Jimmy Driftwood

by Peter Stone

Jimmy (sometimes Jimmie) Driftwood, an award-winning folk musician, singer, folk-music songwriter, and folklorist - and, not to be overlooked, educator - wrote over 6000 songs, of which the most famous are "The Battle of New Orleans" and "Tennessee Stud." His songs, over 300 of them performed and recorded by various artists, dealt with life in the Ozarks, courtin', the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, American folklore, and even sea shanties. More than many of his contemporaries, Driftwood amalgamated folk, pop, and country styles. Alan Lomax admired him as a regional performing star who was able to project the folk idiom into the center of commercial popular culture.

He was born James Corbitt Morris on June 20, 1907, in a backwoods log cabin in West Richwoods, not far from Mountain View, Stone County, in the eastern Ozarks of north-central Arkansas. The Ozark territory (comprising Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma), historically long a refuge freedom seekers and non-conformists, was uniquely rich in Anglo-American folk music. Here, the Northern topical song, the British ballad romance, and the lonesome banjo-picking strain of the Southern mountains had met and mingled (with admixtures of African- and Native-American song-style features). As Alan Lomax had written:
. . . One finds, side by side in the repertoire of Ozark singers, ballads common to Maine and to the Smoky Mountains. Another outstanding trait of this area is the large number of new songs, new verses, and folk song creators it has produced. The freedom of the West was here. . . this is the land that inspired paeans to rebels, adventurers of both genders . . . and fed the exuberance of ragtime . . . Significantly, and in keeping with its distinctive musical trajectory, it is the land that gave birth to two of America's modern balladeers - Woody Guthrie from Okema, Oklahoma, and Jimmy Driftwood from Timbo, Arkansas. These two contemporary folk poets share a basic singing style and a freedom to innovate that is unique in my experience. -from liner notes to the original 1961 Prestige/International, Southern Journey LP, as adapted and expanded by Anna L. Chairetakis in Ozark FrontierBallads and Old-time Music from Arkansas, Vol. 7, of Southern Journey, Rounder CD 1707 

Jimmy Driftwood explained: "My people came from Virginia . . . across Kentucky and Tennessee to Arkansas in the early days before the Civil War. My grandfathers were great deer and bear hunters, and when they began to hear the crowing of the neighbors' roosters they moved away from the Great Smokies to the Ozarks" (from Jimmie Driftwood Sings Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs, RCA Victor LPM-1635 [1958]). When Jimmy's grandparents went to visit their new grandson, his grandfather, who had arrived first, wrapped some old sticks in a blanket and, in jest, handed the bundle to his wife. "Why, it ain't nothing but driftwood," his grandmother said, and the name stuck.
Jimmy's father, Neal Morris, a farmer by trade, was himself an accomplished and recorded old-time folk singer, mouth bow player, and story teller, much sought-after by collectors, including the Lomaxes. His mother, Allie Risner, and the rest of the Morris clan also composed and played music (much of it with roots in going back to the seventeenth century and earlier) on their own, mostly home-made instruments. The mouth bow, an instrument played similarly to the Jew's harp, consists of an ... "ordinary bow or guitar string . . . attached to a flattened stave of cedar wood about one-and-a-quarter inches wide and three-and-a-half feet long, aged and bent into an arc shape. While picking out the rhythm on the string with one hand, the player half sings the syllables of the tune onto the convex side of the arc, held close to his or her open mouth, which acts as a resonating chamber." Well known in the Southern backwoods, it was depicted as a hunter's instrument as early as a cave drawing from Lascaux, France, and appeared among hunting and gathering societies in Africa, Indonesia, and South America, as well as among Native Americans. (Liner notes from Rounder CD 1707, Ozark Frontier: Ballads and Old-timey Music from Arkansas, Vol. 7, Southern Journey.)

Early on, Jimmy learned to play guitar, banjo, fiddle, dulcimer, and mouth bow. When he was still very small, his grandfather, who taught him shape-note singing, made an unusual looking guitar for him: its neck from a piece of fence rail, its sides from an old ox yoke, and its somewhat rectangular head and bottom from the headboard of his grandmother's bed. He continued to play "the contraption," as he called it, throughout his career.

Despite spending only eight terms in the one-room school in Richwoods, Driftwood passed the Arkansas Teachers Exam when he was sixteen, without having gone to high school. While teaching at various rural county schools, he attended high school in Marshall (Arkansas), graduating in 1928, and went on to Arkansas State Teacher's College in Conway (now University of Central Arkansas) before attending John Brown College (now University) in Siloam Springs. To make ends meet, he played the fiddle at local events, but he left college before receiving a degree and wandered for a while in the 1920s and early 1930s. He ended up in Phoenix, Arizona, where he won a local talent show with his song "Arizona," which landed him weekly performances on a local radio station. 

