If you grew up in Arkansas in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, you might remember staying up until midnight to watch AETN’s sign-off video.  The video ran every night for years on channel 13, Arkansas’ PBS station.  Waylon Holyfield’s “Arkansas (You Run Deep in Me)” was coupled with the state’s scenic vistas glowing in a VHS haze to create a brazen salute to Arkansas’ people and places.  Holyfield’s song was written to commemorate Arkansas’s 150th anniversary in 1986.  The song became an anthem of pride throughout the state and was made an official state song in 1987.

Holyfield was born in Mallettown, Arkansas, graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1965, and moved to Nashville in 1972 to write songs for a living.  He found great success in country music, scoring his first number one hit in 1975 with Don Williams’ recording of “You’re My Best Friend.”

“Arkansas (You Run Deep in Me)” was written 14 years after Holyfield left the state.  The song is about leaving a place one loves and remembering it fondly.  “Oh, I may wander, but when I do,” Holyfield sings with his grand synthesized orchestra, “I will never be far from you.  You’re in my blood and I know you’ll always be.  Arkansas, you run deep in me.”  It is a sentimental tune filled with imagery that would make any native’s heart swell, written in the vein of the Wilburn Brothers’ “Arkansas” or Glen Campbell’s “Arkansas.”

October morning in the Ozark Mountains,
Hills ablazing like that sun in the sky.
I fell in love there and the fire’s still burning
A flame that will never die.

Moonlight dancing on a delta levee,
To a band of frogs and whippoorwill
I lost my heart there one July evening
And it’s still there, I can tell.

Oh, I may wander, but when I do
I will never be far from you.
You’re in my blood and I know you’ll always be.
Arkansas, you run deep in me.

Magnolia blooming, Mama smiling,
Mallards sailing on a December wind.
God bless the memories I keep recalling
Like an old familiar friend.

And there’s a river rambling through the fields and valleys,
Smooth and steady as she makes her way south,
A lot like the people whose name she carries.
She goes strong and she goes proud.

Oddly enough, many of the best songs about Arkansas were written about the state from the perspective of someone who has left, or is leaving, its borders.  Holyfield’s memory is by far the most romantic; others see Arkansas in a different light.  The best see Arkansas as it really was.

I have selected the best songs about the state of Arkansas with an unscientific criteria based on my personal preference and a song’s subject, historical relevance, and “catchiness.”  Songs from Henry Thomas, Big Bill Broonzy, A.E. Ward and His Plowboys, Jimmy McCracklin, Jimmy Driftwood, Gossip, and Sufjan Stevens all made the list.  (The following were never considered: Anne Murray’s  “I Can See Arkansas,” Charles Manson’s “Arkansas,” and Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s “Arkansas Coal.”)

Big Bill Broonzy – “Goin’ Back to Arkansas” (1935)

Broonzy was either born in 1893, 1898, or 1903, depending on the source.  It was probably 1903.  Broonzy claims 1893, but some think he is the least credible source.  We do know that Broonzy grew up around Pine Bluff, Arkansas.  After a short stint as a preacher and a few drought-spoiled harvests, Broonzy moved to Chicago in 1920.

Broonzy claimed that he was drafted into the Army in 1917 (he would have been 14 if he was born in 1903), was shipped to France, and saw the end of World War I.  He told Alan Lomax that on his return to Arkansas in 1919, he got off the train dressed in his Army uniform and was confronted by a white man who told him, “You ain’t in the army now.  And those clothes you got there, you can take ‘em home an’ get out of ‘em an’ get you some overalls. Because there’s no nigger gonna walk around here with no Uncle Sam’s uniform…Because you gotta get back to work.”  Broonzy said he left the South soon after that and headed to Chicago, something 3.5 million other African-Americans did following WWI.  “The main reason I left home was because I couldn’t stand eating out of the back trough all the time,” Broonzy said.  Like the thousands of other black servicemen who returned from Europe only to re-experience the humiliation of Jim Crow, Broonzy headed North.

