Arkansas Folk Festival and Ozark Folk Center Logo

Lyon College Regional Studies Center

Creation and Development of the Arkansas Folk Festival
and Ozark Folk Center – An Oral History Project

Interviewee: David Newbern
Interviewer: Brooks Blevins

Date: July 18, 2003
Place: Little Rock, Arkansas

Blevins: This is August 18, 2003. I'm Brooks Blevins, and I'm here in Little Rock, Arkansas, with David Newbern as part of the Lyon College Regional Studies Center's oral history project on the creation and development of the Arkansas Folk Festival and the Ozark Folk Center. People still call you Justice Newbern, or just . . .?

Newbern: Some do, yes.

Blevins: Okay. Well, I'll do that.

Newbern: Well, that's up to you. You can call me David if you like, whatever you think is appropriate.

Blevins: All right. We'll start out by getting a little background information on you. You could start out telling us when and where you were born.

Newbern: I was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, May 28, 1937, and my parents were both people from Arkansas. My dad had grown up over in the eastern part of the state, in Marianna, and my mother in Fayetteville. My father, at that time, was a representative of Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, and they moved him around about every three or four months, so we lived in towns in Oklahoma, and then came back to Little Rock . . . or to Little Rock for the first time, really, where his mother and sister lived, and he worked in the ordnance plant out at Jacksonville during the war for a while before he joined the Navy. When he joined the Navy, my mother and I moved to Fayetteville, where her parents lived, and my grandfather, who was the president of the University of Arkansas at that time, allowed us to live in an apartment in his home, and that's where I grew up, really. After the first grade in Little Rock, I started school in Fayetteville and grew up there, went through the Fayetteville public school system.

Blevins: And your grandfather, who was the president of the university, now who was that?

Newbern: His name was Arthur M. Harding. He was a professor of mathematics and astronomy, and was head of the university extension department for a time, which people now think of as agricultural extension, but back in those days it was a broad-based extension of the university, and when Senator Fulbright met his untimely end as president of the University of Arkansas, my grandfather was appointed to succeed him right during the war years. I guess that would have been 1942 or '3, and he served as president until, I believe, 1947, and died shortly thereafter.

Blevins: And you mentioned you started to school there in Fayetteville. How long were you in Fayetteville after that point?

Newbern: Well, I went through the public school system and then attended the university. I was on a 3-3 program, we called it back then, with really an English major, so to speak, headed toward law school in my fourth year of college, which was not a very good idea. Everybody needs four years of college, in my view, but I did that, and then graduated from the law school there, and after that I went in the Army and had a . . . I guess you'd call it a career. I was a regular Army officer, a judge advocate general trial lawyer and international affairs specialist. I've worked at the Pentagon and in Germany and Korea, and here and there. I was in the Army for eight years, ten months, and one day, but no one was counting except me, I think. Anyway, after I had been in the Army for all that time, while stationed at the Pentagon, I began teaching at American University in their night division of the law school there and realized that that was something I really wanted to do, so after my stint in Korea I came back and resigned my commission in the Army and took a position at American University briefly, and then got the word that there was a similar position open at the university in Fayetteville and went back to Fayetteville in 1970 to teach at the law school there.

Blevins: Okay. If we can . . . Because of the subject of this interview . . . and I'm assuming that by 1970 you already had an interest in folk music.

Newbern: Yeah, I really did. I was sort of a person who, because of my military experience and being overseas, really didn't have a whole lot of idea of what was going on in the country during the 1960's, and I think the thing that brought it to my mind eventually was the Watts riot in Los Angeles, and realized the social ferment and revolution - or evolution, depending on your point of view - that was occurring with respect to the war in Vietnam and so forth, and I got to listening, you know, to what was going on in the folk tradition in New York and in California and here and there, and I began to listen to things that I'd heard all my life . . . I should say I'd listened to all my life but had not heard, such as the voice of Merle Haggard, the people who were singing about social conditions that were of real interest. And so, yeah, I had a lot of time on my hands when I was in Korea, for example, and I had an old five-string banjo, and I'd started to learn to play it and listen carefully to things that I should have heard a long time ago and developed a real interest. When I got back from Korea and went through that interlude at American University and then back to Fayetteville, I began playing the banjo and singing in a pizza place in Fayetteville. That was Assistant Professor Newbern, you know, out there singing songs in a pizza place. Some of them were in German, and Charley Sandage ran into me at this place and took one look at me and heard some of that, and he said, "This guy needs help," you know. And so then Charley and I teamed up and started doing some things together. Of course, Charley had a real background in music, and particularly vocal music, playing the guitar, and so forth, things I didn't know anything about, and that was how we kind of got started together.

Blevins: Well, now, you grew up in Fayetteville . . .

Newbern: That's right.

Blevins: . . . and of course, part of this is also about the Ozarks, specifically folk music in the Ozarks, and when you were a child and in your teenage years, I know that Fayetteville for a time was a pretty dynamic place for culture and music and things specifically to do with the Ozarks - John Gould Fletcher was at the university for a semester or so and put on some programs, Vance Randolph was always in the area, and all that kind of stuff. Did you ever have any connection that you can recall with any of these Ozark-specific things that were happening in Fayetteville in the forties and fifties?

Newbern: No. I wish I could say I had. I missed it somehow, just as I explained missing the sixties, you know. I really was not in tune back in those days.

Blevins: Okay, well, let's go ahead and skip back up to the German pizza songs. You met Charley . . . And you mentioned you moved back to Fayetteville in 1970 . . .

Newbern: That's right.

Blevins: . . . and when was the first time that you were able to visit the Arkansas Folk Festival in Mountain View?

Newbern: '72. I will never forget it. It made a great impression on me, some of it having to do with what I saw and heard of the folk tradition there, and some of it having to do with just the size of the crowd and slogging around in the mud and so forth. One of the things I remember most about that, of course, was the visit of the Hell's Angels motorcycle crowd. That was a little frightening to . . .

Blevins: That was the year.

Newbern: . . . fuzzy-headed professors from Fayetteville, you know. I remember we encountered them on the swinging bridge and thought that was remarkable, that these people in these giant three-wheelers and other Harley motorcycles were there, and they were peaceful people. They didn't seem to do anything wrong, but they sure scared us. But we heard a lot of great stuff that year, a lot of wonderful playing on the square, and that made a real impression on me. Charley had begun to get interested in Mountain View, I think, at that point, although he was still a graduate student in Fayetteville, and I think he's the reason we went. He and his wife and my wife, Carolyn, and I went over together and did the Festival that year.

