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Updated on July 3, 2013

Driftwood and the Battle of New Orleans

Jimmy was always embarrassed at being called Jimmie.

We're talking about one of the pioneers of the folk movement in the rock era, Jimmy Driftwood--whose real name was Jimmy Edwards.

Excuse me if this column is a little personal, but I knew Mr. Edwards and his wife Cleda. They lived not too far from Mountain View, Arkansas, in a small town called Timbo. As a TV news reporter in Little Rock, and being the fan of rock history as I am, I made excuses--even though I was an investigative reporter and had no business doing "light" reports--to go to Stone County, Arkansas and do various feature stories on the man known professionally as Jimmy Driftwood.

When you entered his home, one of the first things you saw on the fireplace mantel was the 1959 Grammy for Song of the Year. Driftwood wrote "The Battle of New Orleans," although the number one version was a souped-up rendition by Louisiana Hayride star Johnny Horton on Columbia Records. Jimmy had recorded his own original version about a year and a half earlier on RCA Victor. That record had several more verses than the Horton top ten hit. Jimmy knew Horton well and told me that one of the first things that Johnny bought with the royalties from his song was a toupee.

RCA had signed Jimmy Driftwood, taking him away from his first love as a high school teacher in Timbo. Jimmy wrote "The Battle of New Orleans" as a history lesson to get his students' attention. Instead of the usual boring method of classroom presentation, Jimmy picked up his guitar and sang:

In 1814, we took a little trip...

By the time the song finished, the students knew all about Colonel Andrew Jackson, the British defeat at New Orleans during the War of 1812, and why the English Colonel Packhenham said:

You better stop your messin' with your cousin Uncle Sam.

RCA Victor was impressed with that song, as well as other historical ditties like "John Paul Jones." RCA brought Jimmy (but insisted it sounded more folk oriented if he spelled his name Jimmie instead--he once told me, "I don't know why they wanted to do that") to New York City and recorded an unusual album called "Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs." The songs were only "newly discovered" because Jimmy had written them decades ago while a teacher in Arkansas. With the success of the album, if not the original single of "Battle of New Orleans," Jimmy became the New Big Thing in music in the late 50's, hanging out with Dinah Shore and Eddy Arnold, big RCA stars at the time.

Now let's get to that quiz we mentioned last time at the end of The Record Professor Part 4--no, I didn't forget about it. Big surprise, the answer to the question, Who was the only artist to "answer" his own song? is Jimmy Driftwood--he wrote "Answer to the Battle of New Orleans," released as a single on RCA Victor, from the British point of view. It's probably the only answer song to actually have the word "answer" in the title.

After all this, Jimmy's career took off. With his success at the 1959 Grammys--by the way, he always marvelled at how quickly his Grammy got rusty and fell apart; you touched it at his living room in Arkansas, it darn near turned to dust--he recorded for Monument Records, where he wrote and sang one of the early Civil Rights protest songs, "What is the Color of the Soul of Man?"

Back in Arkansas, he was hailed as a conquering musical hero...for a time. Mountain View, Arkansas, sits smack dab in the middle of the Ozarks, which has always been the Mecca for artists, craftsmen, and musicians. Jimmy was appointed the head of the brand new Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, a state-run facility that celebrated early American music. But being the outspoken, crusty old guy that everyone loved, Jimmy soon drew the ire of the then-governor, David Pryor (father of the current Arkansas U. S. Senator Mark Pryor). After a storm of controversy, Jimmy left the Folk Center in a huff and formed his own, scaled down version of a musical theatre. He called it "Jimmy Driftwood's Barn," which pretty much described it accurately. On the side of the highway, visitors would swarm the parking lot on a Friday and Saturday night, go inside, sit on splintery old bleachers, and hear early folk music as it was meant to be performed. Sometimes, some pretty famous people would drop by unannounced to help Jimmy play his music--Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, and even Jane Fonda once. Mountain View, by the way, was a focal point for historic musical figures. Remember Grandpa Jones from early Bluegrass and "Hee Haw" fame? He had his own dinner theater right down the road.

"The Battle of New Orleans" was not Jimmy's only major hit. He also wrote a number one song for Eddy Arnold called "Tennessee Stud." In later years, my photographer and I would sit with Jimmy and Cleda in a local restaurant (located in the Ozark Folk Center of all places) and people would eagerly come by the table and ask for autographs.

Despite his success in the music industry, Jimmy's personal life saw some tragedies. He seldom talked about the fact that he and Cleda's two sons died in their Timbo home in a murder-suicide domestic fight while Jimmy and Cleda were on the road performing. They had no surviving children, so they left all their extensive music memorabilia to the University of Central Arkansas, about two hours south of Timbo on Interstate 40.

Jimmy and Cleda were always friendly, accessible, and anxious to talk about America's musical history. His records are somewhat valuable, especially those early RCA Victor albums. That leads us into our next subject, which we'll tackle on Thursday--what exactly makes a record valuable, or even worth collecting?








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    • mel hanks profile image

      mel hanks 6 years ago from Holly Springs, North Carolina

      Thanks, R. J.--I liked your hub, too. Music lovers unite!

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 6 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      I have heard the Tennesse Stud too, Nice story! It’s great to see a new HUBBER and welcome to HUB writing. I came across this HUB by accident and then I found I enjoyed this very much. You have this laid out beautifully and it is easy to understand. Keep up the great HUBS. I must give this an “Up ONE and awesome.” I'm always your fan! RJ

      Based upon your HUB, you might enjoy this HUB…