pin games were installed in that arcade by Pappy Daily.) The only real difference between this version of the story and others is it’s sometimes said George Washington was who pushed his son to perform on the street that day in order to take most of the money and go get drunk. This is likely untrue and a backdating of later stories about that happening, since the whole reason they moved to Beaumont and the whole reason Glenn got a guitar was because of his father’s new, better-paying job. Whatever happened the first time, Glenn repeated the act and – one way or the other – the cash never made it back to the apartment. Once he discovered this magic trick for making money, he cared even less about school and his already poor track record of attendance grew worse. After repeating 7th grade, he dropped out. Pretty soon, Glenn started using his new superpower in place of bus fare, performing songs for the driver and passengers while in transit to and from Kountze to visit Sister Annie, so she could give him more guitar lessons. He’d ask her about different chords and, as an aspiring lead player, he was also interested to know more about scales. Sister Annie remembered he’d come back a couple weeks later, not only playing and singing while incorporating the latest things she’d shown him but pushing beyond that to demonstrate the additional things he’d worked out on his own. Before long, Sister Annie and Brother Burl invited Glenn to sing and play lead with them during church service and at special events, sometimes just posting up near a restaurant or public park to play gospel music for whoever was around.
Between the moral education he picked up on in Kountze and the way his saintly mother reacted to George Washington coming home drunk, Glenn eventually got the idea his father must not be a very good person. Like, there was obviously some wrong and wicked thing the old man could only keep hidden inside if he didn’t drink and nobody knew when that wrong, wicked thing may come crashing through the front door with a bottle in its hand. Once Glenn started getting good at guitar, he became the main focus of that wrong and wicked thing’s attention. Whenever George Washington came home drunk and made his kids get out of bed to sing, he’d sit down in a chair to listen. Eventually, he’d begin to pass out but his children knew they had to keep going because he was liable to come awake and start throwing punches if the music stopped or he heard some other noise. The only way to make a clean escape was for one kid to sneak off at a time, usually by climbing out the apartment’s window, which was quieter than using the door. But Glenn was the only one with an instrument. Since the guitar suddenly stopping would be more noticeable than one voice drifting off into the night, he always had to keep the rhythm going until he was the last kid left, then try to get out of the window without waking up the monster. There were a lot of times he didn’t make it. After years of this, when he was about 15 in 1947, there was some kind of altercation between father and son and Glenn decided to leave home. He probably assumed money wouldn’t be a problem so long as he had a guitar and a piece of sidewalk to stand on while playing it. And if he understood the first thing about managing money, it’s possible he’d have been right. Then again, later in life he said he wasn’t thinking about money at all: “When I started out I had no thoughts of being a star. I didn’t even have thoughts about making a decent living. I didn’t care if I made a dollar. I never thought where my next meal was coming from. I was at my peak when I had my guitar in my hand and I was singing, whether I was by myself, at my house, in a club, or wherever. I was really more concerned with my own pleasure than whether or not they enjoyed my singing.”
Into the Fire
For a while, he moved around between the homes of older siblings who’d already married and moved out or slept on whatever couches, floors and shared mattresses his friends could offer. If he was feeling flush, he’d sometimes splurge on renting his own room somewhere but this went very wrong one time when a bill came due just after he’d blown all his cash. The landlord locked up Glenn’s possessions as collateral and kicked him out into the street. Another aspiring teenage musician, named Dalton Henderson, found out the kid who played on sidewalks in Beaumont was in a bad way, so he asked his parents if Glenn could come stay with them. Dalton’s parents agreed and even handed over some money to go get Glenn’s stuff from that landlord. Moving in with the Hendersons took him right back up into the Big Thicket, near the town Jasper. Dalton had a semi-regular gig singing on morning radio and whenever Glenn was around he’d often guest on the show, using the airtime to plug whatever stages or street corners he had lined up for performances later in the day. He treated the Hendersons’ house more like a hotel than a home, stopping by for a few days of steady meals and a place to sleep before heading out on more gigs.
