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Jimmy Driftwood’s minute of fame

The Ozark Mountain region has produced many talented and celebrated musicians over the last several decades. Perhaps one of the most clever was Arkansas’s own Jimmy Driftwood.

Born James Morris in Stone County in 1907, he grew up with modest means in a farming family in the hills of north-central Arkansas. His father, a noted folk singer in the area taught him much about music and his grandfather had made a guitar for him. But Driftwood’s most famous folk songs came from his passion for teaching. When he was 16, he passed the state teacher’s exam and began work as a teacher in schools across Stone County, even though he had yet to begin high school. Once he graduated from high school, he enrolled at Arkansas State Teacher’s College (modern University of Central Arkansas), playing gigs in the area to finance his own schooling. He drifted in and out of college, continuing to teach, before graduating in 1949 and becoming a school principal in Searcy County. Throughout his teaching career, he wanted to make history more interesting and engaging for his students. Relying on his musical heritage, he started writing folk songs about important events in American History.

By 1957, RCA records took an interest in his music and released an album of his works, including “The Battle of New Orleans,” which years before he had created exclusively for his lessons on the War of 1812. Not long afterward, he began performing on such popular programs as The Ed Sullivan Show, Grand Ole Opry, and Louisiana Hayride. With his popularity growing, he had his name legally changed to his stage name of Jimmy Driftwood. In 1960, he earned a Grammy Award for “Wilderness Road.” In 1961, he won another Grammy for his Civil War-inspired album, Billy Yank and Johnny Reb. He wrote hundreds of songs, some of which were recorded by such artists as fellow Arkansan Johnny Cash.

Determined to give back to the poor communities he came from, he organized the Arkansas Folk Festival in 1963, which led to the creation of the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View in 1973.

When the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame was established in 1996, Driftwood was one of the 16 original inductees. Driftwood continued to perform for students across Arkansas until his death in Fayetteville in 1998.