The songwriter and dreamer who brought hope to the mountains. The Traveler’s Story.
July 1, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: Ever since the days God, for whatever reason, created heaven and earth, Mountain View had been a patched hole in the poverty pocket of the Ozarks. Only dirt roads led to Mountain View. The first blacktop highways didn’t cut into Stone County until 1957. So nobody ever came in, and few ever left. There was never any reason or money to do either one. Those who did drive away out of the timbered hills dropped off the far side of the mountains and never came back.
The Sounds: The Ozark Mountains blanket a land of music. Back in the hollows, where early settlers carved out a meager living in a harsh country, homemade, hand-me-down music played in barn dances, on front porches, in back yards, and even on the steps of the Stone County Courthouse was their only form of entertainment. One man kept it from dying, and he worked hard to build the Ozark Folk Center to make sure his brand of mountain music and mountain crafts would live forever.
The Story: Jimmy Driftwood fought the Great Depression plowing corn, earning forty cents a day if the farmer fed him, fifty cents a day if he fed himself. He ate plenty of razorback steaks, so tough he couldn’t even stick his fork in the gravy. He played his fiddle, banjo, and guitar at country square dances for three dollars a night when he was fortunate enough to find square dancers who had three dollars, finally socking away a hundred and fifty bucks and walking more than a hundred miles to John E. Brown College, carrying everything he owned in a cardboard suitcase. In time, he became what he wanted to become: a school teacher in Timbo, Arkansas.
But Driftwood spent a lot of sleepless nights, worrying about the students in his classroom. They had grown up playing almost any musical instrument with strings, but none had any inclination to learning history.
Dates bored them. Places they had never heard of or been to did not interest them, and few, if any, had ever been outside the hollows around their own homesteads. Why study battles that had already been fought when there were quite a few back in the mountains they would rather fight themselves, usually finding themselves in the middle of deer poaching, cow stealing, pig rustling, and a family feud or two.
So Jimmy Driftwood would go home at night and take out his century-old guitar, the one handmade by his grandfather in the Smoky Mountains, the one fashioned from an ox yoke, a fence post, and the headboard of his grandmother’s bed. And he would put those history lessons to music. The students brought their stringed instruments to school, sang historical songs in class, and they learned all about dates, places and battles whether they intended to or not. One of the lessons was a light-hearted, toe-tapping little song he called “The Ballad of New Orleans.”
Jimmy Driftwood had become the principal in Snowball, Arkansas, when a friend, Hugh Ashley, told a few Grand Ole Opry stars about the homespun educator’s homespun songs. Ashley drove over to Driftwood’s home and mentioned, “They would like for you to send some of them tapes to Nashville.”
“I don’t have any.”
“Tapes,” Driftwood said.
Neither did anyone else in Snowball.
One morning, Driftwood and his Cherokee Indian wife, Cleda, climbed into a battered old pickup truck and, two days later, they rolled into downtown Nashville. They had an appointment with Don Warden’s publishing company.
“Hell, he’s just a little publisher,” the desk clerk said at the hotel. “You’d be better off going next door to Tree Publishing. It’s run by Buddy Killen. It’s the biggest one in Nashville.”
Killen, the kingpin of Tree Publishing, always looking for new talent, new songs, new hits, new money-makers, listened to a few stanzas of “The Ballad of New Orleans,” shrugged, and nodded toward the door. “Go on back home if that’s the only thing you’ve got,” he said. “Forget it. I can’t sell that.” He wasn’t rude. He just wasn’t friendly. He was wasting his time and had no more to waste.
Driftwood was disappointed and ready to point that battered old pickup truck back toward the Ozarks, but Cleda told him, “We’ll eat cheese and crackers if we have to, but you’re staying long enough to see Don Warden. You promised you would. He’s expecting you.”
That night, Warden, who also served as Porter Waggoner’s steel guitar man, sat on the edge of the hotel room bed as Jimmy Driftwood sang one song after another. The publisher picked out a couple of dozen that he thought he might have a chance to market, but he still hadn’t heard “The Ballad of New Orleans.” Jimmy Driftwood was afraid to sing it.
As Warden ambled toward the door to leave, Driftwood began strumming and singing softly, almost to himself, about how he took a little bacon, and he took a little beans, and he caught the bloody British at a town called New Orleans.
Warden, his hand on the door knob, stopped abruptly and turned slowly around. “That could be a big record,” he blurted out, his eyes wide with excitement.
“I’ve been told it won’t sell.”
“Whoever told you that don’t know music.”
“It was Buddy Killen.”
“Buddy’s been known to make a mistake.”
Jimmy Driftwood wasn’t so sure. “It’s just a little history lesson I wrote,” he said.
“How long you been teaching it?”
The next day, Chet Atkins sat in his office at RCA and listened and smiled a lot, but said very little. But then, Chet Atkins never did say much. A shy smile was about as much enthusiasm as he ever mustered. His mind, however, was on overdrive.
A few Sundays later, Don Warden unexpectedly walked briskly up on the porch of the Driftwood home. All he could see through the door was a naked man taking a bath in a washtub in the middle of the living room floor. He handed the naked man a contract from RCA, and Jimmy Driftwood signed it.
“How many of my songs do they want?” he asked.
“They want your songs all right,” Warden replied, “but mostly they want you.”
Driftwood returned to Nashville and recorded his first album for RCA in three hours. No one could believe it. Nobody ever recorded a dozen takes that fast. Driftwood wondered why it had taken him so long.
One of the songs was “The Ballad of New Orleans,” but no self-respecting radio station would play it. The song had the words “hell” and “damn” in it, and, in those days, such words were taboo on the air. Early one morning, about two hours after midnight a WSM disk jockey in Nashville played “The Battle of New Orleans” anyway. He might as well. Everybody was asleep anyway, he reasoned, and those who might be awake at that ungodly hour certainly wouldn’t give a damn about hearing the word “damn” in a song.
Johnny Horton was listening at that ungodly hour. He was worn out and trying desperately to stay awake. He heard the song as he drove toward Shreveport and a date with the Louisiana Hayride. He liked the song, took out a few verses, including those words regarded as unthinkable and taboo for the airwaves, and recorded it.
He didn’t care what Buddy Killen, Tree Publishing, or anybody said.
It took less than a month for “The Ballad of New Orleans” to sell one million copies, ultimately topping the eight million mark and winning a Grammy Award as best song of the year. It earned Jimmy Driftwood a membership to a place he had heard about, listened to on the radio, and never thought he would ever see – the Grand Ole Opry.
A foreign entertainer even stole the song, changed the name, and the song became the Number One hit in Europe, where no one remembered or really cared who caught the bloody British in a town called New Orleans.
A concerned Don Warden sat down with the homespun educator and told him, “He knows he’s been caught, and he’s offering to give us half of everything he’s made if you don’t sue him. What do you want to do?”
Driftwood paused a moment, then shrugged and told Warden, “Well, let’s take the money and hope he steals another one.”
The saga of Jimmy Driftwood continues tomorrow.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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