This is the period when he began sneaking into the road houses, old barns and decommissioned icehouses turned into dance halls and honky tonks he wasn’t yet old enough to legally enter. Once he managed to get inside, he’d wait for the band to take an intermission then try to get the crowd to pay attention to him and his guitar. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. This is also the period when Hank Williams hit country radio harder than anyone ever had. As a voracious fan of the genre and a kid trying to make it his business to know every popular country song a local audience member may want to hear, Glenn probably jumped on the Hank Williams bandwagon at “Move It On Over,” a Top 5 country hit in 1947. Everyone loves “Move It On Over.” It’s great. But the b-side of the record, “(Last Night) I Heard You Crying in Your Sleep,” is a better example of the sound Hank introduced to popular country by blending Ernest Tubb’s brand of honky-tonk with Roy Acuff’s emotional vocal delivery. Even if he could have afforded them, Glenn had no space for a record player or records but he did have enough coins to drop in a jukebox and play a song the few times it took him to learn it. Once his voice dropped with puberty, he found the high, lonesome sound of Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe played hell on his throat, especially in smoke-filled honky tonks. Hank Williams records became his instruction manual for bringing the high, lonesome emotion down into his new natural range. By the time Hank joined the lineup of the Louisiana Hayride in 1948, he was Glenn Jones’ favorite singer.
When he started playing secular music in bars, Glenn had stopped playing gospel music with Sister Annie and Brother Burl. Years later, he’d decide it was okay to mix secular with sacred and get back in touch with Brother Burl to write some of the most powerful gospel music ever recorded, like “Cup of Loneliness.” But at the beginning of his career, he didn’t think it would be right to get up before a congregation and play gospel music on Sunday morning for people who knew he spent his nights playing in bars. So Glenn walked away from church and over to the wild side of life.
The first time he got drunk, he was riding around in a car with Dalton Henderson and some other boys, one of whom had a bottle. After drinking too much cheap whiskey, Glenn requested the vehicle be pulled over so he could throw up, which he did while stumbling around in a pasture and falling down. When the highway patrol pulled up, Glenn was taken to jail, drunk, covered in vomit and cow shit. But he kept drinking. And sometimes when he drank, his personality changed so much it scared his friends. According to Dalton, if Glenn got enough alcohol in him, he was liable to try fighting anyone at the drop of a hat and it didn’t matter that he was usually the smallest person in any bar. Whenever he found a problem with someone, whoever it was, he’d lower his head and charge like a blind bull; the ineffective approach to combat he kept for the rest of his life. Of course, alcohol can’t put such violence and rage in a person. It’s got to already be there, somewhere, under the surface. Sober, he was the kind of kid who enjoyed a good joke, whether it be winding up his friends, playing a prank or saying something just to get a rise out of someone. One time, while he was staying at the Hendersons, Dalton’s father told Glenn to stop his good-natured teasing of an elderly relative and it caused Glenn to run out of the room. Seeing the boy was upset, Mrs. Henderson waited a few minutes before going to the bedroom where he stayed to check on him. When she got there the lights were off, so she flicked the switch and found Glenn slamming his hands and face into a mattress, trying to get rid of his anger without losing his safe place to sleep for the night.
At some point in 1948, Glenn and some friends were hanging around a hamburger drive-in, watching a local husband and wife country music duo who went by Eddie & Pearl. He was too shy to do it himself but a friend went up and asked Eddie & Pearl to let Glenn join them on lead guitar for a couple tunes, saying he knew every Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb song they’d played so far and probably knew the next two as well. They let him come up and it must have gone well because Eddie & Pearl continued inviting him onstage whenever they saw him at shows. Then, one day, they let him take the mic to sing a song, heard what he could do with his throat and asked him to join the act full-time. He was about 16 years old when they moved him into their house and began paying him $17.50 to perform on the radio five days a week, then at various burger joints and honky tonks in the evenings. Where Glenn’s father was a binge drinker, who stayed sober through the work week and then dropped a hammer on his consciousness over the weekend, Eddie was more of a chronic alcoholic, who never let the fact he had work to do stop him from taking a drink. One night, after over-serving himself during a show, Eddie climbed behind the wheel to drive everyone home and wound up putting the car halfway into a small river before passing out. Pearl left Glenn to make sure Eddie didn’t drown while she walked back to the bar and got someone who could tow out the car, then she drove everyone home. Just another night on the job with Eddie & Pearl.