Big Bill Broonzy

Big Bill became a popular bluesman in Chicago, recording for the first time in 1927.  In 1935, Broonzy recorded “Goin’ Back to Arkansas.”  Surprisingly, his memories of Arkansas are pleasant in the tune.  He notes the food, farm, and family rather than the racism that drove him out of Arkansas in the first place.  Many of his other songs convey his anger toward the South, but “Goin’ Back to Arkansas” is optimistic.  Or perhaps the song is meant to be heard from Big Bill’s 1919 perspective, just before he made it back to Arkansas from the war.

Big Bill Broonzy became one of the most influential musicians to come out of Arkansas.  By the time he died in 1958, he had copyrighted over 300 songs.  Pete Townshend once said of Broonzy, “Back before it all caught fire, we heard Big Bill, and we knew that music could tell the truth as well as entertain.”  Eric Clapton said, “Broonzy had a big body of work.  Broonzy was big [in England] – he got showed on TV, and it was spellbinding.  I think anyone who was leaning in that direction got it from there.”

Goin’ back, I’m goin’ back to Arkansas,
I’m goin’ back, goin’ back to Arkansas,
I know I will be happy,
Me, my wife and mother-in-law,
That’s why I’m goin’ back, goin’ back to Arkansas,

O’ when my mother put on that ol’ frying pan,
And she started to cook them ol’ collard greens,
You can smell those hamhocks boilin’, if I tell their good you know I ain’t stalling,
You know I’m going back, goin’ back to Arkansas

I missed the train, I’ve got a great big mule to ride,
I missed the train, I’ve got a great big mule to ride,
He’s standing at my gate, my .44 by my side,
That’s why I’m goin’ back, goin’ back to Arkansas,

When I get home, I don’t have to pay no rent,
I raise my own meat and meal,
You can hear them chickens crowing,
You can hear them old cows mooing,
That’s why I’m goin’ back, goin’ back to Arkansas,

Goin’ back, I’m goin’ back to Arkansas,
Yes, I’m goin’ back, goin’ back to Arkansas,
My mother she cooks for the boss,
Yes my daddy he feeds his horse,
Goin’ back, I’m goin’ back to Arkansas,
That’s why I’m goin’ back, goin’ back to Arkansas.

A. E. Ward and His Plowboys – “Going to Leave Old Arkansas” (1931)

Not much is known about Albert E. Ward or his Plowboys.  From Lawrence County, Arkansas, Ward, his brother Wizener, and the band traveled to Alabama in 1927 to make a record, but supposedly ran out of money in the process and had to sell the rights to their music to make it back home.  Their next effort came in 1931 when they recorded four songs in Atlanta, including “Going to Leave Old Arkansas.”  A. E. was 57 years old at the time.  The band was only a handful of Arkansas country acts to record during the period (along with George Edgin’s Corndodgers from Ozark, the Morrison Twin Brothers String Band from Searcy, and Luke Hignight’s Ozark Strutters from Clark County).

“Going to Leave Old Arkansas” was recorded in the midst of the Great Depression.  Tennant farmers and share croppers in East Arkansas experienced the worst of it.  Much like the thousands of blacks like Big Bill Broonzy who left the state in the early 1920s, thousands of poor white farmers left the state looking for a better circumstance in the 1930s (Grapes of Wrath-style).  “I’m going to leave ol’ Arkansas, I’m going to leave the state,” Ward sings while playing the fiddle, “I’m going to leave ol’ Arkansas and never come back again.” Ward’s lyrics testify to the heart-breaking situation of leaving his home.  “My wife Lizzie ain’t grinnin’ boy, she says I’m getting’ old, she says she’s afraid of death, the country is a full, my heart is awful heavy boy the tears are in my eyes but tomorrow night when the sun goes down I’m gonna say goodbye.”

