About The Artist
Aunt Molly Jackson was a coal miner's wife, a midwife, and a singer who became well-known and celebrated within the small circle of labor radicals and New York-leftists in the early 1930s. They regarded her as a symbolic figure of the typical hard-nosed mountain woman who refused to bow to powerful interests. Whether or not she fit the image they created for her is open to question, but she tried to be what they wanted her to be.
But her life before she got into the national headlines in early 1931 also tell an interesting story as well. Her early life was said to be "...in isolated settlements in the mountains." A journalist named James Brown wrote in 1935 that she had been "composing her own ballads ever since she sang herself out of jail one day at the age of 10. She was put behind bars because she had dressed up as a 'negress' and a child she met went into fits because of her disguise. Another author's account said she was jailed on the "...strength of a law that forbade anyone from wearing a mask." She composed a ballad "Mr. Cundiff, Won't You Turn Me Loose?" Mr. Brown wrote in 1935 that "...this so pleased him that he let her go." But the subject was revisited in an uncredited article in 1957. But the 1957 story said she was 12 when she created an "outrageous costume, blackened her face with charcoal and went whooping and yelling about the countryside to frighten her playmates." Her reputation grew such tat the sheriff made a point to put an end to her escapades. He brought her before Judge Right (real name?) who sentenced her to ten days and find her an unreported amount.
She composed her little tune about Mr. Cundiff and would sing it to him while she was behind bars. Visitors were said to "enjoy the performance and the jailer's discomfiture." Some threw a contribution into her bonnet and soon she had enough to pay her fine. The 1957 article reported the ballad's verses:
"The day before Christmas I had some fun
It was reported there were other verses that were "not so complimentary" to Mr. Cundif.
She became "Aunt Molly" early on in her life. It was written that she was only a very young 13 years of age when she first got married. Within a couple of years, she gave birth to two children but sadly they passed away at a very early age due to the 'inexpert attention of a midwife.' She never had another child in her life.
She turner her tragedy into a life's calling so to speak. She herself became a midwife. Where she lived in the mountains, most of the midwives were two or three times her age and were called "Granny May" or "Granny Elizabeth." But since she was so young, she found herself known as "Aunt Molly." A 1935 article stated that Aunt Molly had delivered 669 babies without losing a baby or mother. This was over a period that started when she was 18 and through the age of 40.
She was virtually unknown until early 1931 when she was taken to New York to tell her stories and sing her songs in an effort to raise money for the striking miners. She made one record for Columbia and recorded many songs for the Library of Congress, some of which have been released commercially on Rounder. Certainly, life was hard in the coal country and even more so in the Great Depression.
"Aunt Molly" was born Mary Magdalene Garland in Clay County, Kentucky. In her early adulthood, she became a licensed mid-wife and helped many young mothers bear and care for their infants under trying conditions. She was apparently from a strong labor union background.
She married James Stewart on May 12, 1900 according to Kentucky marriage records. After the death of her first husband, Jimmy Stewart, she married another miner named Bill Jackson.
She came to prominence early in 1931 in Harlan County, Kentucky where there was a bitter strike and the United Mine Workers had failed in their efforts and pulled out.
The National Miners Union (NMU) —a Communist Union— had taken over and a New York literary group known as the "[Theodore] Dreiser Committee came to conduct investigations over a period of five days. News accounts of the committee's visit included some of the numerous stories of miners and their plight, such as dealing with sickness, their pay being docked for 'insurance', the lack of food and in the end, even the company's refusal to cover burial expenses.
They discovered Aunt Molly and to them she became the epitome of a mountain-grown radical woman. They soon took her to New York to help in fund raising for the downtrodden strikers.
News accounts of Molly's encounter with the Dreiser group in 1931 provide a glimpse not only of the miner's plight, but a bit of Molly as well. The group heard many stories, including one that "Aunt Molly" told.
"A child was sick and the company's doctor came after a long delay. For several days he called infrequently but didn't do much.
A picture accompanying the article in November 1931 showed Aunt Molly sitting next to Theodore Dreiser. The caption mentions that Aunty Molly had recently composed a song she called "Hungry Miner's Blues" which she sang in a "...quavering 'blues' voice, without accompaniment.
She did go to New York around December 1, 1931 where she did speak at a 'mass meeting' that was conducted by the Defense of Political Prisoners "...to protest starvation of miners and strong arm rule in the Harlan county coal strike." She shared the platform with Mr. Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Melvin P. Levy, Adelaide Walker and others. News accounts described her as "46 years old and proud of being a regular old mountaineer." She was quoted, "I ain't as tough as I look." She was speaking to a group of reporters after a two day bus ride to New York. She sang another song. She is said to have told the Kentucky story "...in a high-pitched song which she wrote herself and she will tell it the same way at the mass meeting." The song was called "The Kentucky Miners' Wives Ragged Hungry Blues." The news article provided a verse of the song:
When my husband works in the coal mine
In New York, Aunt Molly was hailed as a heroine, and her brother Jim Garland soon joined her. He had been a friend of Harry Simms (aka Harry Hirsch)) a young Communist labor organizer who had been murdered in Harlan County. He composed a ballad, "The Death of Harry Simms."
In New York, she reportedly was an assistant for a New York University that was offering classes in American folk songs and American folk lore. One newspaper caption said she was "...considered the first hill-billy evern on a college faculty."
Molly recorded for Columbia in December 1931; her only release was a long number that occupied two sides of a disc. Two other songs remain unreleased (Poor Miner's Farewell and I Love Coal Miners). She later recorded numerous ballads and songs for the Library of Congress.
However, in the final analysis, the strike was lost. The NMU failed to organize the miners who became disenchanted, both with their failure and their pronounced atheism. Much of the early enthusiasm for Aunt Molly also ebbed although she still had a small following. She was visited by numerous folklorists ranging from Mary Elizabeth Barnicle to Alan Lomax and Tillman Cadle to John Greenway and Archie Green.
A 1935 interview by James Brown told of her singing a bit of one of her tunes for him, "The Kentucky Miner's Hungry, Ragged Blues." It is unclear whether she once again came to the attention of some folks in New York City or back in 1931, but he wrote that she was persuaded to leave Kentucky and go on a singing tour to help raise funds for the striking miners. That story ended with the tidbit that the trip to New York may have sparked a new romance. She married her "...third and present husband, Tom Keene, a Greek-Irishman."
As time passed, some of them had doubts about the veracity of her stories. One of the most farfetched stories was the claim that she was the original "Pistol Packin' Mama" and that she had written the song. Calling Al Dexter a "Tin Pan Alley" pop songwriter, she obviously had no awareness of the Texas Dancehall culture where Dexter played.
She also claimed authorship of other songs when her only contribution may have been changing a word or two.
In 1943, Molly and third husband Tom Stamos moved to California where Tom died about 1948 and Molly dying in 1960.
Rounder released an LP of her Library of Congress Recordings (LP 1002) in 1971. In addition to Jim Garland, a much younger half-sister, Sarah Ogan Gunning (1910-1983), also had a career as a protest singer and made recordings.
Credits & Sources
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