In the Time of COVID. Day 37
April 24, 2020
How I Was Drawn To Jimmy Driftwood
I wish libraries would open again. I wish I could touch books without fearing COVID19. I wish I could transport back in time to the audio collection at the Main Branch of the Spokane Public Library. When I was 13 and 14, it was my sanctuary.
A bus ran by my house that dropped me downtown. I went when ever I could. The vinyl collection had magnetic attraction. I could check out albums to play on my little turntable at home but the real fun was selecting an album, handing it to the librarian and being assigned my own listening station with excellent over-ear phones and audio separation. She queued up the record and handed me the jacket. I poured over the liner notes and images. I read the attributions and song titles. At those times the world opened to me. My favorite section was Folk Music.
That collection included the Library of Congress catalog complied by John and Alan Lomax, and the Moe Asch recordings of the Folk Revival sounds. There was the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, Odetta, The Weavers, Songs of the Cowboys, Ledbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Cisco Houston, but by far and away my favorites were “Newly Discovered Early American Folk Songs” and “Wilderness Road” by Jimmy Driftwood. They are pure Ozark Mountain balladry at it’s best. I knew those songs by heart. I play several on guitar now.
Jimmy Driftwood was a song writing machine. He composed 6000 songs of which over 300 have been recorded. He was a living repository of early American songs dating to before the Revolutionary War. He sang the songs of the pioneers as they traversed the Cumberland Gap and the Wilderness Road, as they laid claim to farmsteads and built a future in remote settings.
Driftwood’s guitar was constructed from found objects. The neck was fashioned from a fence rail, the front and back from his grandmother’s headboard and the shape of the guitar from oxbow yokes. His father made it for him.
As I got older, finding Driftwood’s albums became difficult. They really were not “popular market”, being too raw and authentic. A few of his songs hit big on the charts, recorded by others. The Tennessee Stud and The Battle of New Orleans are his most popular. I did manage to acquire a bootleg 90 minute cassette that I cherished for years until it disintegrated.
Then came a dry spell of twenty years where only my memories of his work prevailed.
In 1997 I bought our first internet capable computer and we got a cheesy little 28K dialup modem. One day I played hooky from school. I called in well. I sat down at the keyboard of that weird Bondi Blue IMac eggy looking thing and thought “ I wonder what this can do?”. “Who can it find?” I thought of Jimmy Driftwood. If alive, where did he live? I knew he wrote “Street’s of Argenta” the old name for Little Rock, and He composed the lyrics to the old time fiddle tune “”Arkansas Traveler”. I stroked the keys and entered “Jimmy Driftwood, Arkansas”
A minute or two later (28K, right?) up popped “Jimmy Driftwood, Timbo, Arkansas” with phone number. Impulsively, I closed out dialup so I could call the number. It rang three or four times and then a woman answered “Hello” she said. I told her my name and asked if this was the home of the folk singer Jimmy Driftwood. She said “Why, yes it is.” I said “Is he still alive?” ( it had been about 40 years before that, that he had recorded). She laughed and said “I sure hope so honey, he’s sitting just across the room.”
That was Cleda, Jimmy’s wife. I told her that I was a teacher and that I had listened to Jimmy’s songs as a youngster and absolutely loved their authenticity. She told me he had written those songs for his students. Jimmy commuted to work on a long-haired mule and didn’t record anything until he was well into his 50’s. When I called he was 90. I asked if they had any records or cd’s for sale. Cleda said they had the Bear Family Collection, a German company compiled complete recordings of American originals. She said it was $90.00. I gave her the address and told her I’d send a check.
She put Jimmy on the phone and I gushed my admiration. He said “Well, Stan you need to come out here to Arkansas for my Birthday, I’d love to meet you and your family, Stan.” When Cleda came back on, she said “We hold Jimmy’s birthday on Father’s Day. Our boys was killed in a car wreck years ago and we just have his birthday on Father’s Day, to lift his spirits. Your welcome to come.” She said she had to get Jimmy to an appointment but she’d be sending that music.
The music arrived before my check got to Timbo. Those were honest, lovely people. Jimmy died at the age of 91 before we could ever get back there. Cleda was having dementia and was moved to a rest home in Fayetteville. A few years later we visited the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View and The Driftwood homestead in Timbo. We visited the gravesite of Jimmy and his sons. It over-looks their cabin. “I made it, Jimmy,” I said. Patting his stone. Cleda Azelea Johnson Driftwood passed in 2004. I am sure they are all together now, on that knoll, overlooking their home.