Down in the Arkansas
Hidden away in a remote corner of the Ozark Mountains in north-central Arkansas, the Ozark Folk Center was created in 1973 to preserve and exhibit a way of life that was fading from view. The center features displays on mountain crafts and folk skills, but the greatest attraction is the music — music of a people once as isolated as those of Appalachia, with a folk music tradition every bit as rich. A strong oral tradition has preserved this music along with the wit and wisdom of their jokes and stories down through previous generations; the Folk Center was designed to ensure that this heritage would not fade away in the face of modern times.
Located in the Ozark Folk Center State Park about two miles north of Mountain View, Arkansas, on Spur 382, the Folk Center came to life only after years of monumental effort by local musicians and politicians. The Center now attracts thousands of people annually and brings much-needed tourism and revenue to one of the poorest areas per capita in the country.
A 1,064-seat auditorium is home to evening concerts from April through October. The stories, music and dancing reflect the lives and the religion, and the joys and sorrows, of the people who pioneered this region. The self-reliance and ingenuity that came to characterize the Ozarks’ unique heritage is reflected in the crafts practiced on the grounds of the Center — crafts that, until recently, meant the difference between a relatively comfortable life and a more meager existence in the mountains and valleys of the Ozarks.
The music played inside the walls of the Center, almost without exception, comes from songs written before 1940. The singing ranges from the ragged to the sublime, the singers from young to old, and the mood from the front porch to the backwoods. You’ll find no Elvis impersonators, Dolly Parton lookalikes, or straight-out-of-Dogpatch hillbilly comedy characters here. Nor will you find neon lights, splashy billboards or computerized audio-video presentations. The instruments are all acoustic, some of them still made right down the road from the Folk Center in Mountain View, which claims to be “The Folk Music Capital of the World.”
On the night we attended last fall, 90-year-old local legend Jimmy Driftwood (author of the country classics “Battle Of New Orleans” and “Tennessee Stud”) and his wife, Cleda, were present in the audience. He was carrying a stringed instrument so ancient that it made him look young. He had desired to perform that evening, but was unable to play due to his ill health. (Sadly, Driftwood — who originally came up with the idea of establishing the Folk Center a quarter-century ago — passed away on July 12.)
The other performers made a special effort to honor Driftwood on that night by including some of his music in their sets. The rafters rang with the sound of songs that are played and heard every day by the local residents but are rarely heard outside of this area of the country. The sound of acoustic guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, autoharps, mountain dulcimers, picking bows and spoons filled the air, while jig dancers, square dancers and cloggers filled the stage. The smiles and good humor of the performers, along with the obvious love given both to the music and to each other, made it easy to see that this was not mere “show business,” or the work of musicians treating their performances as a job; rather, it reflected the work of an extended family of individuals committed to preserving and performing their music.
Much to my delight, “authentic” and “old-time” didn’t turn out to be synonymous with obscure. Old familiar pop and gospel tunes such as “You Are My Sunshine”, “In The Sweet By And By” and “The Old Rugged Cross” coexisted with lesser-known instrumentals, country ballads and gospel numbers. Jokes and stories shifted from the purely local to the universal. The audience seemed made up in about equal parts of tourists and locals; several couples went up onstage to dance when invited to do so.
Jimmy Driftwood was the only “name” that was instantly familiar to me that night, but each performer cast a spell in his or her own way. Perhaps most encouraging to witness were the enthusiastic and talented performances given by some of the younger performers. It seems the Ozark traditions and heritage are no longer in any danger of dying out completely.
When you visit, take the time to wander the grounds. Crafts on display include spinning and weaving, quilting, barrel cooping, gunsmithing and blacksmithing, furniture making, woodcarving, tintype photography, printing, pottery and more. You can try your hand at some of them; if you’re feeling ambitious, you can sign up for lessons and workshops that offer a more intimate encounter with these traditional skills.
The products made here are of high quality; a rocking chair produced by one of the Folk Center’s craftsmen reportedly sits in the White House. But even a casual look around is enough to tell you that these are not “just for the tourists” crafts. These are items meant to be used in the home, and to last for generations.
If walking away with a chair that will last a hundred years isn’t in your travel plans, however, then take a look at the locally made instruments, check out the songbooks of local music available for purchase, or even browse the “spirit faces” believed to bring good luck by freeing the spirit contained in the wood into which they are carved. If you prefer strolling to shopping, try walking through the Folk Center’s fragrant herb garden.
The surrounding terrain features a further variety of natural attractions. Mountains and limestone bluffs drop dramatically into hidden valleys, while the hardwood forests teem with game, and the clear streams and lakes contain an abundance of trout, bass and other fish. Hiking, boating, canoeing and scuba diving are all available. Nearby Blanchard Springs Cavern offers the opportunity to explore one of the most significant cave discoveries of this century.
For those who want to stay right on the premises, the Dry Creek Lodge is highly recommended. We enjoyed a comfortable room with the woods right outside our door for a moderate rate. Although the Lodge is within easy walking distance of the Folk Center, you’ll probably want to drive because of the steepness of the roads and pathways in this mountainous area. The Iron Skillet Restaurant is nearby, but plan to eat at least once at the Smoke House set into the crafts area of the Folk Center — you won’t soon forget the smoked meats, fried pies and cheeses available there.
If you aren’t staying in the park, a free tram takes you from a large shuttle parking lot right to the front door of the Folk Center. The nearby town of Mountain View (pop. 2,439) boasts numerous and varied accommodations, restaurants and entertainment venues. You’ll likely hear music somewhere (frequently for free, or on a “pass-the-hat” basis) if you walk around the town. Weekends are a particularly good time to catch informal outdoor performances, but if you’re seeking something more structured, Jimmy Driftwood’s Barn, Brickshy’s Showboat Theater, Leatherwood’s Music Show, and Cash’s White River Hoedown are all available in the area.
If you wish to time your trip to coincide with a music festival, chances are you won’t have to wait too long. The largest one is the annual Mountain View Folk Festival, usually scheduled around the third weekend in April, but there seems to be a music festival every few weeks or so. Be sure to bring the instrument of your choice if you play, because it’s not uncommon for visitors to join in with the locals for an impromptu concert on the town green or on a front porch somewhere nearby.
Traveling a little farther afield from Mountain View, the capital city of Little Rock is just 100 miles south; the entertainment town of Branson, Missouri is 125 miles northwest; Eureka Springs, “the Switzerland of the Ozarks,” is 130 miles northwest; and Memphis, Tennessee, is 160 miles to the east.
It’s hard to understand how the Ozarks remained one of our country’s most isolated backwaters for so long, before blossoming into the culturally vibrant and recreationally important region that it is today. The Ozark Mountains top out at only a little over 2500 feet, so they are hardly the barrier to travel and exploration imposed by the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps it was the steepness of the hills or the thick forests blanketing their slopes that helped keep the area insulated from the otherwise energetic westward sweep of American history. The people of the region, of course, have a saying that contains a bit of wisdom concerning their isolation: “Our mountains ain’t high, but our valleys sure are deep.”