Blevins: Okay. And I believe I recall that Charley mentioned to me that in those early seventies that you-all had begun going out into southwestern Missouri and different places and actually playing music in different venues.

Newbern: That's right. We did. Charley was much more accomplished than I, at that point - still is - but he was a good solo performer, and I sort of tagged along and played a little banjo with him. He would play guitar and sing, and then I played banjo and did harmony, and eventually we formed a little trio called the Illinois River Valley String Quartet with a guy named David Fielder, and the three of us did some local performances around Fayetteville.

Blevins: Well, let's go ahead and skip up to 1973. The Folk Center officially opens in the spring of 1973. At what point were you contacted about coming in to serve in the administration there?

Newbern: It was that spring. Of course, the opening of the Folk Center was a controversial event. I'm sure others have done this, but I'll just briefly say that the New York company that had the contract to build the Folk Center apparently wished to be shed of it, and . . . really far-sighted people, I thought, Bill Henderson and Buddy Surles - Bill was the Director of Parks and Tourism, and Buddy was the Parks Director - realized what an opportunity this was for the state to take this thing over, and in the legislative process . . . It was a controversial thing, you know - "Here we are, not a wealthy state, and we're going to sponsor people to play and sing and make baskets. Is that what we're going to do?" You know, you can hear the legislative banter over that. So they had problems, legislatively, and they also had problems, of course, locally in Mountain View and in Stone County, about the political atmosphere there and the fact that Tommy Simmons, who was the general manager designate of the Folk Center and who was really the local person who was overseeing, if you will, the construction of the Folk Center, who had been the mayor previously and during whose tenure the sewer system, which was one of the main purposes of the EDA grant that started the Folk Center, had become a controversial thing because of what the locals called "the infilliterration" of the sewer lines, you know.

And so there was all that going on, and Charley, by that time, had become acquainted with Jimmy Driftwood, had really proposed to but not married the Folk Center yet, and was looking forward to going up there to have some sort of connection with the Folk Center, but at the time he was working for Bill Henderson as his assistant - or one of his assistants - at Parks and Tourism, and of course Charley was a part of this legislative process of trying to get the legislature to agree to fund the Folk Center at least to some degree so that the state could take it over as a park and have a beginning up there as the Ozark Folk - in those days, called the Ozark Folk Cultural Center, but the cultural work was dropped later . . . At any rate, Charley was there, and of course Charley and I were fast friends by that time, and had done a lot of music together, and I was just ending a term as acting dean of the law school in Fayetteville, and the new dean had been chosen. One of my colleagues had been chosen - of course a senior colleague - had been chosen to take over the deanship, and I was sort of at loose ends, thinking, you know, having served as acting dean for a time and the new man coming in, that wouldn't it be a good idea to do something different, at least for a time. But the more Charley and I talked about it, the more interested I became in being a part of the Folk Center, and it seemed to fit, because I was somebody from off, as the locals would say, and somebody who wasn't involved in any of the political turmoil, either in the legislature or in the local turmoil in Stone County, who could come in - I used to think on a white horse and with a white hat and a lariat - and do something there that might be useful.

But then Mr. Henderson became interested in me, and they worked it out to match the salary that I'd had as an assistant professor at law school, which was a substantial salary even back in those days, and so yeah. I'll never forget when the phone call came. My wife, Carolyn, was in the kitchen in our home in rural Fayetteville, and she could hear me saying, "Yes, I think I'd like to do this," and her face fell. But she adapted to Mountain View, I think, better than I did. She was a wonderful helper and did wonderful things in Mountain View that we'll talk about if you want to, but she went right along, and that was it. It was probably in the month of March or late February, around at that time, in the spring of 1973, when that phone call resulted in my accepting the job as administrator of the Folk Center. That was a title that had to be created, of course, because Tommy Simmons was going to stay on as general manager, and you know, of course that became confusing to people, who was in charge, the administrator or the general manager. But anyway, that's the story of when I first became associated formally with that project.

Blevins: All right. So you came to Mountain View in the spring of '73, and I'm guessing that you probably had very little idea of what kind of political mess that existed there locally in Mountain View. Is that right?

Newbern: That's an incredibly prescient guess. Yeah. Yeah, I didn't know what was going on, and you know, when you do something like that - I'm not sure I did this consciously, but at least subconsciously I didn't want to know what was going on. I didn't really want to be involved in the politics of the situation. That was the last thing on my mind. What I wanted to do was to go to Mountain View and not ride in on a white horse, but go in and try my best to bring a good situation out of the Folk Center, to try to bring it into what Charley and I and others - Mr. Henderson and Buddy Surles - had all wanted, which was to create something that was not a Six Flags over Arkansas, but was an educational institution that would have the effect of preserving a lot of the Ozark folk tradition. That's all I wanted to do, and I didn't want to be on one side or the other. I didn't want to solve the sewer system, the infiltration of the sewer . . . You know, that wasn't my job. But you can't go in to deal with a 3.39 million dollar project in a town like Mountain View without somehow becoming at least a kind of a figure that will be of interest to local people, so you know, I tried very hard to stay above it, and I think succeeded somewhat in not becoming embroiled in it.

Blevins: Describe to me, as best you can or as best you can remember, what the sides were, or how the local political struggle shaped up when you got there.

Newbern: It was an amorphous thing to me. I didn't really understand. I still don't. I knew that there were people who were not . . . friends with Jimmy Driftwood, and Jimmy, of course, had been instrumental in helping get this grant to build this wonderful facility in Mountain View. I think there had been disagreements of a musical nature about whether, you know, you could have a bass fiddle on the stage or that kind of thing, whether that was traditional, and that sort of thing. There was the Mountain View Folklore Society on the one hand and the Rackensack Society on the other, you know. They were at odds, I suppose, with each other, and yet some of the people in those two loosely-organized groups of people seemed to be friends, seemed not to hate each other, and the mayor, whose name was Lona Ackerman, was a person who was friendly, and he was friendly to Jimmy Driftwood although he - Lona Ackerman - was subject to some kinds of criticism because he wasn't convening a grand jury, you know, to look into that infiltration of the sewer system and the charges of fraud and all kinds of things that were being hurled around in a town like Mountain View. It was hard to make sense of it. It was hard to find out, really, who was on whose side and so forth, and as I say, I tried not even to think about it, and so I can't give you a good explication of what it was. I don't really know to this day.

