Driftwood was born near Mountain View, Arkansas, on June 20, 1907. His father was folk singer Neil Morris. Driftwood learned to play the guitar at a young age on his grandfather’s homemade instrument. Driftwood used that unique guitar throughout his career and noted that its neck was made from a fence rail, its sides from an old ox yoke, and the head and bottom from the headboard of his grandmother’s bed. This homemade instrument produced a pleasant, distinctive sound.
Driftwood attended John Brown College in northwest Arkansas and later received a degree in education from Arkansas State Teacher’s College. He started writing songs during his teaching career to teach his students history in an entertaining manner. During the 1920s and 1930s, Driftwood left Arkansas, eventually hitchhiking through the southwestern United States. In Arizona he entered, and won, a local song contest.
In 1936, Driftwood married Cleda Johnson, who was one of his former students, and returned to Arkansas to raise a family and resume his teaching career. During this period of his life Driftwood wrote hundreds of songs but did not pursue a musical career seriously. He wrote his later famous “Battle of New Orleans” in 1936, to help a high school class he was teaching become interested in the event.
In the 1950s, he changed his name to Jimmy Driftwood, both publicly and legally. In 1957, a Nashville, Tennessee song publisher, Don Warden, learned of Driftwood, auditioned him, and signed him to his first record deal. Driftwood recalled playing some 100 of his songs in one day, of which 20 were chosen to be recorded. Driftwood’s first album, Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs, received good reviews but did not sell particularly well.
“The Battle of New Orleans” was included on the album, but did not conform to the radio standards of the time because of the words “hell” and “damn” in the lyrics. Driftwood said that at the time those words could be preached but not sung in secular contexts for broadcast. Driftwood was asked to make a shorter censored version of the song for a live radio performance. Singer Johnny Horton, after hearing the song, contacted Driftwood and told him that he wished to record his own version. Read More