May 24, 2008
Aunt Molly Jackson
Country music has long been credited as speaking for the common man. Alan Jackson sang of the “Little Man” in the late nineties, while Merle Haggard sang the “Working Man’s Blues” in the late sixties. But way back in the early thirties, when the Great Depression was challenging the nation, Kentucky coal miners were being harshly mistreated, and Aunt Molly Jackson became their voice.
She was born in 1880 in Kentucky, and she had written her first song at the age of four. Her grandmother taught her countless old mountain songs that would become part of her repertoire. She married young, but saw her two children die while still infants. She raised her husband’s children from a previous marriage as her own, and earned her keep as a midwife. She was so young for the job that she refused the normal regional name for a midwife – “Granny” – and dubbed herself Aunt Molly Jackson.
Her job as a midwife exposed her to the horrifying poverty that families of coal miners were living in. She was infuriated, and turned to song to express her frustrations at the social injustices she was witnessing. The coal mining companies didn’t take kindly to this, and her husband was fired from the mines after she distributed the lyrics of a song she’d written protesting that company’s mistreatment of its workers.
In Appalachian towns like the one Jackson lived in, a mining company could control every aspect of its workers lives. They owned the only town store and had to send their kids to the company schoolhouse. Working conditions were notoriously unsafe and completely free of regulatory oversight. Unions attempted to organize with little success, though Jackson lent them her support with her song “I am a Union Woman.”
When the Dreiser Committee arrived in November 1931 to document the conditions that mine workers were living in, Jackson testified in front of them, first by reporting what she had witnessed and then by singing her composition “Kentucky Miner’s Wife (Ragged Hungry Blues.)” Having lost a brother and a stepson to the mines by this time, she spoke with righteous anger and unflinching honesty. The committee members were deeply affected by her words, and included the lyrics to her song at the beginning of their report.
They invited her to New York City to share her experiences through speech and song. She appeared before a crowd of more than 3,000 in Harlem, telling stories and singing songs of mining horrors in Harlan, Kentucky. She used her performances to raise money for miner’s causes, and toured the country to publicize the plight of Kentucky coal miners. While living in Manhattan, she noticed that poverty was an affliction there as well, and wrote the song “My Disgusted Blues’ in response to it.
Her brother Jim Garland and sister Sarah Ogan Gunning, also became songwriters, and soon joined her in the city. She reportedly became jealous of the attention they were receiving, and claimed authorship of some of their songs because of her envy. She also had conflicts with Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, an NYU professor who became her patron for a short time. She attempted to transcribe many of Jackson’s songs, but the singer felt she messed them up in the process.
A friend of Barnicle’s recorded Jackson’s performances, then submitted them to the Library of Congress. Those recordings eventually were released in the seventies on Rounder Records. An album for Columbia Records was also recorded, but never released.
But she continued to perform live, becoming a legend in the type of early country music that would later be classified as folk. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger both cited her as a major influence. She was working on an album when she died suddenly in 1960, at the age of eighty. She just missed the folk revival of the sixties that would bring renewed attention to mountain artists like herself. Her work has since been covered by Peggy Seeger and The New Lost City Ramblers.
Aunt Molly Jackson
- “Kentucky Miner’s Wife (Ragged Hungry Blues)”
- “I am a Union Woman”
- “Hard Times in Coleman’s Mine”
- “Join the C.I.O.”