Rock the Grammys – Jimmy Driftwood

Image result for jimmy driftwoodThe 61st Grammy Awards are tonight.  Over the years, many Arkansans and those with Arkansas connections have been Grammy winners and nominees.

But the first Arkansan to win a Grammy took place at the second Grammy ceremony on November 29, 1959 – Jimmy Driftwood.

Born in Timbo as James Morris in 1907, he later studied what is now John Brown University before graduating with a teaching degree from what is now the University of Central Arkansas.

In his 20s, he alternated between teaching school and traveling the country as a drifter.  In 1936, he both got married and returned to Arkansas as well as wrote the song “The Battle of New Orleans” to help explain history to a class he was teaching.

By 1957, he had changed his name to Jimmy Driftwood, both publicly and legally.  That year, a Nashville, TN, song publisher learned of him and offered him his first record deal.  That first record did not sell particularly well.  But he did start getting notice.

Driftwood left Arkansas for Nashville and became popular by his appearances on programs including the Grand Ole Opry, Ozark Jubilee, and Louisiana Hayride. He was invited to sing for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev as an example of traditional American music during the leader’s 1959 state visit to the United States. He became a member of the Opry in the 1950s.

In 1959, he had six songs on the popular and country music charts including Johnny Horton’s recording of “The Battle of New Orleans.” It was that recording that was named “Song of the Year” by the Grammys. That award goes to the songwriter, which meant Driftwood took home the trophy.  He later won three other Grammys.

By the 1960s, he alternated his time between touring and spending more time in Northwest and North Central Arkansas.  In April 1963, he held the first Arkansas Folk Festival in Mountain View.  He later helped established the Ozark Folk Center, which is now part of the Arkansas State Park system. He was also active in defeating the plan to dam the Buffalo River and in efforts to establish the Buffalo National River and the preservation of the Blanchard Springs Caverns.

Due to his knowledge of folk music, Driftwood served on the Advisory Committee of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and worked with the National Geographic Society.

His final years were spent in Fayetteville. He died there of a heart attack in 1998.

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Little Rock Look Back: Orval Eugene Faubus

FaubusOrval_fOn January 7, 1910, one of the most controversial figures in Arkansas history was born: future Governor Orval Eugene Faubus.

Faubus is today remembered for his role fighting for the continued segregation of the Little Rock public schools.  Raised in a socialist family, his staunch embrace of segregation was a surprise to many who viewed him as more of a moderate on the issue.  At the time, and later, it was viewed as more of an opportunistic move to head off a political challenge from segregationists such as Jim Johnson.  However, throughout the rest of his lifetime, as others such as George Wallace would recant and repent, Faubus continued to maintain he was “merely” upholding the law of the land (the Supreme Court striking down the law a few years earlier, notwithstanding).

Interestingly, Faubus was also known for hiring African Americans in state government for more than menial tasks. He worked to increase funding to historically black colleges and universities in Arkansas. He fought to abolish the predatory poll tax.

His segregation efforts curtailed Arkansas’ business recruitment for a few years in the late 50s and early 60s.  But a few years earlier, in 1955 Faubus had created the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission and appointed Winthrop Rockefeller to lead it.  He also increased teacher pay, overhauled the State Hospital, created the Arkansas Children’s Colony, expanded state parks, and stopped the Army Corps of Engineers from damming the Buffalo River.

In late 1965, by executive order, he created the Arkansas Arts and Humanities Council and funded it with his discretionary funds until the legislature would appropriate money in 1967. He also oversaw the creation of the state’s historic preservation program.

Certainly his efforts to flout federal law have tarnished his image. Looking at his accomplishments in the areas of industry, education reform and culture – one wonders what he could have accomplished if he had exerted even more efforts in those areas instead of fighting Eisenhower.  It is all moot, because he did not.  And the reality is that, yes had he supported Eisenhower, he might well have lost in 1958 to someone like Jim Johnson who would have continued fighting for segregation even more vehemently and would have been unlikely to champion these other issues.