Jimmie Driftwood was almost an anachronism in the years he was at his commercial peak, from 1957 through 1961. A schoolteacher by training, he originally started writing songs as a way of helping his students learn about history, and subsequently composed (or collected and re-composed) over 5,000 songs, many of them dealing with some element of America's past and its history, telling old folk tales, or preserving some aspect of the daily lives of the people who sang them. Only one modern figure in folk music remotely approaches his contribution to American song and the popular understanding of its roots, and that is Lee Hays of the Weavers — Driftwood was never the activist that Hays was, however, being more concerned with teaching than political causes and, thus, never engendered either the blacklisting or the subsequent canonization by the Left that Hays received. And Hays, for all of his leftist sympathies, was never invited to sing before Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the occasion of the first visit of any Soviet leader to the United Nations, as Driftwood was.
In September of 1959, in the midst of the rock & roll era and the burgeoning boom in folk music, Driftwood had half a dozen of his songs somewhere on the American charts, pop or country. The best known of these was "The Battle of New Orleans," which managed to top both the country and pop charts in a version recorded by Johnny Horton, but also charting in September of 1959 were "Tennessee Stud," as recorded by country giant Eddy Arnold, Hawkshaw Hawkins' version of "Soldier's Joy," Johnny and Jack's "Sailor Man," Horton's recording of "Sal's Got a Sugar Lip," and Homer & Jethro's parody "The Battle of Kookamonga." Moreso than Hays, Pete Seeger, or Woody Guthrie, Driftwood helped pull together elements of folk, pop, and country music and gave the mass public some sense of the history of all of it in the bargain.
James Corbett Morris' father was a singer who was well-known locally and who had been recorded by several folk song collectors in the early decades of the 20th century. He learned traditional folk songs from his mother and grandmother, while his father and grandfather taught him old-style fiddle tunes. And he grew up seemingly knowing every folk tale that there was to learn from the Ozarks, from whites and Native Americans (of whom there were many, including his future wife, who was one-quarter Cherokee) alike. It was his grandfather on his father's side, a fiddle maker, who built him the unique guitar that he used throughout his career, the neck made from a fence rail, the sides from an ox yoke, and the head and bottom from the headboard of a bed.
He began writing poetry at an early age, encouraged by a teacher. After graduating high school, he attended John Brown College and later qualified as a teacher, eventually earning a proper education degree from Arkansas Teachers College. During the late '20s and early '30s, when he was still trying to earn some college credits, he headed west to Arizona, driving in an old Model A Ford that made it as far as Texas and hitchhiking the rest of the way. There wasn't much work to be found there in the midst of the Great Depression, but then an opportunity arose through a singing contest sponsored by a local radio station — he had his guitar with him and had written a song called "Arizona."
He won the contest, which got him a spot on the station in the early morning hours, if he could find a sponsor. He eventually found one, in the guise of the grocery store chain that was willing to hire him as a worker and back his show. He was later taken in by an older couple who had heard him through the contest and not only gave him a place to live, but brought his mother — who, as it turned out, was dying from secondhand smoke from his father's cigarette habit — out to Arizona. She died in Arizona, and eventually his father died of cancer as well, by which time Driftwood was back in Arkansas teaching.
It was while teaching history in elementary school that he discovered the positive influence of music in presenting the panorama of American history. He wrote "The Battle of New Orleans," drawing his melody from the traditional fiddle tune "The Eighth of January," in order to help his students distinguish between the events of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the War of 1812. All of the songs and stories that he'd heard during his childhood now stood him in good stead, as he was able to draw on a multitude of tales and traditional melodies, as well as devise his own traditional-sounding melodies, to deliver up songs as needed for his students or anyone else who would listen.
Driftwood married a former student of his, Cleda Azalea Johnson, in 1936, and the couple moved into a home that they built together, where they later raised their family. For the next 20 years, his life was concerned almost exclusively with teaching and his family, and during that time he wrote thousands of songs, almost all having to do with some aspects of American history.
By the 1940s, he had his college degree and proper teaching credentials and was becoming a well-known local figure. That might have been as far as the music took James Corbett Morris, as he was still known, but for several cultural changes that were taking place far from his home.
The late '40s had seen the beginnings of a revival of interest in folk music, with the success of the Almanac Singers and their successors, the Weavers, who transformed an activist songwriting process into popular success. Although their careers were interrupted by a political backlash against their activist roots, the 1950s saw a spread of interest in folk music and the roots and stories behind it to the college campuses, newly swelling with the ranks of middle-class students.
By the mid-'50s, Driftwood suddenly found himself being sought after by scholars and folk song collectors, and he also began receiving invitations to speak at colleges and universities throughout the South and beyond. In 1957, a friend of Driftwood's, Hugh Ashley, told a friend of his, Don Warden, a steel guitar player in Porter Wagoner's band who had just started up a new publishing company and was looking for material, about a schoolteacher who'd written a huge number of songs that seemed to be pretty catchy, at least among the local school children.
At that time, he was still legally James Morris. The name Jimmie Driftwood was the outcome of a joke played on his grandmother when he was born — his grandfather had handed his wife a bundle that was supposed to be Jimmie, but proved to be a piece of wood, to which his grandmother exclaimed, "It's just a piece of driftwood." Morris liked the "Driftwood" name and picked it up and used it, both publicly and legally, from the late '50s onward.