Since the crowd response to his voice was always so big, they gave Glenn a segment in the show where he took over singing lead for a while. Pretty soon, audience members started reaching onstage to stuff tips directly in his pocket instead of the jug shared with Eddie & Pearl. At all the drive-in burger joints, people who wanted to drink while listening to the band ordered sodas which they then spiked with their own alcohol. One day, the owner at one of these places realized, for whatever reason, his customers ordered more sodas while the teenage kid was playing his segment of Eddie & Pearl’s show. So, afterward, he came over and offered Glenn a solo gig on the side. Glenn took it. He also teamed up in this period with future Sons of the Pioneers member Luther Nalley. Luther was impressed by the depth of Glenn’s country music knowledge. He was a walking jukebox of all the latest records from Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb, sure. But he also seemed to know everything from before that, too, dating all the way back to the first hit records in the genre by Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Vernon Dalhart, you name it. If anyone requested it, he could even pull out pre-20th century gospel and folk ballads. According to Luther, Glenn’s performance style was high energy and he hopped all over the stage while playing and singing. He was also sure to look back with a scowl anytime Luther threw a fancy jazz chord into one of Glenn’s country songs. Even with all the side gigs, for as long as he lived in their house, Eddie & Pearl were Glenn’s main job, which is how he came to meet his favorite singer of all time.
The first Hank Williams single of 1949 was also Hank’s first #1 record, “Lovesick Blues.” It came out in February and, according to play count mechanisms on jukeboxes, was the 24th most-played song of that year in any genre. The record was so popular that enough people checked out the b-side to send it to #6 on the country chart, even though it was just a reissue of Hank’s little-heard debut single, “Never Again (Will I Knock on Your Door),” recorded in 1946 during his first session at Castle’s WSM operation in Nashville. So now Glenn’s favorite country singer was nearly everyone’s favorite country singer, which was great news for him because of how much people loved it when he sang like Hank. Hank’s follow-up to “Lovesick Blues” was “Wedding Bells,” recorded in 1949 at Castle’s Tulane Hotel studio in Hank’s first session with Dale Potter on fiddle. The record came out in May and hit #2, another huge single.
This string of hits kept Hank on tour long enough to eventually bring him straight through Glenn Jones’ corner of Texas. In fact, the radio station where Hank booked an appearance to promote his show in the area happened to be the very station Glenn played five days a week with Eddie & Pearl. His dawning awareness of how easy it would be to meet his idol turned into the realization he had an opportunity to do something much better than that. Glenn wasn’t just gonna meet Hank Williams. He was gonna play guitar with him. Eddie & Pearl put in an offer to back up Hank when he played his new single on the radio and, sure enough, it was approved. The day of the concert finally arrived and so did Hank, pulling in to the radio station with little time to spare before his scheduled promo spot, much less than however long Glenn would’ve needed to spend with him in order to realize he was not a superhuman entity. Hank chatted on-air with the DJ about the latest events in his career, plugging that night’s concert throughout, then it was time to play his new single with Eddie & Pearl & Not Glenn. Oh, he was supposed to play on it. He was right there in the studio with his guitar on and everything. It’s just that Glenn thought the plan was for him to kick off the song by playing the fiddle intro from the record on his guitar. But then Hank launched into singing on his own, Glenn’s hands froze and – in what may have been his first ever attack of stage fright – all he could do was stand and stare at Hank Williams’ back as the man sang “Wedding Bells.” So, that’s all he did. Afterward, Hank killed some time hanging around the station and Glenn was able to talk with him. He even got up the courage to show off his Hank Williams impersonation, which amused the country star. But he must also have been impressed by the musical ability standing before him