Driftwood returned to Stone County in 1935 to teach in Timbo, 12 miles west of Mountain View. He married a former student, Cleda Azalea Johnson (who was part Cherokee), on November 26, 1936. For the next twenty years, he devoted most of his life to teaching, but he continued to write songs, most of which concerned history or local tales, some of them Native American. The Morrises had three sons. In 1947 he and Cleda bought a 150-acre farm in Timbo. On May 29, 1949, after years of classes at night and summer school, he received the degree of Bachelor of Science in Education from Arkansas State Teacher's College and became principal of Snowball School in Searcy County. 

Rural Arkansas suffered severely in the Great Depression of the 1930s, and music seemed to relieve the pressure. A dedicated teacher, frustrated by his inability - even with the use of books, pictures, and other devices - to arouse interest in history among his students, Driftwood believed that American history might best be transmitted to them by rendering it in ballad form. That did the trick. One of the many poems he wrote in 1936, set to the music of a traditional fiddle tune, celebrated the Battle of New Orleans, won by Andrew Jackson and fought, Driftwood wished to impress upon his recalcitrant scholars, not during the American Revolution, but in January 1815, as the last battle of the War of 1812. The original fiddle tune may have been composed to commemorate the famous battle, or it may have been an old tune given a new name, "Eighth of January," in honor of the victory. 

Driftwood taught at area schools through the 1940s, wrote much poetry and many songs, and became increasingly well known and respected as they and their lessons circulated through the schools of Timbo, Snowball, Richwoods, Mountain View, and other districts in the Ozarks. In the early 1950s, when he legally changed his name to "Jimmy Driftwood," he began submitting his songs to several publishers and record companies in Kansas City, Missouri, including Shelter Music and Blasco Music Inc. In Springfield, Missouri, Porter Wagoner and steel guitar player Don Warden, two musicians who had appeared there on country star Red Foley's television show Ozark Jubilee, decided to form their own music publishing company and began to search the Ozarks area for talented songwriters and performers. Warden heard about Driftwood in 1957 from a friend of Jimmy's, Hugh Ashley, and arranged for him to come to Nashville over the next school holiday to perform some of his songs in person. 
Warden's lukewarm reception turned enthusiastic when Driftwood played "The Battle of New Orleans." Warden called RCA, and under the guidance of its renowned guitarist and singer Chet Atkins, Driftwood recorded his first album for a major company, titled Jimmie Driftwood Sings Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs (RCA Victor LPM-1635, June, 1958). The recording, marketed as folk music, featured Jimmy on lead guitar and mouth bow, backed by Atkins on guitar and Bob L. Moore on bass. Jimmy's mouth bow, which he re-introduced to modern Southern audiences in the 1960s, was a shorter version of an archer's bow.) The album received good reviews but did not sell particularly well because "The Battle of New Orleans," included on the album, contained the words "damn" and "hell," which, not complying with the radio standards of the 1950s, proscribed any extended airplay and resultant publicity the song might otherwise have had. Atkins and RCA finally succeeded in convincing the programmer for radio station WSM in Nashville to give the song more exposure, but he would do so only late at night. 

Driftwood began appearing regularly at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, and on the Louisiana Hayride radio program in Shreveport, Louisiana, on which he sang a shortened version of "The Battle." There he met country music singer Johnny Horton, known then primarily as the husband of Hank Williams's widow. One night, Horton heard Driftwood's performance of "The Battle" on the radio, got permission from him to perform a shorter, censored version of it, and persuaded Columbia, his own record company, to record it in January 1959.

Horton's revamped "Battle Of New Orleans," which he performed on the Ed Sullivan Show that June, rocketed up the country and pop charts in the spring of 1959 to become by the summer the most requested song on radio in both categories. Songs with historical themes became popular, including Horton's own "Sink the Bismarck" and "North to Alaska," but Horton, though on his way to becoming a celebrity himself, lost his life in an auto accident on November 5, 1960.