Blevins: Well, describe a guy that I'm sure you got to know at least a little bit, kind of the big name behind all that - Jimmy Driftwood. And he even worked for the Center, I guess, those first two or three years that it was open.

Newbern: Well, during my time there, he was not on salary of any kind at the Folk Center. I don't know whether we paid him anything for his performances there or not. We may have. But . . . describe Jimmy. Well, I first met Jimmy in 1971, I believe, when my wife, Carolyn, and I went over to Batesville to the folklore workshop that was conducted by Bess Wolf in her home. She's the widow of famous John Wolf, you know, the historian and . . . And she invited Jimmy to come and be a part of the folklore workshop that she conducted there, and Jimmy was sixty-five years old at the time and right at the peak, I guess you'd say, of his popularity with people, and that's where I met him, and I'd almost say I got to know him then, but I did . . . I was around him some. Very friendly, very outgoing kind of man. Somebody who was obviously a real talent, as everybody knows. Then, of course, I saw him from time to time as my association with the Folk Center began to take shape, and Jimmy was a . . . I don't know. He seemed to make a lot of people angry at him - or not a lot, but some people - and I never understood exactly why, and again, that was something I didn't really want to be involved in.

But I did notice that he wanted to have some sort of hands-on administrative relationship with the Folk Center. He approached me on several occasions about signing up the musicians for recording contracts. He wanted me to sign up the Copeland kids, for example, because they were becoming stars of the musical . . . And of course, we didn't have . . . We had facilities to make recordings there, but it just seemed to me to be something that was . . . perhaps if we were going to go into the commercial recording business, which we had no business doing at the time, in my view, that would be something in the future, and Jimmy kept after me about that, saying, "Somebody's going to come in here. Decca or somebody's going to come in here and sign a contract with those people, and we're going to lose them," and so forth. He wanted me to do that. I'm not sure that was a bad idea, but it just seemed to me to be the least of my problems at the moment, you know, so I didn't do it. And there was a . . . He was always cordial to me, always, but I could feel a distance beginning to take place between us. He would come into the office area of the Folk Center and want to closet himself with Tommy Simmons and talk about things, and I was left out of those discussions, and I had the feeling that he was beginning to think that I was not a very good idea, you know, and that maybe the local people really should be doing this, and not somebody from off. So I had that feeling, but he never said that, nor did he and I ever cross swords in any way whatsoever. I was performing some on the stage at the musicals, and he was always very complimentary of what I was doing, and I was flattered that he was. So that's what I can tell you about Jimmy Driftwood, that my relationship with him was always good on the surface. Now under the surface, there was some tension there.

Blevins: Well, tell me a little bit about that first year. Now, you were there one season.

Newbern: That's correct.

Blevins: Right.

Newbern: Really a very short time. Carolyn and I moved over there, I guess not until May. We occupied one of the lodge rooms at the Folk Center for a time, and then finally we rented a little house, and we were there until December, so it was a fairly short period of time that we were there.

Blevins: Describe, a little bit, the atmosphere around the Center and around Mountain View that first year, that initial season.

Newbern: Well, it was an exciting year. We had a chef in the restaurant who was very good. He was great with catfish, you know. And we had a lot of dignitaries who came. Some of my time was taken up, as it should have been, with entertaining the legislators who would come up there to see what was going on, which was not only their right, but their duty, I think. We had people come for the grand opening, of course, who were real dignitaries. We had a man from Williamsburg, a vice-president of colonial Williamsburg, who came and was a part of the opening. We had a fellow from the National Park Service in Arizona who came for the opening, and Senator Bumpers, or I guess then Governor Bumpers, was there. The atmosphere around the Folk Center, I think, was one of real excitement, because we thought, with a facility like that and the kinds of talent that we had running around in Mountain View, we couldn't fail. It was something that was going to take a lot of effort, a lot of work, but we had a young man that I thought was a terrific public relations guy, Porter Young, Jr., who worked very hard to get the name of the Folk Center out in this region and Dallas, you know, and around this part of the country. We had some unfortunate things. The weather was not kind to us that year - a lot of rain. The Festival was just a . . . You know. A tornado, and all kinds of awful things were happening. But from the Festival on, you know, it was, "Well, here we are. Let's see how many cars are in the parking lot this morning," and "What can we do to attract more people." That's what we were worried about. But the atmosphere among the employees of the Folk Center, I think, was always positive during the time I was there, until, of course, we realized that we weren't going to be able to get through the winter without some extraordinary cutbacks, and in Mountain View, people were . . . I think maybe the best term to use is bemused. People were bemused at watching us up there, you know, doing this thing up there, wondering, you know, how it was all going to turn out, and who was going to jail and who wasn't. And it was . . .

One little story. There was a man named Leslie Walls who had gone away from Mountain View, but he was one of the regulars at the Blanchard Springs picnic, you know, and the history of the Folk Center and the Festival and so forth, who played the guitar and, with his right hand, did a sort of a figure eight roll playing the guitar, and Tommy Simmons decided that Leslie Walls just ought to be back to the Folk Center, you know, so he'd went off up to . . . somewhere, I think in Illinois, to retrieve Leslie Walls, who was a diminutive man in overalls and a little hat, and Leslie Walls came and did his thing. But one day I was downtown, just sort of meeting and greeting people. I'd been in the drug store and was standing outside, and people were walking by and I was saying hello to people I knew. By then I knew a lot of people in town, you know. Even for me, from outside, it was kind of like old home week when I'd go downtown and talk to people. Well, Mr. Walls stood there for a little while watching me act like somebody [who] was running for office, you know, and he had his thumbs in his overhalls, and he came up to me when the opportunity presented itself, and he said, "Are you one of them big fat sumbitches come in here to run this place?" and I said, "Yes, sir. I guess I am." He said, "Well, I've got an idea." He said, "I want to talk to you about it." And I said, "Well, all right, Mr. Walls. That'd be fine," and he said, "When you want to talk?" and I said, "Well, why don't you just come on up to my office up at the Folk Center whenever you're ready?" He said, "Well, how about right now?" So all right, we got together at the Folk Center, and he said, "Do you know?" He says, "What you're gonna do now is this." Said, "You know, I worked for the railroad for forty years," and he said, "What we're gonna do is build us a railroad from the Folk Center to Blanchard Springs Cavern." He said, "This is gonna save this project." He said, "I am going to be the engineer, and by god, I'm gonna watch that smoke roll." And I said, "Well, Mr. Walls, I want to thank you for that idea, and that's something that we're going to think about. Let me tell you, we're going to think about that."