Henry Thomas – “Arkansas” (1927)

Irving Jones’ “Let Me Bring My Clothes Back Home”

Henry Thomas’s “Arkansas” is my personal favorite song about Arkansas, even though it may not be entirely about the state.  It is a masterpiece of American music, a wondering patchwork of early genres.  Thomas’ work can be seen as a time capsule of African-American music from the last quarter of the 19th century.  He was born in 1874 in Big Sandy, TX, but did not record his music until 1927, over thirty years after he began traveling the South with his guitar and quill flute.  Thomas is the earliest born bluesman ever recorded.  His songs are the oldest examples of what southern blacks were listening to at the turn of the 20th century.  The twenty-three songs that Thomas (in his mid-50s) recorded from 1927 to 1929 were the culmination of what he created in the 1880s and 1890s – a blend of folk ballads, minstrel, ragtime, and gospel that would somehow become the blues.

“Arkansas” is a great example of Thomas’ special blend.  The song is a “rag” that pieces together three unrelated songs into one unique tune.  In this case, Thomas meshes “Let Me Bring My Clothes Back Home” (by trailblazing black composer Irving Jones), “Traveling Man,” and “The State of Arkansas” (A song we thoroughly discuss here) with his own creations.  With these three songs, “Arkansas” becomes a story about a man having a dispute with his wife which leads to him catching a train to Arkansas.  The wife tells the husband, “Honey, I’m done with beans, I’m gonna pass for cream.”  The husband begs his wife to let him stay, saying “I’ll get a job if you allow me sure, I’ll crapshoot, yes I will shine” (slang for gambling and moonshining).  But off to Arkansas the man goes, experiencing the hardships that traditionally come in “The State of Arkansas.”

Despite Henry Thomas’ brilliance, he died penniless and in obscurity.  Some say he died in 1930 after years of living like a hobo, but a musicologist named Mack McCormick thinks he might have seen him playing on a Houston street in 1949 (McCormick didn’t know who Henry Thomas was at the time).

Oh Roberta round, “pack your trunk and go”
Yes, he came back home last night
My wife said “Honey, I’m done with beans
I’m gonna pass for cream.”
Oh my little honey, don’t you make me go
I’ll get a job if you allow me sure
I’ll crapshoot yes I will shine
Good little baby, just let me work
When you buy chicken, all I want is the bone
When you buy beer, be satisfied with foam
I’ll work both night and day
I’ll be careful what I say
Honey (What?) please, let me bring my clothes back home

Down the track this mornin’ she did stroll
Well a accident, her foot got caught in a hole
I’m goin’ to tell you the truth
A natural that poor man
Nice girl (but) dresses turn that railroad track is round
I’m going to buy ‘em all
Cigarettes and chewing tobacco that I can
A natural rover that a’ heavy poor man

I am a ramblin’ gamblin’ man, I’ve gambled in many town
I’ve rambled this wide world over, I rambled this wide world around
I had my ups and downs through life and bitter times I saw
But I never knew what misery was till I left old Arkansas

I started out one morning to meet the early train
He said, “You better work with me, I have some land to drain
I’ll give you fifty cents a day, your washing, board and all
And if you’ll be a different man for the sake of old Arkansas

I worked six months for the rascal, Joe Heron was his name
He fed me on corn dodger, it was hard as any rung
My tooth’s all got loosened, And (???)
That was the kind of hash I got for the state of old Arkansas

Travellin’ man, I’ve traveled all around this world
Travellin’ man, I’ve traveled from land to land
Travellin’ man, I’ve traveled all around this world
Well it t’ain’t no use ridin’ on through ’cause I’ve traveled this land

Jimmy McCracklin – “Arkansas” (1965)

Jimmy McCracklin

Jimmy McCracklin was born in Helena, Arkansas in 1921 and spent most of his childhood in St. Louis.  Many consider him the godfather of the West Coast Blues (he moved to L.A. in the ‘40s) and a pioneer of the R&B sound.  He reached national fame in 1957 with his hit “The Walk,” appearing on American Bandstand.  McCraklin has been recording since 1945, longer than any other living blues piano player according to the Blues Hall of Fame.