On April 3, 1959, shortly after his return from Europe, Alan Lomax produced a concert at Carnegie Hall featuring Jimmy Driftwood, along with Memphis Slim, the Stoney Mountain Boys, Muddy Waters, the Selah Jubilee Singers (gospel), and The Cadillacs (a duwop group). In a letter to Lomax (dated February 21, 1959, in the Alan Lomax Archive), Driftwood wrote Lomax from Timbo to say that his 19-year-old son, James, who played guitar, might accompany him New York, while another son, Bing, 16, who also sang with him, would stay home to tend the cows, pigs, and horses. Jimmy explained how he often carried four guitars with him on his trips: the "contraption" in regular tunings, made for him as a youngster by his grandfather; other guitars, to accommodate old songs to Spanish tuning ("The Sailor Man" and "The Maid of Argenta"); and, for songs in a minor key, one that looked like a banjo, which he tuned low. He used a capo when he wanted to play in a different key, as in "He Had a Long Chain On" (made famous by Odetta). He added that he also intended to bring along two pickin' bows. The picking bow was like a mouth bow, which he would later use in a number of songs in recording sessions in the 1960s. Though possibly of African American origin, the picking bow is associated primarily with the white musicians of the Ozarks. Because of its size, Driftwood believed that he was able to get a "fatter" sound out of it. He now made them from the thin rims of spinning wheels. Drifwood can be heard performing on the LP, Alan Lomax Presents a Folk Song Festival at Carnegie Hall, United Artists UAS 6050 [1959]).

He gone back to Arkansas to teach school and write songs as usual before Horton's record hit, but that year (1959) marked the peak of Driftwood's career: On August 14, George Peabody College for Teachers, Vanderbilt University, honored him with the degree of Doctor of American Folklore. By the time Alan Lomax recorded him in Mountain View in September, Jimmy had at least six songs on both the pop and country charts; "The Battle" won Song of the Year at the 1959 Grammy ceremony (and since then has become an American classic country/folk song); Eddie Arnold was nominated for a Grammy in both country and folk categories for his version of Driftwood's most-recorded song, "Tennessee Stud" (1959); and because of Driftwood's celebrity, he was asked to perform his traditional American music for Nikita Khrushchev during the Soviet Premier's visit to the United Nations. That season, Pat Boone, a son-in-law of Red Foley, hosted the national Pat Boon Chevy Showroom TV show on February 11, 1960, which featured Driftwood and Jo Stafford (one of its writers was Woody Allen); and, from 1959, a flurry of articles about Driftwood and his projects appeared in the national and music press, with sporadic articles appearing over the ensuing three decades.

Driftwood became increasingly popular through his appearances, often joined on stage by Cleda. He performed at Carnegie Hall, the National Education Association jamboree, major country music festivals like the Berkeley and Newport Folk Festivals, and the Grand Ole Opry - where, initially a regular guest, he became on March 31, 1962, a starring member - and he toured the U.S. and Europe with the New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band as a separate act. His songs were performed by Doc Watson, Johnny Cash, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Odetta, and comedians Homer and Jethro did their parody - a sure sign of success - "The Battle of Kookamonga."

The 60s witnessed the release of most of Jimmy's output: "Wilderness Road," which received a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Performance of the Year in 1960; RCA's civil war album Songs of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb (yet another Grammy) in 1961; his final album on the RCA label, Driftwood at Sea (1962); recordings with companies like Folkways and Vanguard; and, eventually on Jimmy's own label, Monument Records, Jimmy Driftwood (1964), Down in the Arkansas (1965), and Best of Jimmy Driftwood (1966), among others. However, his albums sold poorly and he longed to return to his life in Stone County.

Even after he had risen to fame, he spent much of the 1960s in Arkansas as a high school principal, returning to Timbo in 1962, leaving that year to teach folklore at the University of Southern California in Idyllwild, but returning again to Stone County. He used his celebrity as a noted songwriter and performer to continuously promote to America and the world the heritage of the rural Ozarks and the wonder and beauty of Arkansas folk culture, particularly its folk music and folk story telling. But the Ozarks were not picturesque to its inhabitants. In a phone interview with Joan Halifax in about 1973 (transcribed in the Alan Lomax Archive), Driftwood observed that the broken-down communities of Stone County were poverty-stricken and, even in backwoods Arkansas, famous for looking as if "a tornado had just passed through. . . ." They were so "poor and sorry that it took two hound dogs to bark at one rabbit." He pointed out that the people, powerless, ashamed, and bitter, were too poor to go to church or to belong to anything. Jobless, they lacked self-respect and relied on welfare.

So, in February 1963, Driftwood the activist leaped in when Lloyd Hollister, a doctor who liked folk music, began forming an organization that would provide a performing venue for folk singers, country fiddlers, and banjo pickers from the many music-making families indigenous to the region. Hollister, along with his wife, Martha, had settled in Fox (Stone County) in 1962 and set up his practice in the Mountain View clinic of surgeon Howard Monroe, who also enjoyed the local music. The two doctors, with the help of like-minded neighbors and Driftwood, formed the Rackensack Folklore Society - Driftwood supplied the name Rackensack, an old Tennessee and Missouri word for Arkansas. They rehearsed in the county courtroom and performed in the courthouse square on Friday evenings and at the local county fair. The Friday evenings became regular events until 1973, when the Ozark Folk Center opened. Similarly, the Rackensackers held an annual folk festival on the third weekend in April until the city of Mountain View assumed the responsibilities in the early '70s.

