The Battle Of New Orleans was one of the the biggest selling records in 1959. Johnny Horton's version of the song topped both country and pop charts and Horton's records are still selling well. The story of how The Battle Of New Orleans managed to reach such a lofty position is an interesting one.
It starts in the backwoods of Arkansas early in the Twentieth Century. The Morris family liked to compose music and play it on their own, mostly home-made instruments. Their son James Morris had been born in the northern Arkansas town of Mountain View in 1907. Since birth he was known as Driftwood. Along with the rest of the Morris clan, a day did not go by that Driftwood wasn't playing, singing, or writing music.
By the 1930's the Great Depression was in full force across the United States, and it hit hard in rural Arkansas. Hard work, hard times, and music were the three things that everyone in the hills had in common, and only the last brought any relief. Young James Morris had somehow managed to earn his college degree at Arkansas State Teachers College [now the University of Central Arkansas] in Conway. In 1936 Driftwood was twenty-nine years old and a high school principal in Snowball, not far from his hometown. A dedicated teacher, he was unable to get his students interested in learning history, despite the use of books, pictures, and anything else he thought might work.
Then he hit on the idea of writing poetry, and setting it to music. It worked, and his students began to pay attention to something that they had previously had no interest in learning. One of his many compositions was set to the music of an old fiddle tune known as The Eighth Of January; it celebrated the final battle of the War of 1812 and was called The Battle Of New Orleans.
Over the years Jimmy Driftwood, as he came to be known, brought his songs with him to other schools where he taught, and his students took them with them across the Ozarks. He became rather well-known and respected in the region, particularly among the school districts that dotted the Ozark countryside, and in towns such as Snowball, Timbo, and Mountain View. His songs were an effective means of teaching and were fun for the people in the region, but they were designed only as teaching tools and for no other purpose.
Red Foley had a television show in Springfield, Missouri in the mid-50's called Ozark Jubilee. Two keen-minded "hillbilly" musicians who appeared on the show, Porter Wagoner and steel guitar player Don Warden, decided to form their own music publishing company in order to retain more money from Wagoner's music compositions. After they had been in business for some time, they realized that they would need to find other artists in order for their music publishing business to grow. Don Warden began to search the Ozarks area for talented songwriters and performers. Warden's friend Hugh Ashley told him about a teacher by the name of Jimmy Driftwood living in Timbo, Arkansas who apparently had a knack for writing good songs. Warden made a note and promised Ashley that he would give Driftwood a call.
Warden tried to follow through, but was unable to find a listing for a Jimmy Driftwood, or a James Morris, in Timbo. He later learned that Driftwood, like many of his neighbors, simply did not have a telephone. Warden tried writing to General Delivery, asking the songwriter to send some of his tapes. Several weeks later he received a reply; it seemed that Driftwood didn't have a tape recorder or access to one, but would like to come to Nashville over the next school holiday to perform some of his songs in person. The two arranged to meet in a Nashville hotel room.
Warden listened as Driftwood played a number of the songs that he had been playing in the Ozark hills for decades. The music publisher was mildly impressed, but heard nothing that would make him want to sign the singer/songwriter to a contract. Then Driftwood played The Battle Of New Orleans. Warden liked it. They talked further, and decided to pursue a recording contract. Warden called Chet Atkins at RCA and made his recommendation.
The arrangements were made and Jimmy Driftwood recorded twelve songs that were put on an album and marketed as folk music, although the album didn't sell very well. One of these recordings, The Battle Of New Orleans, contained the words "damn" and "hell," words which were not heard on radio stations in the 50's. Atkins and RCA began to push for more exposure for Driftwood's song with WSM in Nashville, whose programmer finally agreed to play the song, but only late at night.
Johnny Horton was a country music singer who was not very well known to anyone other than fans of country music. His claim to fame at the time was that he had married the widow of country music legend Hank Williams. Horton was a regular on the Louisiana Hayride radio program. One night after a late-night performance at a small town concert, he was driving home at 2:00 a.m. when he heard Driftwood on his car radio, singing The Battle Of New Orleans. Horton liked the song and told his music publisher, Columbia, that he wanted to record it. This was 1959 and songs such as Great Balls Of Fire and Bird Dog had been crossing over from the country charts to the pop charts. Although Columbia was not very interested in The Battle Of New Orleans, Horton was persistent and eventually he recorded the song in Nashville.
It was an immediate hit. It shot up the country charts and entered the pop charts on May 4, 1959. The song that Jimmy Driftwood had written to teach history to his high school students was the most requested song on the airwaves, and went to number one on both charts that Summer. It launched a period in music history when records with historical themes fared quite well, including Horton's own Sink The Bismarck and Johnny Reb, and Stonewall Jackson's Waterloo. Johnny Horton became a national sensation.
Jimmy Driftwood had returned to Arkansas to write songs and teach school before Horton's hit version of the song took off. The music business at large came to discover him. He appeared on a national TV show that was hosted by Red Foley's son-in-law, Pat Boone. Driftwood performed at Carnegie Hall and at the National Education Association jamboree. He began to write songs that became hits for other artists such as Eddy Arnold, including Tennessee Stud. The Battle Of New Orleans won a Grammy Award for best song. Driftwood joined the Grand Old Opry, and toured the world. And ... he got a telephone.
Johnny Horton went on to have other hit songs, including two that made the top ten on the pop charts, Sink The Bismarck and North To Alaska. On November 5, 1960, while North To Alaska was still climbing the charts, Horton was killed in an automobile accident on a Milano, Texas bridge following an appearance at the Skyliner in Austin.
Jimmy Driftwood maintained a home in Timbo, Arkansas for many, many years and still performed occasionally at the Driftwood Barn in Mountain View, Arkansas while in his 90's. He suffered a heart attack and passed away on July 12, 1998.
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