Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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DRIFTWOOD, Jimmie

(b James Corbett Morris, 20 June 1907, Richwood AR; d 12 July 1998) A collector and performer of folksongs, playing guitar and mouth bow. He played a homemade guitar that was 100 years old. He began working as a teacher when he left the eighth grade; his first school was ten miles away and he walked both ways: when he got a chance to go to college he walked 175 miles. Everywhere he went he collected songs for decades, and finally injected a much-needed dose of Americana into the country and pop charts. His first album on RCA was Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs in 1957, including 'Battle Of New Orleans', a huge hit for Johnny Horton (the words had been fitted to the fiddle tune 'The Eighth Of January' after the War of 1812); Driftwood's version is better, and it swings. The Wilderness Road included 'Tennessee Stud', a hit for Eddy Arnold; also the delightful 'Damyankee Lad' and 'Razorback Steak' ('If you think it's tender you're crazy/You can't get your fork in the gravy'). He performed for teachers at a National Education Association jamboree, on Pat Boone's TV show and at Carnegie Hall; he won Grammys for best song ('Battle') and best folk song performance (Wilderness Road). The Westward Movement included 'Sweet Betsy From Pike', but it's not the familiar version; his students knew the western version and asked him for an eastern one, so he gave them a variant. Tall Tales In Song was the next album; Songs Of Billy Yank And Johnny Reb '61 was followed by Sea Shanties; he also recorded songs for Bing Crosby's How The West Was Won.

The first three albums included Chet Atkins on guitar and a string bass; the second and third added John D. Loudermilk on guitar, and after that things got out of hand: a second recording of 'Battle' included a snare drum, and Billy Yank And Johnny Reb got the full countrypolitan Nashville production, with the Anita Kerr Singers and an incessant snare drum (war songs, see? Why didn't they just hire Mitch Miller to produce it?) Sea Shanties included the Glaser brothers and a chorus (but the songs do require responsive singing). Cash Box magazine's country top 50 on 19 September '59 included five Driftwood songs: Arnold's 'Tennessee Stud', Horton's 'Sal's Got A Sugar Lip', Hawkshaw Hawkins's 'Soldier's Joy', Johnnie and Jack's 'Sailor Man' and Horton's 'Battle Of New Orleans', still in the chart after nearly five months, as well as Homer and Jethro's send-up 'Battle Of Kookamonga'. 

Driftwood got tired of the excitement, but it was just beginning. The Ozark Foothills Handicraft Guild asked him to provide music for a spring fair in Mt View; he refused to draft in his famous musician friends, because he knew he could find all the talent he needed locally: the group of musicians who used to meet on the courthouse steps on Friday nights, some of them on welfare, became the Rackensack Folklore Society; in '63 20,000 people turned up and Mt View, the seat of Stone County, had no city water or sewage system; ten years later 100,000 came and there was a $4m Ozark Folk Center on 80 acres.

His only other album was a teaching aid, A Lesson In Folk Music on Rimrock. The complete RCA recordings are on three CDs in Bear Family's box Americana, with a good booklet.