So that was just a little funny incident that happened in the process of all this, but you know, people had thoughts like that. People were . . . I think local people all thought that they had an idea or something that would make a real contribution to the thing, which was a good thing, you know. It was wonderful. They were interested in it, and then . . . bemused, yes. They were also looking askance, thinking about, you know, "What's going on here? I mean, I've been here all my life, and they've never had anything like this. Why are we doing this?" That kind of thing, you know. "Why do we need this?" So there was that attitude too, so it was a mixed bag.

Blevins: Yeah, I've heard that comment from several people, that a common feeling around town was, "Well, we'll just wait and see how long it takes this thing to go belly up."

Newbern: Yeah, yeah. The newspaper didn't help. The Stone County Leader . . . Mr. Franks, I think was his name, the editor of the Stone County Leader back in those days, was skeptical at best. He had a staff writer named Ralph Ivy who was a clever, clever writer, somebody who'd been in the writing program at Fayetteville, I think, and he was very good. And they were not very helpful. That was an interesting thing. Have you run into the fact - previously - that were these two competing newspapers in Mountain View at the time'

Blevins: A couple people have come across that, and one of them was run by a Driftwood relative - is that right?

Newbern: J.A. Morris and his wife were the editorial staff of a newspaper called The Mountain View, which had been established, rumor had it, by Jimmy Driftwood to compete with the Stone County Leader, and of course that didn't help the attitude of the Stone County Leader toward the Folk Center or anything else that Jimmy might have been associated with.

Blevins: Yeah. In some of my own research I've come across some early articles and editorials in the Leader that were critical of the administration - I don't know if it was in '73 or not - but were critical of decisions made by the administration of the Folk Center and just kind of overall.

Newbern: Yeah. I don't remember anything critical specifically of our administration there - Charley and Porter Young and Tommy and me - but the attitude was always one of not boosterism, but skepticism, with respect to the Folk Center.

Blevins: Well, knowing small town life and knowing the Ozarks the way I do, I suspect that, when it came to hiring people, that your job could have been a nightmare, because everybody who could grab your ear probably wanted to suggest the perfect person to be hired for this or that.

Newbern: That's true. That's true.

Blevins: And I guess that . . . and then that gets you back tangled into the political mess.

Newbern: It does, and you know, I was fortunate because, by the time I actually showed up at the Folk Center ready to hit the road running, a lot of the real hiring had been done. Tommy Simmons had done a lot of it, and of course he was in a position to be criticized for it because of his ongoing political embroilment in the sewer issue. But yeah, it wasn't just local people who had ideas about who should be up there. I mean, Jimmy Driftwood's nephew was made the head of maintenance at the Folk Center - a big job - and there were people from Little Rock who wanted to be involved in the Folk Center, not so much the people who were the artists and artisans who worked there, but people who did tasks such as janitorial tasks . . . you know, that sort of thing. We tried very hard to keep it to local people, but . . .

Had one very interesting incident. An old friend of mine - in fact, a kid who'd grown up next door to me - showed up in Mountain View. He was kind of a wanderer, and he'd showed up at Mountain View and wanted a job, and I didn't really know it. I just knew he was around, but I didn't know why he was there. And he wanted something. I can't remember what it was, but it was something that had to do . . . Oh, no, it was something . . . It was a bridge that was going to be dedicated down in southwest Arkansas, and Parks and Tourism was involved in a project down there that needed funding and needed federal approval of some kind, and I know how sketchy that is, but that's enough to give you a feeling for this. And I got a message from Bill Henderson to the effect that we needed to hire this fellow who had showed up in Mountain View, my old next-door neighbor from Fayetteville! And I said, "Well, Bill, I'm not sure we've got an opening, you know. We're trying to hire local people here." And he said, "Well, David, I really, really want you to hire him," and turns out that another old friend of ours - mine and the fellow who'd grown up next door to me - was Paul Barry, who was Senator John L. McClellan's assistant at the time, working in his office, and Paul had called and let Parks and Tourism know that it was essential to the success of their program in southwest Arkansas that this fellow be hired at the Folk Center. So there you are. I mean, you know. And yeah, we hired him, and his wife turned out to be the best waitress we had in the restaurant. You know, we hired them both. It worked out fine. But that was the kind of thing that, when you're involved in any kind of public project, you get into that sort of thing, I suppose, and I guess I shouldn't have been shocked, but I was.

Blevins: Well, now, in your position I'm sure you had to deal a lot with the state, and the Folk Center was and still is a part of the State Parks Department. How was that? How was that situation, dealing with the state on one hand, and then on the other hand you've got the local thing, and I guess conflicts could have arisen from that, too.

Newbern: Didn't have many. Bill Henderson and Buddy Surles were very understanding people. They let me do it. One of the things that was an issue, I think just about every year, was the advertising contract that went to one of the big ad agencies here in Little Rock, and there was, of course, the Parks and Tourism Commission, which is a politically appointed group of people that have considerable authority over the Parks and Tourism Department. And I would attend their meetings, and of course, the Folk Center budget for advertising, I think, in the first year was something like twenty some-odd thousand dollars, which was a lot of money in those days, and they competed for that prize, you know. So yeah, that was the kind of thing that I was involved with directly with Parks and Tourism, but otherwise they - as Mr. Henry Ketcher, who was a member of the Commission at the time, said, "Now, boy, we put you up there to run that thing. Now you run it." And I thought that was very complimentary. You know, they had faith in me to do what needed to be done up there, and so yeah, I didn't have much interference at all from Parks and Tourism, except with respect to hiring that poor fellow who'd shown up and had a friend in Senator McClellan's office, and I had very little conflict at all. And locally, I think you have already kind of summarized that by realizing that there was a lot of interest and, as you put it, everybody thought he or she knew the perfect employee, and usually it was someone they were very close to themselves, who would come and work at the Folk Center.