because he shared a piece of wisdom which would alter the course of country music history when Glenn applied it on record some five years later. Hank said all he ever wanted to do when he first started out was sing like Roy Acuff. And he got good enough at it for crowds of people to come listen, good enough to get some kind of performing career going and everything. But when it came time to turn that into a recording career, he learned the record business already had one Roy Acuff and not much use for another. He told Glenn the record business wasn’t ever likely to have much use for another Hank Williams, so he needed to start looking for his own voice. At the concert that night, Hank dedicated “Wedding Bells” to his #1 fan in the audience, Glenn Jones, who it’s safe to say would have taken a bullet for Hank Williams from that moment forward. It’s impossible to exaggerate how far beyond the typical fan/artist relationship his adoration reached, the personal pride Glenn must have felt when his favorite singer joined the Grand Ole Opry that June, the urgency with which he continued to absorb Hank’s new records as soon as they were released. And he continued absorbing those records even as a near-metaphysical darkness crept in from the edges on songs like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “They’ll Never Take Her Love from Me” and “Lost Highway.” Glenn copped every lick and nuance from every Hank Williams single, adding all of it to the bag of tricks his honky tonk audiences wanted to hear. But he also began exploring his own voice the way he’d explored the guitar, taking apart things he picked up from others and putting the pieces back together into something different, something new. He broke down every part of his vocal pathway and experimented with each, learning how to load his lungs then restrict and direct airflow into somersaults of notes, how to smoothly move the sound between the resonating chambers of his chest and throat and skull, how to bite down on certain syllables to half-hum a lyric into clenched teeth.
By the end of 1949, he was no longer playing with Eddie & Pearl. The cash was better when you didn’t have to split it so he struck out on his own, putting a down payment on his first car. But he still had no clue what he was doing when it came to money and, after missing a few payments on the car, a repo man showed up to take it back from one of his regular gigs at a place called Lola & Shorty’s. Instead of handing over the car, Glenn tried to fight the guy and wound up getting his stomach sliced open with a knife, requiring a trip to the hospital to stitch him up and save his life. That was Lola & Shorty’s. Another place he played in Beaumont was called Neva’s, so it’s pretty likely this is when and where Jack Starnes first heard him sing.
By the end of 1950, Glenn had a second-favorite country singer. Considering Lefty Frizzell was born only a couple hundred miles away and his pre-fame touring circuit regularly brought him to the same stages, he was probably on Glenn’s radar way before he even made a record. If not, he got there soon after because nearly nobody in any genre of music has ever come out of the gate with the stylistic confidence of Lefty Frizzell on “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time,” which was never not going to go #1. But it was Lefty’s second record (also a #1 hit) which sparked a revolution in country vocal technique. Without “I Love You a Thousand Ways” and the subsequent career it foreshadowed, there would be no George Jones, no Merle Haggard, no Keith Whitley, no Randy Travis or any of a hundred other legendary voices in the genre. Most fans were buying the songs to enjoy listening to them but every country singer in the world, even those who never actively tried to incorporate Lefty’s style, studied those records to try and understand what this guy was doing. Because every second of his relaxed and subdued virtuosity made a statement about the choices he wasn’t making but could if he wanted. The emotional power Hank Williams generated by channeling his entire being into his throat, Lefty Frizzell produced while making it sound like he was barely trying. Whenever it was Glenn first heard Lefty, he surely got to work adding that voice to his bag of tricks right away, until Lefty became one more set of pieces Glenn could put back together as something new, like a hot rod rolling out the doors of a chop shop.
