Into the Unknown: Prospecting for Stories

Jimmy Driftwood who wrote his history lessons into song and sold millions of them. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.
Jimmy Driftwood who wrote his history lessons into song and sold millions of them. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.

I AM a prospector.

I go places that are unknown.

I go to places that are unfamiliar.

I go to places and dig around to see what I can find.

I would have loved to live in an era when my mule and I wandered the badlands of the West, venturing from one watering hole to the next, searching for scattered nuggets of gold, always believing that the big one lay just across the desert and around the next crook in the river.

But, alas, the nuggets are all gone.

The veins of gold have been mined dry.

And so I spend my life prospecting for people and digging through their minds for one more story, one more memory, one more incident I can scatter on a printed page and sometimes in a book.

  • The schoolteacher in Timbo, Arkansas, who wrote his history lessons as songs and his students – who all played guitars, fiddles, and banjos – brought their instruments to class and learned history by singing them. He even sold a few to Nashville, and one, The Battle of New Orleans, sold more than eight million records.
  • The weathered old blues singer in South Georgia who lived in a rundown house that had neither electricity nor running water. No job. No money. Nothing but a song and a worn-out guitar. As Abner James told me, “If you don’t live the blues, you can’t sing the blues.”
  • The old rancher who was mad because the beer joint at Luckenbach, Texas, was owned by an old German, who closed the doors every day at three o’clock, went home, and crawled into bed. Hondo Crouch said he bought the whole town just so he could get a beer anytime he wanted one. Besides, it had three chickens in the street and came with a built-in egg route.
  • The blacksmith in Gillespie Gap, North Carolina, who created works of art in the flames of his furnace. How did he get such brilliantly original ideas, I asked. He said, “Before I go to bed at night, I get down on my knees and pray, ‘Lord, I’m getting up at three o’clock in the morning, and I want you to give a good idea because neither me nor you is busy at that time of night.”
  • The West Texas rancher whose land was suffering from a severe drought. He told the Lord, “I’m not a greedy man, but I do need a good rain. I’ll be happy if you just send me a quarter’s worth of rain.” That night the floods descended on West Texas. They tore down his fences, wiped out the dirt road, and washed his barns away, He knelt down and said, “Lord, I’m not complaining, but if I’d known rain was so damn cheap, I would have just ordered a nickel’s worth.”

The nuggets are everywhere I look. Every person I meet has a great story to tell. The problem is, no one ever asks them what it is.

I do.

My great enjoyment in life is wandering the landscape, tracking down people in unknown and unfamiliar places and prospecting for new stories.

My wife said I should have stuck to the gold.

Most of the characters and the story in my novel, Little Lies, came as a result of prospecting across the South.

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  • Roger Summers

    Prospect on, Caleb. Prospect on.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      If commas were nuggets, I’d be rich.

  • I love the Battle of New Orleans! Thanks for the story about it.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Jimmy remains one of the most fascinating and genuine people I’ve ever met. He made his guitar from the headboard of his grandmother’s bed.

  • Caleb, you are one in a million. I love the little vignettes and can just imagine you tracking down these people and letting them share their stories. Like you say, everyone has a story to tell. And you found some rich ones.

  • Don Newbury

    Great truth in this one that escapes almost all of the rest of us!…

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