Blevins: Yeah. Now, the way I understand it, the first year of the Folk Center's existence, of course you had funding from the state. The legislature had reluctantly agreed to funnel some money in there, but there was no guarantee over the long term that that money would come back year after year. Is that right?

Newbern: No, there was certainly not, and they had funded the Folk Center project with $300,000.00, and not only was there no guarantee, there was, I think, a pretty good undercurrent in the legislature that there just wasn't going to be any more money, that we could either sink or swim with that underwriting. And that sounded like an awful lot of money back in those days, but when you have an authorized staff of eighty-one people, and you've got actually seventy-seven of them on board, you realize that that money can go pretty fast, plus the fact that you're using that to pay off a bonded indebtedness, and you're also using it for physical improvements and things that just have to be done - if something breaks, you've got to fix it - and so it was just . . . It turned out that that was not a lot of money to get us started. I really feel that the weather that year, and just the . . . We got started a little late, you know, in the spring, and the fact that we were so far away from any interstate highway or airport of any size really hurt us, and I think everybody realized toward the end of the first season that people were not going to come to some place they'd never heard of and drive on roads that were suspect to them - off of I-40 - to get up to Mountain View without a history of some sort of successful entertainment up there. And that's what we were up against, and to me, it's somewhat of a miracle that the Folk Center is still there and doing pretty well today. First season turned out to be a disaster financially, but it was not a disaster at all, in the sense that it turned out the way Bill Henderson and Buddy Surles and Charley Sandage and I wanted it to turn out, because it did not become a Six Flags over Mountain View, it became what it is today, I think, largely devoted to displaying Arkansas Ozarks folk heritage and educating people about it. And that was the idea, and that's what's happened, so I'm very happy about the way the Folk Center has developed.

Blevins: Yeah. Well, do you think there was ever a point at which the Folk Center could have taken a different direction and become more of a Silver Dollar City . . . you know, amusement park thing?

Newbern: Well, I'm not sure, because I don't think the Folk Center, even in its peak years - and I'm not even sure what they are - but I don't think it's ever become accessible enough to be a place like that. That may have been part of its salvation. But we were afraid of it, and I think maybe had some justification, being afraid that that was going to . . . Well, after all, that's how it started, because the company that built the Folk Center was a for-profit New York corporation, and you know, they were not interested as much in educating anybody or, you know, doing an historical project, as they were in making money, and of course, you can imagine what they might have done with it had they not fallen upon hard times and had the state not taken it over.

Blevins: Yeah. Well, now, you mentioned earlier that the Folk Center just nearly didn't make it through that first year financially. What exactly happened there in those last months of '73?

Newbern: Ah, that's one of my favorite memories, actually, what happened there. We could see the handwriting on the wall. You know, the budget - the figures - were abysmal. Here we were in October, faced with winter coming on, crowds dwindling fast, salaries not dwindling - you know, people still had to eat - and I was the highest paid person around there, and Charley and Porter and Tommy were the other people who were highly paid, so to speak, in comparison with the other people who were employed there, so I made the bold statement that, you know, my job was probably the first that ought to go, and my seventeen thousand dollars a year that I was being paid there could be better used to do this, that, or the other. And Charley and Porter both . . . (?) . . . Prior to that, though, or at about the same time we made that decision, I decided that something had to be done, because we only had fifty thousand dollars left . . . [Side 2 begins] At about the same time, we'd made our decisions to depart and thus save the Folk Center the . . . what we thought were our exorbitant salaries. It occurred to me that the Folk Center had months to go to continue to pay its bonded indebtedness and to pay salaries for those who could not be cut out. You know, I mean, you have to have people there. You've got a number of buildings to take care of during the winter months and so on.

So the only thing I could think of to do - and I'm not sure if it was all my idea or if Bill Henderson suggested it; I just don't recall - but was to go to the governor and ask for assistance to get us through the winter months, and an old friend of mine, Tom McRae, who was working in then Governor Bumpers' office, was his staff person who was sort of my contact with the governor's office, and I worked out an appointment to come to Little Rock and to beg for assistance for the Folk Center to get it through the winter months. And so we arranged that, and I went to the governor's mansion - seems to me it may have been a weekend day, maybe a late Friday afternoon - and went in, and Tom took me into the little anteroom off the kitchen, which I think was kind of a breakfast room or something like that, and Dale Bumpers was in the kitchen on the telephone, and I could hear him in there, and he was mightily aggrieved with somebody, and he was saying to this person, "You're an embarrassment to me, you're an embarrassment to the state of Arkansas, and I don't want anything more to do with you." You know. And here I am with my satchel in my hand, about to ask this politician for some money, you know, and I thought, "Oh, my gosh. Why couldn't I have come on a different day?" And Tom McRae was sitting there with this grin on his face like, you know, "You're in trouble now!"

But Governor Bumpers hung up the phone, walked into the room, big smile on his face: "Hi, David. How're you doing?" You know, sat down, said, "I know why you're here." He said, "The Folk Center's in trouble. We need to . . ." He'd been very supportive of the Folk Center idea. "So what do we need to do?" So I sat down, and I thought . . . I had visions of grandeur. I was going to ask for so much money - don't even remember the amount at this point - and saying, "We just really need this," and he'd say yes or no, and I'd go back home. But it wasn't that way at all. He started out by saying, "Well, let me ask you some questions." He said, "Are your maids up there in the lodge doing their laundry themselves, or are they sending it out?" You know, we went into minute detail about what we were doing up there, how we planned to go through the winter months, what kinds of . . . or how many employees, of course, and what they would be doing, and it was a cross-examination of sorts, which I just thought was amazing, because he had a grasp of what we were doing up there, and really kind of wanted to help, but needed first to justify it as best he possibly could. So I walked away with a hundred and forty thousand dollars of the governor's contingency fund to get the Folk Center through the first winter. Without that, who knows what would have happened, if he hadn't been willing to pitch in, because that fifty thousand dollars probably would have been gone by the end of October or early November, and Christmas would have been a dismal occasion at the Ozark Folk Center that year. But it was . . . As I say, that's one of my favorite memories of Dale Bumpers and what he did for the Ozark Folk Center.

