By Brad Dison
In 1936, 29-year-old James “Driftwood” Morris began his career as a teacher and struggled to connect with his students, especially on the subject of history. He used every technique he had learned while earning his teaching degree at Arkansas State Teachers College, but he was unable to keep his students interested. At first, he tried to teach them historical facts, the who, what, when, where, and whys, but he failed to hold their attention. He added pictures and drawings into his lessons, but their level of interest failed to improve. He tried having them take turns reading from the text book but had no better result. Driftwood was determined to find a way to get his students to enjoy history, he just had to find something that worked.
Driftwood came from a musical family. In the era before electricity was available in the Ozark mountains, Driftwood and his family entertained themselves in a traditional manner that went back several generations – with music. Musical instruments were too expensive for Driftwood’s family to purchase. They worked hard to live off of the land and rarely had any spending money. What little money they had went toward the necessities of life that they could not grow on their farm. Through trial and error, Driftwood’s family built their own crude but functional musical instruments. As soon as the day’s work was done, Driftwood’s family gathered their homemade musical instruments and had an impromptu “pickin’ and grinnin’” session. They made up folk songs about things they knew firsthand such as farming, family, religion, and the promise of better days ahead. As long as he could remember, Driftwood looked forward to these musical respites, the family’s only real source of entertainment.
One day, following another disappointing attempt to teach his uninterested sixth-grade class a history lesson, Driftwood had an epiphany. The songs his family sang were little more than stories about their own life experiences. He decided to try to see if his class would respond to his history lessons if they were set to music. That evening, Driftwood took down his handmade instrument which somewhat resembled a guitar and wrote a simple song about the following day’s history lesson. He played and sang it for his class. To his surprise, the whole class, even the students who never paid attention to anything he said regardless of the subject, were absolutely captivated. They asked him to play it again, and he was only too happy to oblige. Pretty soon, they joined in and sang the song with him. They were enjoying it so much that Driftwood had a difficult time transitioning to the other subjects they had to cover. That evening, Driftwood wrote his upcoming history lesson into another song. As with his first teaching song, this one also included the names, dates, historical significance, and other details that the children needed to learn. When Driftwood brought out his homemade guitar, he noticed that he already had the attention of everyone in class. By the end of the lesson, all of the students had joined in on the song. The subject the children had dreaded most of all had now become the one they most looked forward to. For nearly two decades, Driftwood taught history in this way to eager and receptive students.
In the mid-1950s, Porter Wagoner and Don Warden, Porter’s manager and steel guitar player, formed a publishing company while working on the “Ozark Jubilee” network television show. Initially formed to promote Porter Wagoner’s songs, they eventually decided to expand the company to include other songwriters. Through friends, Warden heard about the unique way Driftwood used songs to teach history. He wanted to hear Driftwood’s songs for himself to determine their marketability. Warden learned that Driftwood was teaching in the small town of Timbo, Arkansas. Warden was unable to find a telephone number for Driftwood because Driftwood had never owned a telephone. Warden was unable to locate an address for Driftwood so he sent a letter in care of general delivery to Driftwood. Within a few days, Warden received a response. After learning that Driftwood had no equipment available to him to record his songs, Warden and Driftwood decided to meet in Nashville over the next school holiday.
During their meeting, Driftwood played Warden a variety of the songs he had written. Unlike his students who were spellbound by his songs, Warden was unimpressed. He was unable to find a song that he thought was marketable until Driftwood began singing a song about the War of 1812. Upon hearing this song, Warden decided to try to get Driftwood’s songs recorded. Chet Atkins, then president of RCA Victor, was also concerned about the marketability of Driftwood’s songs but agreed to record 12 of Driftwood’s songs, including the one about the War of 1812. Just as they had feared, radio stations were reluctant to play any of the songs. Radio stations which agreed to play his songs only did so in the middle of the night when few people were listening. All the while, Driftwood kept on teaching eager students.
Late one night in early 1959, an up-and-coming singer was tuning to different a.m. radio stations while driving home from a performance when he heard Driftwood’s song about the War of 1812. The singer was desperate for a hit song. His highest charting record at the time had reached number seven on the charts, but that was three years prior. If he was unable to produce a hit song soon, he was sure that his career would fizzle out. The singer made arrangements, recorded the song, and released it in April of 1959. It was an instant hit. His version of Driftwood’s song became what we now call a crossover hit because it reached number one on the country charts as well as number one on the pop charts. It became the singer’s signature song.
Driftwood’s song told the true story of the last battle of the War of 1812. It began, “In 1814, we took a little trip, along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.” This song became the signature song for rockabilly singer Johnny Horton. Jimmy “Driftwood” Morris’s most famous song was titled, “The Battle of New Orleans.”
1. Chicago Tribune, July 13, 1998, p.74.
2. Baxter Bulletin (Mountain Home, Arkansas), July 25, 1998, p.5.