Jimmy Driftwood was one of the most prolific and influential folk artists in music history. He penned immy Driftwood was one of the most prolific andmore than 5,000 songs, and although many of these were recorded and made popular by other artists, he received the fame, recognition, and financial compensation he deserved. Driftwood’s distinguished role inthe folk genre is even more impressive considering the unique path he took to stardom. While interest in folk music was on the rise in the 1950s, Driftwood was composing folk songs in a classroom in Arkansas. He had trained as a high school teacher, and in his frustration to find an effective method to teach history to his students, he began putting the story and the facts to music, resulting in many of his most popular hits. Most notable of these is “The Battle of New Orleans,” a song covered by Johnny Horton which topped both the country and pop charts, received a Grammy award, and spurred Driftwood’s success.
Born James Corbett Morris in Mountain View, Arkansas, the future folk singer and songwriter was quickly dubbed “Driftwood” when his father played ajoke onhis grandmother, wrapping a piece of driftwood ina blanket and passing it off as Jimmy. Driftwood grew up surrounded by music—his father, a local folk singer, taught him to play the fiddle and passed on his repertoire of tunes, and his mother and grandmother shared theirfolk music with him, too. Driftwood’s grandfather gave hima gift he would use throughout his life—a homemade fiddle made from the headboard of a bed and a fence rail. Geographically, Driftwood’s town in the Ozark Mountains possessed a rich musical heritage, a combination of both Native American and white cultures. Singing and playing music were as natural to Driftwood as breathing.
Along with his love for music, Driftwood had always wanted to beateacher, and after graduating high school he earned his teaching degree from Arkansas Teachers College in Conway, later known as the University of Central Arkansas. Despite the economic hardship of the 1930s brought on by the Great Depression, Driftwood found a position teaching history in an elementary school in Snowball, at the age of 29. His students were not eager to learn, however, and after trying several methods unsuccessfully, he called on his childhood appreciation for writing poetry and his musical background, rich in storytelling. Combining the two, he began threading history lessons into folk songs and teaching them to his students. The formula was successful and the children began learning. Driftwood took his songs with him to other schools where he taught, and soon word of mouth had elevated him to something of celebrity status in the region, specifically the towns of Snowball, Mountain View, and Timbo.
Still, Driftwood’s songs were but a means to an end, and he continued to teach throughout the 1940s and live quietly with his wife, Cleda Azalea Johnson, a former student whom he had married in 1936. Meanwhile, popular culture had begun to take an interest in folk music, and by the 1950s Driftwood was a valuable commodity among members of academia interested in the rich history of the genre. In the mid-1950s, two musicians who appeared regularly on Red Foley’s “Ozark Jubilee,” Porter Wagoner and steel guitar player Don Warden, founded their own music publishing company. When they began to search for other artists to supplement their business, Warden’s friend Hugh Ashley mentioned Driftwood.
Driftwood, who couldn’t be contacted because he didn’t own a phone, received word by mail and offered to meet the businessmen in Nashville and perform his music in person. Wagoner and Warden were enticed by “The Battle of New Orleans,” a song set to the melody of the fiddle tune “The Eighth of January.” Driftwood had written it years earlier in an effort to teach his students about the War of 1812 and it had now gotten him a recording contract with Wagoner and Warden’s label, RCA Victor. Driftwood recorded his first album, Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs, in 1957, and it was released early in 1958 seeing modest sales and little airplay.
For the Record…
Born James Corbett Morris, June 20, 1907, in Mountain View, AR; (died July 12, 1998, Fayetteville, AR). Education: Arkansas State Teachers College.
Married Cleda Azalea Johnson, 1936; wrote “Battle of New Orleans” to teach his high school history students, 1941; signed to RCA Victor and completed first recording session, 1957; released first album, Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs, 1958; gained notoriety when Johnny Morton’s recording of “Battle of New Orleans” became a hit, topping both country and pop charts; released second album, The Wilderness Road, appeared regularly with Grand Ole Opry and on Ozark Jubilee, 1959; ended recording career after six albums, 1961; created Rackensack Folklore Society and held first Arkansas Folk Festival, 1963; established Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, AR, 1973; built Driftwood Barn and Folklore Hall of Fame, 1982; died of heart attack after being hospitalized in Fayetteviile, AR for a stroke.
Awards: Grammy Awards for “The Battle of New Orleans,” “Wilderness Road,” “Songs of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb,” and “Tennessee Stud;” received honorary doctorate in American folklore from Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, 1959.
But late one night a country singer named Johnny Morton heard Driftwood’s “The Battle of New Orleans” on the radio and decided he wanted to cover it. He eventually convinced his record label, Columbia, to allow him to record the song, and cut it on January 27, 1959. Shortly after its release the tune became a hit, topping both the pop and country charts and remaining there for 21 weeks. Driftwood’s songs were hot and his follow-up album, The Wilderness Road, was far more successful than his debut, earning him a Grammy award. His songwriting skills were not only making stars of numerous artists, but they were also paving the road for other historically oriented songs. Horton’s similarly themed “Sink The Bismarck” and “Johnny Reb” became huge hits not long after.
While “The Battle of New Orleans” was gaining popularity in 1959, Driftwood was still teaching in Arkansas. But his success could not be ignored, especially after he won his first Grammy award for his hit single. In 1959 alone, he performed with the Grand Ole Opry around the world, at Carnegie Hall in New York City, at various folk festivals, at the National Education Association jamboree, and at the United Nations. He also received an honorary doctorate in American folklore from Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, and continued writing hit songs like “Tennessee Stud,” which boosted singer Eddy Arnold’s career and won Driftwood another Grammy.
Once Driftwood began receiving profits from his music, he used his popularity and financial leverage to educate the country on the beauty of Arkansas folk culture. He founded the Rackensack Folklore Society in the 1970s and visited universities to lecture on the importance of folk music. Living in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains as he had for most of his life, he established the annual Arkansas Folk Festival in 1963 and helped find funding for the Ozark Folk Center in 1973. In the early 1980s, he established the Driftwood Barn and Folklore Hall of Fame, where folk musicians perform regularly. He also successfully fought the damming of the Buffalo River in Arkansas and assisted in having it deemed a National River. On July 12, 1998, at age 91, Driftwood suffered a fatal heart attack while in the hospital recovering from a stroke. His songwriting contributions and his efforts to educate on the value of folk music made him as one of the most influential folk artist in music history.
Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs, RCA Victor, 1958.
Wilderness Road, RCA Victor, 1959.
The Westward Movement, RCA Victor, 1959.
Tall Tales in Song, RCA Victor, 1960.
Songs of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb, RCA Victor, 1961.
Driftwood at Sea, RCA Victor, 1962.
Voice of the People, Monument, 1963.
Down in the Arkansas, Monument, 1965.
Americana, Bear Family, 1991.
The Best of Jimmy Driftwood, Monument, 1966.
“Jimmy Driftwood,” All-Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 13, 1999).
“Jimmy Driftwood,” Bill Slater’s Website, http://billslater.com/driftwood.htm (February 13, 1999).
“Jimmy Driftwood,” Fuller Up, The Dead Musician Directory, http://elvispelvis.com/jimmiedriftwood.htm (February 13, 1999).
“The Battle of New Orleans,” Tom Simon’s Rock and Roll Page, http://www.crl.com/~tsimon/battle.htm (February 13, 1999).
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