Blevins: And at that time, had you already decided that you would be leaving the Folk Center?

Newbern: I can't recall. I think it was just about that time when we made those individual decisions to depart. I think probably I had made that decision, if not announced it.

Blevins: Something that's always interested me is . . . Of course, the Ozark region has long been stereotyped, and all kinds of myths and truths about the region and the people who live there, and all that kind of stuff, and I know that more of this happened after you left, especially in 1975 the whole local feud kind of came to a head with Jimmy Driftwood, and that's when Governor Pryor got rid of the administration and put a new one in, but . . . And I can only imagine what some of the people here in Little Rock were thinking about Mountain View at that time, but do you remember, in '73 was there ever any thought, when all these local feuds were going on and all that kind of stuff, of people who worked for the state or who weren't that familiar with Mountain View, of "My goodness, those hillbillies up there! How did we get into this mess with those hillbillies?" I mean, there had to be some people thinking that, if they didn't say it.

Newbern: You know, that's an interesting observation, that there had to be people thinking that. There probably were, but I never saw anything out of Henderson and Surles except steadfastness.

Blevins: Is that right?

Newbern: Those guys were . . . They had a vision for the Ozark Folk Center, and they weren't going to let go of it, and they were heroes, in my opinion, because their necks were on the line, too. I mean, they served . . . Certainly, if the legislature got angry at them and said, "They've thrown away their $300,000," or whatever, they could have been in real trouble. But they were savvy, and they were steadfast. They stayed right with it, and Mr. Henderson even told me that he thought that he understood my decision to leave, but he wished that I hadn't, because he thought it was premature. He said he thought we could have made it. And, you know, that's hindsight for you. Maybe he was right.

Blevins: You've already touched on the subject of what the Ozark Folk Center became in those early years, and those experiences and decisions made it what it is today in many ways. Was there, in your experience, one person or a group of people who had kind of the vision of what the Folk Center would become and who articulated that vision to other people, or was this more or less kind of a group project that sort of evolved, or was that vision there from the very beginning'

Newbern: I think the vision was there from the beginning. Charley Sandage, of course, was the program director. That's a very important job. It has to do with the craft operation as well as the music and the history aspect - you know, the library, the . . . what has developed under Bill McNeil's tutelage, a pretty significant thing. I think Charley's vision of it, that I shared with him and that he and I, I think, both shared with the people at Parks and Tourism, was there originally. I think one of the things we didn't understand - and I think Porter Young, Jr., used the term "growing moss" at the Folk Center. He was probably the first to use that term - that's what the Folk Center seemed to need. It was too pristine. It was, you know . . . Here were these nice little folk what we call "kiosks" displaying folk crafts, and here was this thousand forty-three seat auditorium, you know, with a concrete floor that you could hose down, and you know, there were these . . . This institution was shiny and didn't need to be. You know, how that all came about, would it have been better if we'd had people come up there and hew logs into places instead of building them out of beautiful native stone, or whatever . . ? Yeah. I think that part of the vision really hadn't developed, the part that would say, "Wait a minute. We need to do things are a little less commercial-appearing, a little less beautiful, than these. We need to do something to make this place a little more accessible to people who would recognize something as something out of their past," you know. That part of it, I think, we had to come to that fairly slowly because, by the time the state took it over, the institution was already there, you know. I mean, it was all shined up and buffed up and had those electronic tuners in the dressing rooms and . . . I mean, it was state-of-the-art recording, state-of-the-art stage - you know, perfect kind of place for a Broadway musical, maybe, or something like that.

But we . . . I guess it's . . . I started to say we were saddled with that, which is, you know, pejorative, because really, we didn't . . . It was a good thing that it was so wonderful, and yet it was something that was a little bit out of sync with where we were headed. That vision came later. You know, "Okay, let's build a smokehouse. Let's do . . . you know, this. Let's build something out of logs. Let's let the moss grow on the Folk Center." And that's happened, I think. But no, the vision originally was, "Let's create an educational institution, a place to display what's here," and of course, I'm sure you've heard this from virtually everyone you've interviewed, and that is that there are these competing, almost diametrically opposed thoughts that go on with something like this. One is, how do you put something on the stage without killing it? You know, how do you take something that happens on the back porch and at the picnic at Blanchard Springs Caverns and put it in a glass aquarium, you know, for people to look at, and not harm it? And you can't do that. I mean, you're going to harm it. You're going to change it. It's not going to be the same, but is that not better than letting television knock it out entirely? That's the dilemma that has always been there, and that's hard to explain to people who have an attitude, people who have an attitude about, "Why, this ain't like it used to be," you know. That's an attitude that . . . It's hard to overcome that, because how it used to be is not going to exist in Stone County unless you have some way to nurture how it used to be, and by nurturing it in an environment that is orderly and, you know, with rules and regulations and statutes, you're not going to keep it quite the way it was, but you're going to keep enough of it so that it is reminiscent of how things were, and that's a good thing.

Blevins: Yeah. And part of the way that was accomplished was through the apprentice system. Did that start in that initial year?

Newbern: Yes, uh huh. Yeah, it did, and I'll never forget some of the . . . Well, I say I'll never forget. I go up there infrequently now, but when I do, I see some of the people who were ten to eleven years old just starting to pick up instruments and that sort of thing, and now they're people who are on the music staff up there. Wonderful.

Blevins: Yeah. Well, that first year . . . Tell me a little bit about some of the characters you remember, some of the performers who kind of stick out in your mind from that first year.

Newbern: Well, I told you about Leslie Walls. And of course, Bookmiller Shannon was wonderful. Did Charley tell you the story about Bookmiller and the tuner?

Blevins: I don't think so.

