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There’s more to Jimmy Driftwood’s ‘Battle of New Orleans’ than we knew

Press Shop | 06.28.2019

The “Battle of New Orleans” was Jimmy Driftwood’s most famous song, but the version most people know is only a little bit of the song as he originally wrote it.

The topic is timely because Jimmy Driftwood’s birthday is in June.

In a letter that Governor Asa Hutchinson wrote in his honor last year, the governor called Mr. Driftwood one of “Arkansas’s great writers, musicians, entertainers, and environmentalists.”

As a school teacher, the governor noted, Mr. Driftwood wrote songs to help his students learn history, which helped preserve traditional folk music as well as further education in the Ozarks.

Mr. Driftwood lived in Mountain View, and his love of folk music and of his town led him to help establish the Ozark Folk Center and the Arkansas Folk Festival. Mr. Driftwood, who was born James C. Morris, took his nickname from a joke his grandfather played on his grandmother. The legend, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, is that when his grandparents visited to meet their new grandson, his grandfather wrapped a bundle of old sticks in a blanket and handed the bundle to Jimmy's gradnmother as if it were the newborn. When she pulled back the blanket and saw what was inside, she said, “Why, it ain’t nothing but driftwood.”

Mr. Driftwood loved the beauty and the natural resources of his state. He served on the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Commission and was among the leaders to secure the designation of the Buffalo River as the nation’s first national river.

“We are able to celebrate much of Arkansas’s rich heritage thanks to Jimmy’s preservation and advocacy efforts,” Governor Hutchinson wrote.

“The Battle of New Orleans” was one of those songs Mr. Driftwood wrote to teach history to his students. He wrote it in 1936 to teach the difference between the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War. The song as he wrote it, however, was too long for radio play.

But the original version has survived, both in written form and in the memory of his family and fellow musicians.

The late Glen Branscum played in almost every state with Mr. Driftwood and his band. He told a newspaper writer in a 2009 interview that in concerts, Mr. Driftwood “always sung it the … long way.”

“I never did learn the words to the long part,” Mr. Branscum said. “I would sing the chorus with him.”

Here are some of the lost lyrics, as supplied by Lona Fay Lancaster of Locust Grove:

“Well we marched back to town in our dirty ragged pants

“And we danced all night with the pretty girls from France

“We couldn’t understand ’em, but they had the sweetest charm

“And we understood ’em better when we got ’em in our arms.

“Well the guide who brung the British from the sea

“Come a-limping into camp just as sick as he could be

“He said the dying words of Colonel Pak-en-ham

“Was, ‘You better quit your foolin’ with your cousin Uncle Sam.’”

The Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame inducted Mr. Driftwood as a member in 1996.

(Cover photo: Jimmy Driftwood and one of his sons play their guitars at their home in Timbo in Stone County. Top photo: Jimmy Driftwood and his father, Neal Morris, in front of their Stone County home.)

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