Monday, April 11, 2011
JIMMIE DRIFTWOOD - THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS
Pretty much everyone knows that couplet as the opening line to "The Battle Of New Orleans", a #1 pop and country hit for Johnny Horton in 1959. My fifth grade teacher used to play it when teaching us about early American history. It still gets airplay on certain radio stations. Basically, it's a country/folk classic.
However, while everyone knows at least part of the tune, and a number of people know that Johnny Horton had the big hit with it, only a few folks know that Johnny didn't have the original version; even fewer folks have actually heard the original version (though, hopefully, many will come to my blog to finally experience it).
"The Battle Of New Orleans" was written and first recorded by a folksinger known as Jimmie Driftwood. Jimmie Driftwood was born James Corbett Morris on June 20, 1907, in West Richwoods, Arkansas. The name "Driftwood" came from a joke that Jimmie's grandfather played on his grandmother: when they went to see their newborn grandson, Jimmie's grandpa got there a few minutes before his wife, and wrapped a bunch of old sticks in a blanket. When Jimmie's grandmother got there a few minutes later, grandpa handed her the bundle and said, "why, it ain't nothing but driftwood!" (guess you had to be there). Thus the name Jimmie Driftwood. Not only did Jimmie's grandfather give him his professional name, but also gave him the instrument he played throughout his life - a guitar made from a piece of a rail fence. Google almost any picture of Jimmie Driftwood and he'll be seen with this guitar.
Jimmie came from a musical family, and was soon exposed to the music of the Ozark Mountains through his father and other local musicians. Jimmie also started a second career in education, obtaining a teaching license at the age of 16 (though, strangely enough, at that point he had never attended high school), and spent the next few years teaching in one-room schools in Arkansas, while going to school at night to receive his high school diploma. He also attended John Brown College and Arkansas State Teachers' College (finally receiving his degree in 1949), traveled across America, and settled down for a couple of years in Phoenix, Arizona.
It was while teaching school in Arizona that Jimmie began using the novel method of writing songs about historical events to teach his students. In 1936, Jimmie wrote "The Battle Of New Orleans" because his students were having difficulty differentiating between the Revolutionary War and The War of 1812. Basically, Jimmie was the original version of "Schoolhouse Rock".
In the early 1950s, after moving back to Arkansas, Jimmie decided to go for it - he submitted some of his songs to a few record compaines, with no success. But then fate - and Porter Wagoner - stepped in.
Porter Wagoner liked to make money, and was a pretty shrewd businessman. He decided he wasn't making enough money on performances and his records, so Porter looked into the world of music publishing. He formed his publishing company with the steel player in his band, Don Warden. Warden and Driftwood had a mutual friend, Hugh Ashley, who told Warden about this teacher who wrote fantastic songs and was an undiscovered treasure. Driftwood went up to Nashville in 1957 and auditioned for Don Warden, who signed him to a publishing contract and got him a recording contract with Porter Wagoner's label, RCA Victor.
Driftwood's first recording session for RCA was held on October 27, 1957. The first song recorded that day? "The Battle Of New Orleans". The record had only three musicians on it - Jimmie Driftwood, guitar, Chet Atkins, guitar, and Bob Moore, bass. There were 10 other tunes recorded that day - in a three hour session!! Nowadays, producers spend three DAYS just MIXING a record. Those 11 songs made up Jimmie's first LP - "Jimmie Driftwood Sings Newly Discovered American Folk Songs", released early in 1958.
The LP sold in respectable numbers, despite the fact that it received very little airplay. Part of the problem was the fact that "The Battle Of New Orleans", the most "commercial" song on the LP, contained the words "hell" and "damn". No one was going to run afoul of the FCC in 1958 by playing the record, although WSM in Nashville (home of the Grand Ole Opry) decided to give it limited play, but only at very late night hours.
The airplay at odd hours may have been the reason that Johnny Horton heard the song. As the legend goes, at about 2am sometime in late 1958, Johnny was driving home from a show he had just done in the Nashville area, and decided to tune in WSM on his car radio. They were playing Jimmie's "The Battle Of New Orleans". Horton heard the tune and decided right then that he was going to record it. He called his record company, Columbia, and told them his plans. Horton edited out some of the more "offensive" verses, took the final verse and made that the chorus, and generally changed the song around. Columbia scheduled a session on January 27, 1959, Johnny recorded his version, and the rest is history.
The other story, which seems a little more plausible, is that Don Warden, noting the lack of airplay for the Jimmie Driftwood record, decided to up the ante and push "Battle" to more popular artists who could make the song a hit. Warden contacted Tillman Franks, Johnny Horton's manager, and played the record for him. Tillman took it to Johnny, who loved it immediately, and recorded it.
Either way, Horton's record screamed up the lists, hitting #1 on the country charts for 10 weeks, and, to everyone's surprise, hit #1 on the pop charts. Meanwhile, RCA Victor had just released Jimmie Driftwood's second LP, titled "The Wilderness Road", which included the original version of another country hit - "Tennessee Stud", which Eddy Arnold would take into the country Top Ten a couple of months later. "The Wilderness Road" began selling very well, and RCA decided to pick up a few extra sales by issuing a 45 of "The Battle Of New Orleans" backed with a cut from the new LP, "Damyankee Lad", despite the "hells" and "damns" on both sides of the record (isn't it amazing how morality flies out the window when there's a few bucks to be made?) and despite the fact that "Battle" was an almost two-year-old record. Unfortunately for Jimmie, nothing was going to stop Johnny Horton's rise to #1, so the 45 failed to sell. However, the money Driftwood made from "Battle" and "Tennessee Stud" (not to mention Homer and Jethro's parody "The Battle Of Kookamonga") allowed him to live comfortably on his 150-acre ranch in Arkansas for the rest of his days.
Driftwood recorded a few more LPs for RCA until 1961 (among the other tunes he cut was an answer record to "Battle Of New Orleans", titled "The Answer To The Battle Of New Orleans", imaginatively enough), and then became heavily involved in the local Arkansas folk scene and became one of the organizers of the Arkansas Folk Festival, which attracted hundreds of thousands of people to see local musicians play. He also became very involved in environmental issues. Jimmie and his wife Cleda could often be found serenading visitors at their home, where Jimmie lived until his death in 1998.
The music industry will never see his like again.
Jimmie Driftwood - The Battle Of New Orleans (RCA Victor 47-7534) - 1959