“Arkansas” was released as a promo 45 in 1965 and garnered a “Pick-of-the-Week” from Billboard on July 24, reaching No. 132 on the charts.  “Arkansas here I come,” McCracklin sings “I’m goin’ back to the country where I got my start, I tried the big city and its too hard.” Like Broonzy, McCracklin sings about a better life in his home state, “If I can’t live independent then why live like a bum? I can eat fresh meat every day in the week, I’ll kill a hog or chicken, or catch me a fish.”

Jimmy Driftwood – “Down in the Arkansas” (1965) and “The Arkansas Traveler”

James Corbett Morris AKA Jimmy Driftwood

Jimmy Driftwood became one of Arkansas’ most well-known musicians in the 1950s.  Born James Corbett Morris, Driftwood was a school teacher around Timbo, AR (my grandfather was one of his students) for two decades before he committed to songwriting and performing full-time.  He developed his songwriting talent while trying to figure out a better way to teach history to his students.  In the early ‘50s, after amassing hundreds of original songs, Driftwood began to pursue recording opportunities.  He eventually began to play on some pretty big radio shows and the Grand Ole Opry and the Ozark Jubilee.  His most well-known tune, “The Battle of New Orleans,” was recorded in 1958, but did not receive much radio airplay because “damn” and “hell” were in the lyrics.  Johnny Horton recorded the song in 1959.  It became a #1 hit and won a Grammy for Song of the Year, creating a short-lived craze for historic-themed songs.

Driftwood became active in promoting and preserving American folk music, particularly of the Arkansas variety.  In 1965, Driftwood released the album Down in the Arkansas, which featured songs about his home state like the reworked version of George “Honey Boy” Evans’s (a Welsh minstrel performer and comedian) 1913 song, “Down in the Arkansas.”  It is a particularly catchy tune, something Driftwood had a talent for producing (no doubt cultivated from his years of trying to entertain children).

Driftwood’s version of the traditional staple “The Arkansas Traveler” is also of note.  It’s a very different rendition lyrically and musically.  A fiddler travels the world, but never finds a place like home, repeating, “I wish by golly I was back in Arkansas.”

I had a cow that slobbered bad,
Down in the Arkin-saw,
I took’er to m’Great-Grandad,
Way down in the Arkin-saw.
Ast’im what t’do fer it
Down in the Arkin-saw,
He said, “Son, teach that cow t’spit!”
Way down in the Arkin-saw.

Down in the Arkin,
Down in the Arkin,
Down in the Arkin-saw,
The sweetest gal I ever knew
Was down in the Arkin-saw.

When I was just a little lad,
Down in the Arkin-saw,
My Maw got married to my Dad
Way down in the Arkin-saw.
Grampaw got mad and cussed a-while
Down in the Arkin-saw,
Til Grammaw said, “It’s the latest style,”
Way down in the Arkin-saw! CHORUS

I loved a gal, her name was Lil,
Down in the Arkin-saw,
I hugged that girl all over the hill
Way down in the Arkin-saw.
Her Paw got mad and called me “Son”
Down in the Arkin-saw;
He tied the knot with his rifle-gun
Way down in the Arkin-saw! CHORUS TWICE

Gossip – Arkansas Heat (2002)

Gossip’s 2002 Release “Arkansas Heat”

From Searcy, Arkansas, (The) Gossip reached international attention for their rockabilly-gospel-punk sound.   The band left Arkansas in 2000 and moved to the Great Northwest after their drummer began attending college in Washington.  They have released four LPs since 2000, each drawing critical praise.  The Arkansas Heat EP was released in 2002 with six songs, including the title track “Arkansas Heat.”

“Arkansas Heat” was recorded after the band left Searcy.  It is a defiant description of their hometown, written with little love loss.  Vocalist Beth Ditto, screams, “And tell the preacher, just in case he ask,’ That we ain’t never, ever comin’ back, Well, it’s all done and in the past, and that’s good enough fo’ me.”  It is a rebellious blues song with heavy guitar that storms through in under two minutes.  “I play games with the powers that be,” she sings,” I got the whole town sweatin’ me, Got the heat and the humidity, and it’s a wonder we’re alive.”  “Arkansas Heat” does not sing the praises of the state, but rock ‘n roll songs aren’t supposed to.