Newbern: He didn't? Well, I'm surprised he didn't, because it's my favorite story. But Bookmiller . . . You've seen pictures of Bookmiller, no doubt. Maybe you even saw him; I don't know. But he was a great big man, and he played the little old banjo really well. He was a frailer, and very good, just a good, good player, and a character. But when the dressing rooms were completed - the auditorium was completed, and the dressing rooms were ready - a group of people was there from the Rackensack Society, and Bookmiller was there, and somebody was saying, "Now, Book, you know that you don't need your pitch pipe or anything like that anymore. You tune your banjo . . ." said, "We've got these electronic tuners here in the dressing room, and all you have to do is push a button over there, and it'll sound an A, and then you can tune your banjo from that." And Bookmiller said, "Is that right?" and the other said, "Yep." He said, "Well, let's try that," and so they set him down in the dressing room and pushed the button and here comes this tone - you know, A - and Bookmiller gets to fooling around with his banjo, and they said, "Now, Book, that's A." Book says, "Yes, it is," like "Durned if it isn't," you know. [laughs] He knew what A was. I mean, they didn't need to turn that thing on, so he was telling them, "Yeah, that tuner got it right." [laughs] But he was a wonderful performer. He looked so . . . so wonderful on the stage.

I remember the Moody family, Athlee and Roger and those people, who were good performers, and of course, Jean Simmons, who is still a wonderful performer, and Kay - you mentioned Kay Thomas. Kay something Ohrlin Blair Thomas, who's still performing at the Folk Center, I think. At any rate, she's still performing in Mountain View, and is a wonderful singer and songwriter. I still do one of her songs occasionally, a wonderful song called, "Land of Plenty." Um, characters. Oh, yeah, there were characters around the Folk Center. There was a fellow named Carson - I can't remember Carson's last name - who was the state . . . He wore a State Parks uniform and guided traffic. He was sort of our security, one of our security people up there, and Carson was something of a character. In fact, Jerry Chisholm, who was a wonderful woodcarver in the first years of the Folk Center, made a statue of Carson, which was very reminiscent of Smokey the Bear, you know, with that hat with the wide brim on it and all that. The . . . I'm trying to think of stories that might be interesting about some of those people, but I can't really come up with . . .

Well, one character who's still around up there is Aubrey Richardson. Aubrey has a recording business up there now that started when he was the engineer in the Folk Center auditorium. I think he was probably eighteen or nineteen years old when he started, and he teamed up with Charley and me and some other folks to form a group that played old time and folk type music for over twenty years, called "Sugar Hill." But he's still around, and we always thought we'd created a monster with Aubrey, because . . . I don't know if you've been around musicians much, but the puns just become unbearable. I mean, you know, they're just awful, and we all - all of us educated fellows - thought we were just so good at that, but Aubrey turned out to be the champ. I mean, he absolutely had a knack for it, and that . . . Just native folk intelligence, you know. He's that kind of person and has had a very successful business that he's operated there in Mountain View, based on a lot of things that he learned while he was working as the engineer in the Folk Center auditorium. Um . . . Trying to think of the name of a fellow who was a square dance caller and dancer, who was a good friend and was a perennial - you know, always around the Folk Center, worked there . . .

Blevins: Oh, there was a . . . Charley mentioned him. I think his first name was Kermit?

Newbern: Kermit Moody. Kermit Moody. Yeah, Kermit was around there all the time, and he . . . Oh! Red Gillihan. Red Gillihan, now that's probably a name you haven't run across. Red Gillihan was a wonderful fiddle player who had been away from the Ozarks, I think, for a time. I think he was not in terrific health even when he started at the Folk Center, and later died. But his son, Robert Gillihan, is still there and plays in the group "Harmony", which is a well-known folk group. He and his wife and Dave . . . Dave whatever-his-name-is. Wonderful musicians. But Red Gillihan was a really, really good fiddle player, and I remember . . . I was a sort of a struggling banjo player back in those days, and I never could get things up to speed. You know, I could play them, but I couldn't quite get them up to speed, and I remember talking to Red about that one time, and I was . . . For some reason, I think I was trying to convince Red that you just didn't need to play them that fast, you know, and he looked at me and he said, "Well, if you ain't playing them that fast, you just ain't playing them." You know, and so there was that. I learned my lesson right quick. But yeah, those were some of the people I recall, and probably, if I'd put my mind to it, I could recall some others, but those are the ones that hit me just in this . .. you know, without having really given too much thought to it.

Blevins: Yeah. Well, in our chronology, the last we had, you left Mountain View and the Folk Center in December of '73. What became of you after that point, just for . . . I have to have closure on the tape. We can't just leave it thirty years ago.

Newbern: Yeah. All right. Well, when I took the job, the fellow who had become the dean of the law school, my successor there - his name was Wylie Davis . . . and Wylie and I were very close friends. And I had proposed just to resign from my job there at the law school, and he was smart enough to say, "Now, David, you could think about that. Do you really want to resign, or do you want to take a leave of absence?" And I thought, "Well." You know, I said, "If I take a leave of absence . . . You know, I can't take a leave of absence . . ." Under the university policy, you can't take a leave of absence and not promise to come back, you know, so I said, "I don't think I'm coming back," and he said, "Well, why don't you take a leave of absence anyway, and if you decide not to come back, we won't worry about that." He said, "We'll work that out somehow." So I thought, "Well, you know, maybe that is good advice, and maybe Carolyn's not going to like it in Mountain View. Maybe I'm not going to like it in Mountain View," and so forth. So I did that, and thank goodness I did, because I was able to just walk right back into my job. You know, we left Mountain View December the first, and on January the tenth or whatever it was, I was back in the classroom.

So that's what happened to me, and I went back to work at the university and worked there - taught there - until 1979, when the people in Arkansas had adopted a constitutional amendment to create an appellate court, an intermediate appellate court. We'd never had anything except the Arkansas Supreme Court previously, and the Supreme Court was badly overworked. And one of my colleagues on the faculty there at Fayetteville had become governor of the state - Bill Clinton - and so when that court was created, there was no general election in prospect, and so the first members of that court had to be appointed, and I thought, "Wow, I'd sure like to do that," and so he appointed me to the Court of Appeals. Served there from 1979 until 1981 - it was eighteen months - when the new judges were elected, and as my faculty colleagues then said, "You must have gotten judge-itis," because a couple of years later, I ran for Supreme Court and was elected, which is a minor miracle in itself. But . . . A little footnote. That was 1984, eleven years after I had been at the Folk Center, and I went back to Mountain View, of course, to campaign - I went to every county in Arkansas - and people remembered me. I went into a City Council meeting. There was Lona Ackerman. There were, you know, the people who had been there forever. I was very warmly received, and they told me just not to worry about Stone County, that it would be all right, so you know, I was very happy that they didn't hate me. But I think there was at least some appreciation of what we did up there. There was some appreciation of the fact that we were willing to give up our jobs and not sit there and suck money out of the Folk Center during that first winter. And so I guess that's pretty much the end of the story as far as my association with the Folk Center is concerned, and I was very pleased to be able to go back to Stone County and have that kind of reception in 1984.

