The Ozark Saga of Singer and Songwriter Jimmy Driftwood
By Robert Cochran

From Gadfly May/June 2000


When Jimmy Driftwood died in 1998, he had just turned 91. He lived in such a small town that even as the Internet took off and the roads became more dangerous than ever by drivers chatting on cell phones, you could send a letter addressed to Jimmy Driftwood, Timbo, Arkansas 72680. Although his greatest celebrity era was 40 years in the past, Jimmy handled fame easily and remained the center of a large circle of fans, admirers and friends until the end of his days.

Driving to see him from Fayetteville, Ark., you came in from the west on Highway 66 from Leslie, turned north toward Onia on Highway 263 at Timbo's only intersection, turned right into his driveway and went around to the back door. Cleda, Jimmy's wife, would most often welcome whatever company you brought and usher you into their large combination kitchen-dining room-den-museum. If other guests had preceded you, Jimmy would already be in the room, and greetings and introductions would be passed all around. But, if you were the first to arrive, Cleda would call up to the front of the house and Jimmy would make his way back, always in a red shirt and black pants (or so it seemed). Right away would come the first story.

"You see those shoes?" he'd say, hefting an enormous brogan from a table or fireplace mantel. "They're forty-fours, biggest shoes I've ever seen. Buster Scott wore 'em—when I was teaching school over in Snowball, he would come by with his pockets full of candy for the kids. He was a huge man, a giant—he worked a long time for the Ringling Brothers circus. By the time I saw him, he was rich, too, owned hundreds and hundreds of acres. He got it all off his feet. What he'd do, he'd go in with another fella, get a crowd together looking at his big shoes, and his partner would put in that he figured not all that shoe was foot. He said there were a lot of rags stuffed in there, you see, trying to get up a bet. Then Buster would take off his shoe. You could buy land sometimes for a dollar an acre back then. I got these shoes from one of the kids in my school, gave him a dollar for 'em. Claimed they came from an old house Buster Scott used to live in—he was still growing when he wore these."

His welcoming story would end, closing on that wonderful, dare-you-to-call-me-a-liar tag. Jimmy might plunge right into another, trading in the old shoes for an even older gun to open the grisly Bushwhacker tale of Bill Dark with, "This is the gun that killed Bill Dark, the king of the Jayhawkers in this country." Conversation might follow instead, or singing and picking or the serving of food. Only two things were guaranteed—all present would be welcomed and entertained, and Jimmy would be host, master of ceremonies, instructor and star.

He came by all these roles naturally—both his father and his grandfather played several instruments, and Jimmy himself was performing on banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin before he started school. According to his own report, he wrote his first poem at eight and his first song at 12. His grandmother told him stories and urged him to make up songs. No matter what he came up with, she clapped and told him it was wonderful and made him molasses muffins or some other treat. His father, Neal Morris, was a famous local singer and storyteller in his own right. Even in the 1960s, years after his son had become famous all over the country as a singer and songwriter, some in Stone County, Ark., claimed Morris was the better singer.

Big time fame arrived in 1959, though Jimmy recorded his first album, Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs, in 1957. What made it happen, appropriately enough, was a song he'd written 20 years earlier as a teaching aid for his students in the Snowball school. This was "The Battle of New Orleans," with Jimmy's lyrics set to an old fiddle tune called "The Eighth of January." Jimmy put it on the first album, and it was released in June 1958. Nothing happened until Johnny Horton recorded it on January 27, 1959, just three days after hearing Jimmy sing it on the Louisiana Hayride. Three months later, Horton's version hit the Billboard charts and went on to hold the number one country spot for 10 weeks and the top pop spot for six weeks. And after Horton appeared on "The Ed Sullivan show," Jimmy Driftwood started getting bigger checks.

"The Battle of New Orleans" was just the beginning. Before 1959 ended, Jimmy's "The Tennessee Stud" went to number five on the country lists for Eddy Arnold; his novelty tune "The Battle of Kookamonga" was a hit for Homer and Jethro; "Soldier's Joy" made the charts for Hawkshaw Hawlins and "Sailor Man" did the same for Johnnie & Jack. In addition to these, Horton's recording of "Sal's Got a Sugar Lip" went to the number nine spot while "The Battle of New Orleans," still hanging on in its fifth month on the charts, was in the number 32 slot. On the September 19 Cash Box list, all six of Jimmy's numbers were in the Top 40.

Meanwhile, even if Jimmy's own records weren't selling as well as the covers by bigger names, he was performing in the nation's top venues. He appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, played Carnegie Hall and was a regular guest on the Grand Ole Opry, the Louisiana Hayride and the Ozark Jubilee. His second album, The Wilderness Road, also appeared in 1959 and won him a Grammy in 1960. The U.S. State Department, recognizing a great musical ambassador, sponsored Jimmy on tours of Europe and Asia. By 1962, he had a total of six RCA albums. All in all, it was a great time, quite a change of pace for a humble schoolteacher from the Ozark hills.