Two hours south of Memphis, y’all
From a little town in Arkansas
Where the people haven’t changed at all since 1965

I play games with the powers that be, I got the whole town sweatin’ me
Got the heat and the humidity, and it’s a wonder we’re alive

Well you sell off everything you own, just to make it all on your own
I ain’t a child–I ain’t full grown, but I’ll prove to you!
And tell the preacher, just in case he ask’
That we ain’t never, ever comin’ back
Well, it’s all done and in the past, and that’s good enough fo’ me

Two hours south of Memphis, y’all
From a little town in Arkansas
Where the people haven’t changed at all since 1965

Still judgin’ us in this town, I wanna keep on anyhow
They can run us out of our hometown, but
They’re never gonna keep us down!

Well you sell off everything you own, just to make it all on your own
I ain’t a child–I ain’t full grown, but I’ll prove to you!
And tell the preacher, just in case he ask’
That we ain’t never, ever comin’ back
Well, it’s all done and in the past, and that’s good enough fo’ me

Two hours south of Memphis, y’all
From a little town in Arkansas
Where the people haven’t changed at all since 1965

I play games with the powers that be, Yeah got the whole town sweatin’ me
Got the heat, humidity, and it’s a wonder we’re alive.

Sufjan Stevens – “The Lord God Bird” (2005)

Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, March 6, 1938

Sufjan Stevens’ “The Lord God Bird” is the only significant song written about the state of Arkansas in the last decade.  I will not delve too much into Stevens’ biography here, he is well-know, but I will say he is a remarkably gifted songwriter who has recorded a couple of albums that concentrate on the life of two states, Michigan and Illinois.  He has a knack for examining the history of a place while relating its meaning to the present.  In 2005, some NPR producers asked Sufjan to write a song about Brinkley, Arkansas and the ivory-billed woodpecker, then recently rediscovered near the town.  They gave him some interviews they conducted in Brinkley.  The story of the ivory-billed was sweeping the nation at the time, giving the state plenty of attention and tourism.  The bird was thought to be extinct after years of deforestation destroyed its habitat, but possible sightings of the ivory-billed occurred in Arkansas’ Big Woods.  It became a story of the perseverance of nature despite human destruction.

Eastern Arkansas was a very different place before white settlement.  During the 19th century, thousands of acres of land were drained and cleared for cotton.  In the early 20th century, northeastern Arkansas experienced one of the greatest environmental changes in the history of the United States.  Swamps were filled, trees were cut, and crops were planted.  Rice production skyrocketed after, as one historian described, “one of the most extensive private programs of land clearing attempted.”  Because of new technologies, land was cleared more easily, allowing for the establishment of giant plantations, which changed the region’s economy and destroyed the environment of the ivory-billed woodpecker and many other species.  The “lord-to-god bird” (as Faulkner described it in The Bear) was last spotted in 1944.  Arkansas now leads the nation in rice production.

Stevens’ “The Lord God Bird” describes the contamination of paradise in the wake of the “sewing machine, industrial god” (the Singer Company owned a tract of land in Louisiana that was lumbered despite an Audubon campaign to save the woodpecker’s habitat).  But the grand bird seems to persevere “through it all.”

In the delta sun, down in Arkansas
It’s the great god bird with its altar call
And the sewing machine, the industrial god
On the great bayou were they saw it fall
It’s the great god bird down in Arkansas
And the hunters beware, or the fishers fall
And paradise might close from its safe flight flawed
It’s the great god bird through it all

And the watchers beware, lest they see it fall
And paradise might laugh when at last it falls
And the sewing machine, the industrial god
It’s the great god bird with its altar call
Yes, it’s the great god bird with its altar call
Yes, it’s the great god bird through it all

Further Reading:
Robert Riesman, Peter Guralnick , I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy. 
Robert Cochran, Our Own Sweet Sounds

Be sure to check out our post “Eight Songs About Arkansas Women” and our look at the popular tune “The State of Arkansas.”

What is your favorite song about Arkansas? Let us know.