Blevins: Now, what did you wife do during your months in Stone County?

Newbern: Oh, Carolyn. She's a fantastic woman. She has a master's degree in American Studies from the University of Delaware, and she . . . Of course, she got right up there and learned to clog dance, and was helpful around the Folk Center a lot, but one of the teachers at the high school, I believe it was . . . Yes, it was the high school - was pregnant and needed to take a leave of absence, and so they hired Carolyn to take her place, and Carolyn is an indomitable spirit, and she had the kids in Mountain View High School wearing togas and so forth, doing Greek things and Roman things, and it was just . . . I think of Carolyn sometimes as a force of nature, you know, who can walk into a situation like a whirlwind and have kids from backgrounds where you would never expect, you know, that they would have those kinds of opportunities, doing things that they probably are embarrassed about now. But anyway, she provided lots of education around Mountain View for that period of time, and I was really proud of the way that she adapted to that place. The house that we lived in there was a little house we rented, and I don't remember the circumstances - who owned it - but it was a small frame house, and the propane tank had not been hooked up, so we used electric heaters in the house, and it was cold all the time, and we had a big dog, and it was a Siberian Samoyed type dog, and when he would get under the porch and rub his back on the floorboards in the house, the house would tremble. It was that flimsy. But Carolyn took to that, you know, and then we just . . . One little story that I didn't tell is the story of our building our own home. We started building a home there in Mountain View, out on Highway . . . 9' Is that right' South of Mountain View'

Blevins: Yeah.

Newbern: Yeah, we started building a place, and Athlee Moody was the real estate lady who had sold us this property where we were going to build our house, and I'll never forget. We were going to have to take out some trees, you know, to build this house, which was just up the slope from the highway, and I asked her. I said, 'Gosh, Athlee,' you know, coming from Fayetteville, I said, "If we take down these trees, what are we going to do with them, you know? Where will they go?" She said, "Well, burn 'em!" And I said, "Burn them? Aren't there any county ordinances or things like that about it?" She put her hands on her hips and she said, "Honey, in Stone County, Arkansas, you can do anything you are big enough to do," and I said, "Okay." So. Yeah, we started this project. Dave Stewart was a carpenter - local carpenter - who was supposed to be the best around. I talked him into coming up and supervising the building of this house. Got started on it, and of course, about the time that we got the foundation built and so forth, why, the Folk Center experience was coming to an end for us, so we put the place back on the market, and somebody could come along, you know, and finish the house and have the foundation and all that.

So I was here in Little Rock one night, and I was teaching a seminar in international law down at the law school, and there's an urgent phone call that comes for me, and it's a man from Illinois who has retired in Mountain View, Arkansas, and bought the property that we had started our home on, and he allowed as how they finally got a house built on that property and had it all set up and everything, when the farmer came down over the hill and said, "You done built your house on my land." And sure enough, part of that house was over the property line. You know, the famous lawyer - me - I had not had a survey done, which I should have done and didn't, and so he said, "What are we going to do?" WE going to do, you know. And I said, "Well, we'll have to think about this," and so I hired David Blair . . . Hired him. I didn't really hire him, he represented me in this matter, and finally we decided that a thousand dollars was what the farmer wanted for this little piece of land that we had trespassed on, and if I'd pay five, the other guy from Illinois would pay five, and he said, "Boy, is that a cheap way out of a lawsuit." And so that's what we did. But I guess that's the kind of thing that people from off can do in Mountain View, and I'm sure that fellow up at the top of the hill was watching all along, you know, and just waiting until the house got built before he came over the hill and said, "You done built your house on my land.'"

Blevins: Well, there was one more thing that came up that I was going to ask you about. You had mentioned going to Bess Wolf's folklore workshop in '71, I believe it was.

Newbern: Yes.

Blevins: How did you find out about that, about the existence of their little workshop? If you even remember.

Newbern: I can't recall. It may be that Carolyn had found out about it somewhere. Perhaps it had been advertised in something we were privy to at the time. I just don't remember.

Blevins: Now, was John Quincy [Wolf] still living at that time?

Newbern: No, he had died.

Blevins: Okay.

Newbern: He had died, and she was trying to do it much as he had done it. She had been, you know, part of it all those years, and she did a very good job. And we toured around Mountain View, did the Saturday night musical, you know, and we went up to the Wolf house, you know, and she had Jimmy come, as I mentioned, and it was great. We had a wonderful time.

Blevins: And that was a week-long thing?

Newbern: I want to say it was a week long. Yeah, I believe it was.

Blevins: Well, Bess is still living in Batesville.

Newbern: I'm glad to hear that.

Blevins: I think she turned ninety-five this summer, I believe . . .

Newbern: Wow.

Blevins: And is still as indomitable as ever.

Newbern: Really?

Blevins: Yeah, she just . . .

Newbern: Still in her home?

Blevins: Still in her home. I think a daughter lives with her, but I'm not sure. She has a daughter who's moved back from Memphis who lives there in town, but I don't know if they live in the same house. But she's still there, and . . .

Newbern: Well, I'm so pleased to hear that.

Blevins: . . . and still in perfect mind and . . .

Newbern: Great.

Blevins: . . . decent health for ninety-five years old.

Newbern: Well, if you see her, give her my regards.

Blevins: I will. Well, I'll give you the chance, if you have any parting words or anything that you wanted to say about your Folk Center experience that you haven't had the chance to say?

Newbern: No, I think I've said more than I intended to say, and I really appreciate your questions. I think they've helped me reveal what's in my feeble memory about the place, and it's been a very . . . It's been fun for me to go back over it. I've enjoyed it.

Blevins: Thank you very much, Justice Newbern.

Newbern: You're welcome.

This Website is a production of the
Regional Studies Center
Lyon College
2300 Highland Road, Batesville, AR  72501
(870) 307-7509
For Website comments or suggestions, please contact the Webmaster

last updated on October 29, 2007
Lyon College Homepage