The original Arkansas Folk Festival took place in April 1963. A creature of the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, it was designed primarily as a crafts outlet to generate income for the depressed Mountain View economy. One of its representatives suggested that music be brought into the festival and Driftwood was drafted to take over the musical direction. It had been expected that he, a Grand Ole Opry regular, would bring on one or two of the "usual suspects," but instead Driftwood opted for local talent, the Rackensack performers of "old-timey" music (or folk music) - the "timber cutters, farmers, housewives, and all plain people of the hills," and he arranged for them to perform in Mountain View High School's gymnasium. The Arkansas Folk Festival was off and running, making Mountain View a tourist attraction. 

That year, John Opitz, the regional director of the Area Redevelopment Administration, convinced the Mountain View city fathers to apply to Congress for funds to be used in the construction of a music auditorium for a cultural center, which would in turn necessitate a water and sewer system that the city could hook into. Driftwood and others petitioned but failed. In 1965, the Ozark Folk Cultural Commission formed, and its president, Bessie Moore, and Driftwood went before Congress, lobbied and, in 1968, finally succeeded, with the aid of Arkansas congressman Wilbur D. Mills, Governor Dale Bumpers, and Senator J. William Fulbright, in obtaining from the Economic Development Administration, successor to the ARA, funding for roads, schools, school buses, sewage, water, and employment for the youth, in addition to the funds that made it possible for the Ozark Folk Center to open in 1973 with Driftwood as its director. The Rackensack members opened the new facility and Driftwood, appointed to the State Publicity and Parks Commission, eventually made the center into a state park. 

However, the success of those years could in no way compensate for the tragedy that befell the Driftwood family in 1967, while Jimmy was in Brussels on tour. Back in Timbo, his sons, James Risner Morris, 27, who often sang with his father and had appeared with him in Carnegie Hall the previous year, and Bing Lee Morris, 24, were helping to run the family's 500-acre ranch and its 100 head of whiteface cattle. Apparently, in what Jimmy speculated was a murder-suicide, James and Bing had fought. James hit Bing with a shovel, Bing got a shotgun and aimed it at James, but James shot Bing and then himself. 

Chinese wisdom warns that you might get what you wish for. When the Ozark Folk Center became a state park, the State stipulated that if the members of Rackensack were to provide the music for the park, and because the State could not enter into contract with a non-profit organization, Rackensack would have to re-name itself Rackensack Incorporated, its members would have to buy shares, and its performers be remunerated. Driftwood and many members refused. In 1975, he was relieved of his position as musical director. This controversial removal caused a backlash among Driftwood's friends and musical companions in the Rackensack Folklore Society. The Rackensackers who had been the heart of the Folk Center's programs cut ties with the Folk Center and left in search of a new performance venue. Driftwood purchased a three-acre plot of land north of the Folk Center, and by 1976, he and the Rackensackers had built a simple wood-frame building for the performance of traditional Arkansas folk music. In 1982, Jimmy and his friends built the Jimmy Driftwood Barn and Folklore Hall of Fame, also in Mountain View. 

Driftwood also became involved in environmental issues. He helped defeat the US Army Corps of Engineers plan to dam the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas, thereby preserving its natural beauty, and secured for it the designation of National River, the first its kind. He likewise played a major role in preserving Blanchard Springs Caverns, which later came under the management of the United State Forest Service, for whose visitor center he sings the song heard in its orientation film. His environmental and cultural interests led to several prominent appointments, including chairman of the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Commission, member of the Advisory Committee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Advisory Board for the National Endowment for the Arts, and musicologist for the National Geographic Society, for whom he produced the LP, Music of the Ozarks, the society's first album of American folk music. 

The Driftwoods maintained their ranch in Timbo for many years, hunting and raising cattle and hound dogs. Each year, he and Cleda welcomed and entertained hundreds of visitors to their home. He regularly performed for free, especially in later life for high school and college students, and into his 90s he still could be heard occasionally at the Driftwood Barn. 

Jimmy Driftwood suffered a myocardial infarction on July 12, 1998, and died at the age of 91 in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he had been hospitalized for several weeks after an extended illness. The funeral took place on Wednesday, July 15, 1998, at the Ozark Folk Center, his ashes scattered on his farm.