The size of the crowds at Glenn’s shows grew along with his evolving skill and it’s pretty likely the earliest recordings we’d have of his voice would be from this period had he not enlisted in the Marines near the end of 1951. And he certainly wouldn’t have done that had he never met a young woman named Dorothy Bonvillian. They may have met as early as 1949, when Glenn was 17 and just building a following. Dorothy and her parents saw him play, thought he was great and watched him for a while before coming up to introduce themselves at an all-ages outdoor venue, called Playground Park. Dorothy’s father owned a commercial painting service, so the Bonvillians were fairly well off. This may not have been the main thing Glenn was attracted to when it came to Dorothy but he sure didn’t mind driving her around in her father’s fancy car or the new guitar, amplifier and small P.A. system the Bonvillian family bought for him. He and Dorothy were married in June 1950, when Glenn was 18. Brother Burl officiated the ceremony. According to one of Glenn’s sisters, he said Dorothy and he liked each other all right and everything but they probably never would have gotten married if Dorothy’s parents weren’t always pushing them to be together. In a photograph taken on their wedding day, Dorothy and her mother look happy, as if they’ve gotten something they wanted, Glenn and his mother, Clara, do not. After the wedding, the Bonvillians continued to support Glenn’s attempts to break into the music business. According to a steel guitar player named Jerry Fox, Mr. Bonvillian even paid for Glenn to make some recordings with 4 Star but the marriage fell apart before anyone could figure out what to do with the tapes. If that session did happen, those tapes have still never surfaced. Though it is possible Jerry Fox had this alleged Bonvillian-funded session confused with another 4 Star session that definitely took place in March 1951 when Slim Watts cut “I Lost My Little Darling,” at least partially written by Glenn Jones. A few years later, Jones recorded the song for Starday Records under the title “Sweet Imogene.”
Glenn and Dorothy were husband and wife for approximately eleven months, during which time it became clear that she, coming from an affluent background, had no intention of doing any cooking or cleaning in their apartment and wouldn’t even know where to start if she did. Glenn once asked her to do some kind of housework and she responded by telling her father, who yelled at Glenn about how “no daughter of his,” etc., etc. Another time, Dorothy said something insulting to one of Glenn’s sisters, so he slapped her in the face. Whenever they had any kind of argument, Dorothy would go stay with her parents for a while but she always wound up coming back.
Then she got pregnant and everything changed. Or, at least, everyone decided everything about Glenn needed to change. Now that he was going to be a father, Dorothy’s parents felt he should stop spending so much time in those awful, smoke-filled honky tonks where he played and, in fact, maybe start thinking about giving up on those dreams of being a country singer. Maybe it was time to get a real job. They suggested he go into the family business and work at Mr. Bonvillian’s painting company. He did try. He went out with a paint crew a few times to paint hospitals and houses. It’s just that it made him so depressed he wanted to day drink, so he started doing that, too, telling anyone who asked if he was alright those paint fumes were making him feel loopy. So that didn’t last very long but he did keep trying to find what Dorothy’s parents called a “real job.” He drove a 7-Up delivery truck for a while but couldn’t stick with it. He worked in a funeral home for however many days it took until someone asked him to undress a dead body. Nothing he tried ever lasted more than a few weeks and he eventually decided he was either going to make it as a country singer or he wasn’t going to make it in life. In July 1951, Dorothy responded by filing for divorce on the grounds he was “a man of violent temper,” “addicted to the drinking of alcoholic beverages” who had “threatened [her] with physical violence and harm.” Glenn was ordered by the court to pay $35 a week in child support and, because the baby hadn’t even been born yet when the divorce went through, another $500 toward the medical expense of the delivery. With live shows as his sole source of income, he just couldn’t make it happen. When one of Glenn’s sisters found out he had to pawn his first guitar, the little Gene Autry acoustic that was a gift from their father, she went and bought it from the pawn shop to keep safe for him. The first time he was thrown in jail for not making full child support payments was the month after the divorce. The second time was the following month, when they arrested him for the same thing again. After a while, a judge told him this was obviously going to keep happening so Glenn may as well join the military and put the government in charge of sending the child support home for him.