But not really. For all the glamour of sudden stardom, big money and world travel, James Corbett Morris' life before 1959 had as much adventure (and more epic quality) as all the trappings of fame could provide. Jimmy was born in 1907 in the Richwoods Valley near Mountain View, the seat of Stone County in north central Arkansas. According to the family story, he got his nickname when his grandfather played a trick on his grandmother, carefully handing her a swaddling blanket filled with small sticks, as if it held her new grandson. Discovering the prank, his grandmother exclaimed, "It's nothing but little driftwood."

As for his education, the boy's first school, only a mile or two from his home, ended at the eighth-grade. For most students, in that time and place, this was plenty—even the teachers didn't go further: "And when you finished that, you could be a schoolteacher if you passed the county teacher's examination. I did that when I was 16, and I got my first school—three months summer teaching at $40 a month." The year was 1923.

Jimmy rode 10 miles to that school every morning—"you had to be there by eight o'clock and you stayed till four o'clock." Wanting more education, the young teacher completed three years in Mountain View—"that's all they had then"—before borrowing $350 to finish high school in Marshall, in adjacent Searcy County, in 1928. "You see, every year you put in they gave you a little better teaching license. You got a better contract if you had your high school diploma." Now a high school graduate, Jimmy went on teaching, this time at Timbo. Cleda Azalea Johnson was his sixth-grade student during the fall. Eight years later, in 1936, she married the teacher.

But before marriage, the newly-graduated teacher found he still wanted more education. "I sent penny postcards to universities all over the country—finally John Brown University told me I could work four hours a day and go to college there." John Brown University—it's not named for the firebrand abolitionist, but after a Salvation Army lay minister—is an interdenominational Christian school located in Siloam Springs, Ark., in the northwest corner of the state. Jimmy, encouraged by this invitation, played all night for a square dance with his brother to raise an extra $3.50 for the trip and then walked 175 miles to Siloam Springs to begin his studies. "That's nothing much," he said later. "Cleda's grandfather walked from Nashville to here, and that's more than 400 miles."

Jimmy was in his second year at John Brown when his mother's failing health caused him to interrupt his studies to arrange her move to the ostensibly healthier climate of Arizona. While he was in Phoenix, he won a talent contest on radio station KOY and soon had a daily 5-6 a.m. show sponsored by an area grocery chain. This was his first real contact with the professional music industry. His mother's health didn't improve, but he said that "she was sort of glad the last few months of her life, though, because she was hearing her son every morning on the radio."

When Allie Risner Morris died, Jimmy came back to Arkansas to bury her and then returned to teaching and studying. Finally, 20 years after he'd finished high school in Marshall in 1948, he graduated from the Arkansas State Teachers College in Conway, Ark. It was a long and hard road, but the boy who started teaching with an eighth-grade education in 1923 had achieved his goal. He was a college graduate.

By this time he settled in Timbo and had been a married man for a decade, living at first in his mother-in-law's store while he and Cleda worked to build their own home and clear their farm. "I'd come up to the farm every day to clear land—just me with my ax. Cleda would come up at noon with my lunch. Same thing at dinner. Then we'd burn the brushpiles—that's how we made those fields." Even late in his life, Jimmy loved to show the farm to visitors. On one memorable occasion Jimmy and Cleda spent 20 minutes explaining how they'd dug out their own well—by hand, by themselves. Their farm was a true homestead, the creation of their shared labor. Like the saga of Jimmy's pursuit of education, the narrative of his and Cleda's homebuilding is every bit an epic tale as his musical career.

By 1962, the star ride was coming to an end. Jimmy recorded his sixth and final RCA album that year, a generally lamentable effort called (with unintentional appropriateness) Driftwood at Sea. He gave it a good effort—the publicity shots include one of the dripping singer clambering aboard what appears to be a barge or ferry with his guitar held aloft. It was a desperate and disappointing choice of material for a singer rooted in the traditions of the landlocked Ozarks. A year or two earlier, when he was appearing regularly on the Grand Ole Opry, he'd turned down the offer of a free home in Nashville from a wealthy fan. It seemed as if he knew what was ahead, knew as fame's curtain fell that his most important work was just beginning. "Everything I ever was, everything I am," he told an Arkansas reporter in 1998, "is back here." Jimmy Driftwood was from Stone County, Ark. and no other place, not even Nashville or Arizona, was ever his home. The first thing he did, back in 1959 when the big checks started coming in, was to buy more land. "That's all ours now," he told visitors, gesturing off to the north and east from his porch, "as far as you can see. That's what 'The Tennessee Stud' and 'Battle of New Orleans' and the rest of 'em got us."

In 1963, Jimmy put together the first Ozark Folk Festival in Mountain View. Local musicians, organized by Jimmy into a group called the Rackensackers (later the Rackensack Folklore Society), provided the music. Only traditional instruments were allowed—no drums, no electric guitars. Twenty thousand people showed up. For the town's 700 residents, it was a novel and overwhelming occurrence, but a welcome one—the visitors brought cash, and cash had been short for a long time in Stone County. Mountain View at the time had no city water or sewer system, and almost no restaurants or motels. Jimmy and Cleda invited folks needing lodging to camp out at their farm.