Warden signed Driftwood up as a songwriter after hearing him run through 100 songs, of which "The Battle of New Orleans" was the last. The folk boom was in full swing, and he was signed soon after to RCA Victor, which was looking for folksingers. Driftwood's first recording session was held on October 27, 1957, the same month he signed with the label, and the first song he cut — to his own guitar accompaniment with backing from Chet Atkins on guitar and Bob L. Moore on bass — was "The Battle of New Orleans." There were 11 songs cut that day, all of which ended up on his first album, the rather awkwardly titled Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs, issued in the summer of 1958. That album sold in small but respectable numbers, and received good reviews, but there was no hit single from it, principally because "The Battle of New Orleans" didn't get much airplay, a result of the use of the words "hell" and "damn" in the lyrics.
A second set of sessions was scheduled for November of 1958, but in the meantime, Warden's work as Driftwood's publisher was about to pay off in a totally unexpected way. Wagoner had toured with Horton late in 1958, and in the course of their work together, Warden had pitched "The Battle of New Orleans" to Horton by way of his manager, Tillman Franks. Horton immediately wanted to record the song, and after a few cuts that reduced its length — and an appearance on the Louisiana Hayride, where Driftwood sang "The Battle of New Orleans" — Horton cut the song on January 27, 1959, in Nashville.
Released early the following spring, Horton's single eventually rose to the number one spot on the country charts, which it held for ten weeks out of a 21-week run. Better yet, it crossed over onto the pop charts for a 21-week stay in that much bigger arena, holding the top spot there for six weeks out of that time. Horton helped the song's cause and its exposure by performing it live on The Ed Sullivan Show in June of that year.
Suddenly, everybody wanted to record Driftwood's songs, even as his own second album, The Wilderness Road, was being released. That record, in the wake of the exposure from Horton's single, sold considerably better than his first. By mid-1959, Driftwood's success was confirmed with dozens of recordings of his songs either out or in the works, and then there came the moment in September of that year when six of those records were on the Billboard chart simultaneously. "The Battle of New Orleans" earned him a Grammy Award, and The Wilderness Road not only sold well but yielded an additional Grammy, followed three years later by another award for Billy Yank and Johnny Reb.
The unusual nature of his success at first confused Driftwood, who originally thought of the publishing contract as a vehicle by which to get his songs heard, that he might succeed as a recording artist. His records did sell, but never in numbers resembling Horton's recording of "The Battle of New Orleans," which easily became a gold record and sold in huge numbers around the world — it can safely be considered the model upon which not only direct successors such as Horton's "Sink the Bismarck" were built, but also the impetus behind the willingness of labels like Columbia Records to record such more topical-historical songs as Pete Le Farge's "Ballad of Ira Hayes," in both its original form and the version by Johnny Cash, and even extending to England, where American-born skiffle/country star Johnny Duncan recorded "The Legend of Gunga Din."
He expected lots of money from RCA, and there was some, to be sure. But the checks he got from Warden's publishing company were enormous, in the five-figure range, which, by the standards of Timbo, AR, in 1959, was about as much money as anyone had ever seen. It set Driftwood and his wife and family up comfortably for years to come, and allowed them to buy all of the land they wanted for themselves.
"The Battle of New Orleans" was recut by Driftwood in a slightly more commercial arrangement, and in stereo, and it had a short run of its own on the country charts in mid-1959, its sales only a pale shadow of Horton's record, which was still riding the charts. Driftwood was still a star, however, and in April of that year performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, made the folk festivals in Berkeley and Newport, received an honorary doctorate in American folklore from Peabody College in Nashville, TN, sang before the United Nations for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's visit, appeared on network television game shows (To Tell the Truth, etc.), and got regular spots on the Grand Ol' Opry, the Louisiana Hayride, and the Ozark Jubilee.
Amid all of this activity, Driftwood was forced to end his teaching career, which didn't sit well with him. He continued to educate audiences, most notably those consisting of other teachers, about the power of songs as a teaching tool, and was an invited lecturer before many national teachers meetings and organizations throughout the early '60s.
Finally, in the early '60s, Driftwood found a cause closer to home that he could devote himself to, the Arkansas Folk Festival, which eventually attracted 100,000 people every year to hear the musicians that performed there. That led to the formation of the Rackansack Folklore Society, which led to the building of the Ozark Folk Center in the early '70s. His next endeavor was the Jimmie Driftwood Barn, which became a major performing showcase for players from the Rackansack Folklore Society. Driftwood's other concerns included environmental issues, among them the preservation of the Blanchard Caverns in Arkansas, and the Buffalo River. He served as head of the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Commission and was named to the Advisory Committee of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and worked as a musicologist for the National Geographic Society. During the 1960s and 1970s, in the course of this work, he appeared before audiences at hundreds of colleges and universities.
Driftwood's recording career ended in 1961, but his six albums for RCA remain a compelling country-folk legacy. Artists from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen can trace some elements of their repertory and success to his unique brand of songwriting, and even '80s roots-rock outfits like the Del Lords have performed his songs with the kind of fervor that most acts usually reserve for songs by Dylan and Guthrie. Driftwood died on July 12, 1998, in Fayetteville Arkansas; he was 91. ~ Bruce Eder