Who was/is Jimmie Driftwood ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
The Battle Of New Orleans
What Color Is The Soul Of A Man
Rooted in the folk music of his native Ozark Mountains, Jimmie Driftwood was a prolific, engaging singer-songwriter. Two of his songs, The Battle Of New Orleans and Tennessee Stud, became standards in the American folk and country music repertoires.
Born James Corbett Morris on June 20, 1907 in Richwood, Arkansas, he absorbed the folk tales and stories of the mountain men, homesteaders, Native Americans and Civil War veterans who settled in the region around Mountain View. His great-grandmother also taught him songs from her Carolina childhood. As a youngster he was given an unusual handmade guitar made by his grandfather. Its neck was made from a fence rail, its sides shaped from an ox yoke, and its front and back came from a bed headboard. While it didn't have much tone, Driftwood used it throughout his performing career.
Graduating from high school in 1928, he attended John Brown College in Siloam Springs. During the height of the Depression he left college and traveled through the Southwest, settling in Phoenix, Arizona, where he sang on a weekly radio show. Returning to Arkansas in 1935, he began teaching elementary students in Timbo, 12 miles west of Mountain View. Finding his students had difficulty grasping historical events, Driftwood wrote his lessons in rhyme and set them to music. In 1936 he fit his poem about the Battle of New Orleans to the fiddle tune Eighth Of January.
In 1936 Driftwood married Cleda Johnson. For next two decades he concentrated on teaching while attending night classes at Arkansas State Teachers College. In 1947 he bought a 150-acre farm in Timbo. After receiving his degree in education in 1949, Driftwood became principal of Snowball School in Searcy County.
During these years he wrote more than a hundred songs, mostly about historical events or local folklore. In 1952 he made a demo tape of several dozen songs and privately pressed a single, but never pursued placing them with a publisher. Hugh Ashley, a friend of Driftwood's who placed songs with Red Foley, Bill Monroe and Porter Wagoner, encouraged the schoolteacher to demo his songs in Nashville. When school let out for summer vacation in 1957, Driftwood and his wife met with Buddy Killen of Tree Publishing. After listening to two stanzas of The Battle Of New Orleans, Killen dismissed him, coldly suggesting he return to Timbo.
Undeterred, he visited Don Warden, Wagoner's steel guitarist, then establishing his own publishing company. Warden liked what he heard and purchased 25 of Driftwood's compositions, including Howdy, Neighbor, Howdy, which became Wagoner's theme song. He also convinced Chet Atkins to sign Driftwood to RCA Victor. With Atkins on guitar and Bob Moore on bass, Driftwood completed his first album during two October 1957 sessions. A mix of traditional material and Driftwood originals, 'Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs' included The Battle Of New Orleans. Written from the perspective of an American volunteer fighting with Major General Andrew Jackson's army, it offered a light-hearted saga about the British defeat during the War of 1812's final battle.
Johnny Horton thought the song had potential, and invited Driftwood to Shreveport to perform on The Louisiana Hayride. At Horton's request, Driftwood trimmed and slightly sanitized the song for a radio-friendly single. Three days later Horton recorded the revised The Battle Of New Orleans in Nashville. In April 1959 it entered Billboard's pop and country singles charts for extended runs. It clung to No. 1 on the country chart for ten weeks and No. 1 pop for six.
Counting Homer & Jethro's parody The Battle Of Kookamonga, Driftwood placed six songs on the pop and country charts in 1959, including Eddy Arnold's version of Tennessee Stud. The song was inspired by an actual horse owned by his wife's great-great-grandfather, John Merriman. "The great exploits of this horse were legion," Driftwood wrote in 1966. "Seemed that John got into trouble with his sweetheart's folk and rode off to The Arkansas Territory rather than fight his loved one's people. However, after having ridden this wonderful horse all over the Great Southwest and into Mexico, and after having made a sack full of money from racing and filing a notch or two on his gun, young Johnny came back to Tennessee, thrashed his potential in-laws, and carried the girl away to Arkansas."
The honors and awards continued through 1959. Besides appearances on the Hayride, The Grand Ole Opry and The Ozark Jubilee, he sang at New York's Carnegie Hall, the Berkeley Folk Festival, and at the United Nations in a concert for Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev. In August he received an Honorary Doctorate of American Folklore from Peabody College in Nashville.
Under Atkins' supervision, Driftwood recorded six albums for RCA Victor and contributed five songs to a thematic album, 'How The West Was Won.' In 1963 he signed with Fred Foster's Monument Records. For the first album for his new label, he recorded his plea for racial tolerance, What Is The Color Of The Soul Of Man. The song was hardly new at the time; Driftwood intended to sing it at his Carnegie Hall debut in April 1959. "My Nashville publisher begged me not to sing it, believing that my records would be boycotted in many parts of our country," he later recalled. "Since then I have sung it all over America, with as great applause in Little Rock as anywhere else."
By 1963, an aging Driftwood became weary of life on the road. Returning to Timbo, he and two local physicians formed the Rackensack Folklore Society, sponsoring regular concerts that evolved into an annual folk festival in Mountain View. He also became involved in environmental issues, spearheading a campaign to prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from building a dam across the Buffalo River.
He continued performing sporadically until his death in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on July 12, 1998.