Since there were waiting periods to enlist in the Army and the Navy, Glenn Jones became a Marine in November of 1951. After basic training, they stationed him near San Jose in California, where he stayed for two years. Upon arrival, he scouted out the San Jose roadhouses and honky tonks with country bands who’d let him talk his way onstage for a song or two. He always knew the latest hit records and could sing ‘em better than anyone else, so he quickly built a small following and everyone started calling him The Singing Marine. Cliffie Stone brought him on KXLA’s “Hometown Jamboree” and there were a few other DJs who put him on their shows and helped him get booked in the area as “Little Georgie Jones.” Some of the steady gigs he found required sneaking off base and risking AWOL charges but the money was too good to pass up. Even better, cash the Marine Corps didn’t know about was cash the Marine Corps couldn’t send home to his ex-wife. So Little Georgie Jones often went AWOL, then snuck back on base in the early morning hours, hopefully undetected.
One morning, after getting back to his bunk following a show, a Marine in the next bunk whispered over to him. Everyone knew Hank Williams was his favorite singer, so the Marine knew Jones would want to hear the radio had announced Hank Williams was dead at the age of 29. It’s pretty likely Jones was aware of Hank’s famous struggles with alcoholism, even if he didn’t know how much of Hank’s self-medication was to deal with physical pain from being born with spina bifida occulta. But there’s no question he’d have been familiar with Hank’s latest single. In fact, since it came out nearly two months earlier, Jones had probably sung “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” during his set earlier in the night. George Jones lay in his bunk and cried until the sun rose.
Thank you for reading Cocaine & Rhinestones. Every episode is written by me, Tyler Mahan Coe.
While you’re on the website, please visit the SUPPORT page to see the various ways you may be able to help me keep making this show. Especially now that I have to go away for a while to research and write Season 3, the most effective means of support is signing up for the Patreon, where as an added bonus each month you’ll be able to follow along on my thought processes and progress toward future seasons. As an example of the kind of thing I talk about on Patreon sometimes, here’s a good place to make sure everyone understands I don’t create this show for people who are already familiar with some of these stories to listen with a checklist and make sure I hit all the things they expect to hear. For instance, if anyone expected me to talk about someone like Mel Street or more about Gram Parsons, the fact is those artists just are not as important to the George Jones story as George Jones was important to them. Please, keep in mind I’m not done telling stories. This season was the George Jones story and I can not force every piece of country music history that he touched into any single season of this podcast while retaining a cohesive narrative.
While we’re on the topic of the way I tell stories: when the first episode of Season 2 came out, there were a lot of people who couldn’t possibly know I was going to talk about pinball in this final episode (or why) and they felt the need to explain to me that pinball is irrelevant to the George Jones story. I’d imagine most of the folks who said something like that checked out somewhere around bullfighting and are not here anymore but, just in case anyone needs to have it pointed out to them, you have the technology at your fingertips to skip any part of these stories you feel are a waste of your time. Nobody who doesn’t want to is under any obligation to read my words about pinball. However, I am obligated to push the limits of my writing abilities in order to resurrect the world that made these artists who they were. To everyone who, based on Season 1, trusted me enough to sit back and let me tell them this story, I owed a work worth revisiting time and again – both to show my gratitude and because, like I said, I’m about to have to go on a break to research, write and produce Season 3. I don’t know how long that break is going to be but I do know that Season 2 has been constructed to only become better each time through, so that’s something everyone who trusts me as a storyteller can do while I’m away, knowing the only reason I’m gone is to try and come back with something else just as good. That is where my priorities are and where they will stay.