By the end of the decade, the Ozark Folk Festival was drawing five times as many visitors. Mountain View was calling itself "The Folk Capital of the United States," and Governor Winthrop Rockefeller appointed Jimmy to the Arkansas Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission. Once again, as with his education and his purchasing of land, he was just getting started. If the Ozark Folk Festival was a big success, he reasoned, why not build something that would bring people to Mountain View all year, not just for one weekend? To this end, Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Mills arranged a Washington, D.C. appearance by the Rackensackers. The musicians performed on the Capitol steps, and Jimmy addressed the House Ways and Means Committee. He played a very strong heritage card—folks in the Ozarks, he said, were the genuine article, preserving in their traditional lifeways the values that made America great. What was needed was a big folklore center, a sort of American pilgrimage site where citizens could reconnect with their roots. The right spot, he told them, was waiting right there, 80 acres in Mountain View, Ark., "Folk Capital of the United States." With $15 million, he said, they could do the job right.

They got a little over $2 million, and the state kicked in almost as much. In 1973, what is now the Ozark Folk Center State Park was up and running, with Jimmy Driftwood as its first program director. During this same period, as if all these efforts in the service of culture were not enough, Jimmy was working almost as hard on behalf of nature. For years, he lobbied for the development of the Blanchard Springs Caverns, another Stone County asset, as a tourist attraction. He journeyed to Washington again in 1971, with a group of environmental activists, to lend his support to a campaign to protect the scenic beauty of the Buffalo River by establishing a national park along its banks. He also put his musical talents to work in this latter cause, writing several songs extolling the river's beauties and issuing an album in 1978 for the regional Rackensack label called Beautiful Buffalo River. Today, the Buffalo National River Park extends for more than 100 miles of that lovely stream.

Jimmy's story sounds like a long litany of successes, an uninterrupted story of talent, intelligence and industriousness rewarded. It is, but it wasn't always lived that way. In the routine struggles of everyday life, talent and intelligence are often envied, and industriousness creates friction. Jimmy Driftwood was ambitious and strident. He loved the limelight and found it hard to hand it over to others. He did the work, and he expected to be in charge. Other performers introduced on the Folk Center stage would be midway through their first number when out came Jimmy, bouncing back out to sing along or accompany their playing. He rubbed people the wrong way sometimes. When he lectured school and university audiences, he mistakenly billed himself as a folklorist, offending holders of doctorate degrees. He made enemies. Things finally came to a boil, and Driftwood was fired from his job at the Ozark Folk Center, two years after it opened.

Such defeats were bitter pills, but they paled to nothing in comparison to losses on the home front. Jimmy and Cleda Driftwood had four children, none of whom reached the age of 30. One died at birth, and another fell prey to acute appendicitis.

The worst blow came in 1967, when Cleda returned one day from her teaching job in Mountain View to find her two sons, James and Bing, both in their 20s, shot in their home. No witnesses, no notes, no signs of foul play and no answers were evident. Just the inescapable tragedy of two dead sons. Jimmy was on tour in Belgium at the time, promoting Southern tourism, when Governor Rockefeller sent his plane to pick him up. Jimmy and Cleda, devastated, did what they had to do. They had buried parents and children before. Jimmy, quoted in the newspapers, insisted on a larger view: "What does it matter anyway?" he said. "The days my boys died, a lot of boys died all over the world. Now it's time to bury the dead and care for the living."

And care for the living they did. My trips from Fayetteville to Timbo began nine years later, in 1976. My last visit was in 1996. I slept in their home, ate meals at Cleda's table, arranged lectures and a concert for Jimmy at the University of Arkansas, brought my wife, children, students and friends from Arkansas and around the world to Timbo. The visits were memorable for everyone. All were welcomed, all were entertained and all were instructed. All were—and this is the point—cared for. That's where we started this story, with welcome and entertainment.

In all the visits, neither Cleda nor Jimmy made any mention of their own children or their tragedies. If their long lives together were epics of accomplishment and struggle, their attitudes, for all the generosity and hospitality, were stoic at heart. You were friends, you were welcome, but at the core was inviolate privacy. Cleda Driftwood still lives in that home. When she dies, she says, she wants her ashes scattered with Jimmy's on the hills of their farm.

In 1991, Bear Family Records reissued the six RCA albums. That's a German outfit, famed for careful production and meticulous discographical documentation, so Jimmy Driftwood's international fame would seem to be secure. It's all on three CDs—some 80 songs. The biographical notes are mostly an exercise in sappy nostalgia (though Jimmy's own comments offer an occasional glimpse into grimmer realities), and the song list includes the generally sorry performances from Driftwood at Sea. But the overall title seems perfect. Americana, the German compilers called it. Jimmy's is a deeply American story, after all.

If Jimmy Driftwood is remembered today for the saga of his life, he will be remembered tomorrow for that life's durable accomplishments. His lasting legacy is enormous—a state park and a national river, the beginnings of an Ozark Studies program at his alma mater, a group of original songs and the wider fame of Ozark music. That's a lot of legacy, plenty for any man. Jimmy Driftwood lived a long time and he made the most of it. By his talent, and by his labor, he enriched the region's and our nation's life. If we call it home, we are his inheritors.