1998 – Singer/songwriter Jimmy Driftwood dies in Fayetteville, Ark., of a heart attack. He is 91. Driftwood, who was born James Corbett Morris, was best known for writing the Grammy-winning songs “The Battle Of New Orleans,” “Wilderness Road,” and Tennessee Stud.
Driftwood was born in Mountain View, Arkansas on 20 June 1907. Driftwood’s father was folk singer Neil Morris. Driftwood learned to play guitar at a young age on his grandfather’s homemade instrument. Driftwood used the unique guitar throughout his career and noted that its neck was made from a fence rail, its sides from an old ox yoke, and the head and bottom from the headboard of his grandmother’s bed. This homemade instrument produced a pleasant distinctive resonant sound. Driftwood attended John Brown College in northwest Arkansas and later received a degree in education from Arkansas State Teacher’s College. He started writing songs during his teaching career to teach his students history in an entertaining manner.
The 1920s and 1930s
During the 1920s and 1930s Driftwood left Arkansas and took to the road, eventually hitchhiking his way through the southwestern United States. In Arizona he entered, and won, a local song contest.
In 1936 Driftwood married Cleda Johnson, who was a former student and returned to Arkansas to raise a family and resume his teaching career. During this period of his life Driftwood wrote hundreds of songs but did not pursue a musical career seriously.
He wrote his later famous “Battle of New Orleans” song in 1936 to help get a high school class he was teaching interested in the subject.
In the 1950s he changed his name to “Jimmy Driftwood” both publicly and legally.
In 1957 a Nashville, Tennessee song publisher heard of Driftwood, auditioned him, and signed him to his first record deal. Driftwood recalled playing some 100 of his songs in one day, of which 20 were chosen to be recorded. Driftwood’s first album Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs received good reviews but did not sell particularly well.
“The Battle of New Orleans” was included on the album, but did not fit in the radio standards for airplay at the time because of the words “hell” and “damn” in the lyrics. Driftwood said that at the time those words could be preached but not sung in secular contexts for broadcast. Driftwood was asked to make a shorter censored version of the song for a live radio performance. Singer Johnny Horton, after hearing the song, contacted Driftwood, saying he wished to record his own version.
Driftwood left Arkansas for Nashville and became popular through his appearances at major country music venues such as the Grand Ole Opry, the Ozark Jubilee, the Louisiana Hayride. He was invited to sing for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev as an example of traditional American music during that leader’s visit to the United States.
The popular peak of Driftwood’s career came in 1959 when he had no less than six songs somewhere on the pop or country charts, including singer Johnny Horton’s recording of his The Battle of New Orleans which remained on top of the country singles chart for ten weeks, and atop the pop charts for 6 weeks, in 1959. The song won the 1960 Grammy Award for Song of the Year. The Battle of New Orleans has since become an American classic country/folk song. After Horton’s hit Driftwood became very popular and performed at Carnegie Hall and at major American folk festivals before returning home to Timbo, Arkansas in 1962. During his recording career Driftwood also won Grammy Awards for Wilderness Road, Songs of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb and Tennessee Stud. Driftwood songs were recorded by Eddy Arnold, Johnny Cash, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Homer and Jethro, Odetta and others.
Driftwood for a time in the 1960s toured the United States and Europe with the Preservation Hall New Orleans jazz band, although appearing as a separate act.
Back home, Driftwood formed the Rackensack Folklore Society, an association of local folk singers and musicians, and began performing at the local county fair in Mountain View. Driftwood became interested in promoting Arkansas folk music and the local folk performers he knew in the area. Driftwood invited members of the Mountain View community to perform at a festival of his own devising. This festival grew exponentially over the years and transformed into the annual Arkansas Folk Festival which would attract over 100,000 people. Driftwood was also a guiding light in establishing the Ozark Folk Center to preserve Ozark Mountain culture. The Folk Center was later absorbed into the Arkansas State Park system and remains a popular tourist destination.
Driftwood also became involved in environmental issues when the United States Army Corps of Engineers planned to dam the Buffalo River. Driftwood worked to defeat the plan, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Buffalo National River. Driftwood played a major role in preserving Blanchard Springs Caverns which later came under management of the United States Forest Service. He sings the song heard in the orientation film in the visitor center.
Driftwood was appointed to head the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Commission for his environmental efforts. He was also named to the Advisory Committee of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.. Due to his extensive knowledge of folk music he was appointed as a musicologist for the National Geographic Society.
During his career Driftwood wrote over 6,000 folksongs, of which over 300 were recorded by various musicians. In later life Driftwood enjoyed performing free concerts for high school and college students.