This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:
- Charlie Monroe & The Kentucky Pardners – “Down in the Willow Garden” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Clarice Garland – “Billy Boy” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Burl Ives – “Lord Randall” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Carter Family – “Give Me Roses While I Live” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Leo Soileau & The Rhythm Boys – “Les Blues de la Port Arthur” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Lydia Mendoza – “La Pollita” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys – “Mule Skinner Blues” (live on Grand Old Opry in 1939) [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Roy Acuff & His Crazy Tennesseans – “Great Speckle Bird, No. 2” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Roy Acuff & His Smoky Mountain Boys – “The Precious Jewel” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “The Precious Jewel” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Gene Autry – “(I’ve Got Spurs That) Jingle Jangle Jingle” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ernest Tubb – “You Nearly Lose Your Mind” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Al Dexter – “Pistol Packin’ Mama” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Hank Williams – “Last Night I Heard You Crying in Your Sleep” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Last Night I Heard You Crying in Your Sleep” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Cup of Loneliness” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Hank Williams – “Lovesick Blues” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Hank Williams – “Never Again Will I Knock on Your Door” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Hank Williams – “Wedding Bells” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Hank Williams – “Lost Highway” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Lefty Frizzell – “I Love You a Thousand Ways” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Sweet Imogene” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Hank Williams – “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” [Amazon / Apple Music]
These videos were excerpted in the episode. For any number of reasons, YouTube may remove them in the future but here they are for now:
Commentary and Remaining Sources
I am aware that Christopher Marlowe has been officially credited as a co-author on some new editions of Henry VI but the main scholar on the research responsible for that happening claims Shakespeare was the author of the rose garden scene.
I am aware that maybe 50% of the old folk songs I ever reference on this podcast will bear some resemblance to a song many people think of as being written by Bob Dylan. If I pointed out each instance of that happening I’d have to change the name of the entire show to Songs You Thought Were by Bob Dylan.
This wasn’t specified in the episode but “I Lost My Little Darling” was the first song Jones ever had published. Considering his first guitar was a Gene Autry acoustic, I’m sure he was thrilled when Gene Autry recorded the song in 1949.
For this intro, I did read a book called The Quest for the Rose by Roger Phillips and Martyn Nix, which you should get if you’re in the market for a picture catalog of dozens of varieties of roses or a story about the authors taking a trip to China to try to find a certain kind of rose but not if you’re looking for anything similar to this intro. However, there were a few pages at the beginning which did cover some of the facts I talked about, so I may as well mention it.
There’s been a lot of writing with outrageous and unsourced claims about what people were like in the Big Thicket and I don’t really have time to get into that but, for anyone diving into my sources for this season, I’d recommend not believing anything you read Gordon Baxter say about the Big Thicket in Dolly Carlisle’s Ragged But Right. I know Gordon’s something of a beloved character in certain circles but he was obviously talking out his ass to make sure Dolly walked away with a crazy story.
Last season, I gave all my episode-specific source books away and I am going to do that again. You don’t have to do anything special other than sign up for the mailing list. I don’t know how soon I’ll be able to get around to it but everyone on the mailing list will be entered in a random drawing and I’ll contact those who are selected to see if they want one of the books I read for Season 2. (You can ask anyone who’s been on the mailing list and they’ll tell you I only use it to send out an announcement every one or two years, so you don’t have to worry about getting a bunch of spam messages from me or anything like that.)
There will not be a Q&A episode this season because I feel like I’ve said everything I have to say. If anyone still has questions, the answers are either waiting on your next pass through Season 2 or they were never going to be here anyway. There was also a whole round of press I did around the launch of the season that many of you may have missed. Run a search for my name and you’ll find interviews in GQ, Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Noisey and a few other websites where I talk all about Season 2.
If you’re looking for another music show that is the polar opposite of this one, there’s always my other podcast with Mark Mosley, Your Favorite Band Sucks. Or if you’d like something a little nicer than that, I’d recommend checking out Andrew Hickey’s A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs.
Before I sign off, I’d like to mention the resources at SAMHSA.gov for anyone dealing with addiction or mental health issues. If you’re going through it right now, there’s no reason to go through it alone.
Alright, I’m gonna get out of here. Again, thank you for letting me tell you this story. I hope you enjoyed it.