Pistol Packin’ Mama: Aunt Molly Jackson and the Politics of Folksong,” by Shelly Romalis (University of Illinois
Meet Aunt Molly Jackson (1880-1960), one of American folklore’s most fascinating characters.
A coal miner’s daughter, she grew up in eastern Kentucky, married a miner, and became a midwife, labor activist, and songwriter. Fusing hard experience with rich Appalachian musical tradition, her songs became weapons of struggle.
In a life spanning eighty years, Aunt Molly Jackson (1880-1960) assumed a variety of identities: miner’s wife, mother, widow, midwife, union organizer, political activist, and ballad singer.
Briefly popular for her role as a political symbol and folksinger in 1930s New York City, Jackson’s name has since drifted into relative obscurity. Nonetheless the Kentucky woman was once called “one of America’s best native ballad singers” by the man usually credited with that honor, Woody Guthrie.
Invited to New York to sing about the plight of the ‘Bloody Harlan’ strikers in 1931, Jackson lived in that city for much of the decade and participated in Greenwich Village’s urban folk revival in the pre-war years. She came to be perceived by intellectuals of the time as an “authentic” representative of the American folk. Her folk identity, initially recognized and co-opted by writers of the political left, was later crafted for symbolic purchase by political groups, folk collectors, and, most importantly, Jackson herself.
She was sponsored and befriended by an illustrious circle of left-wing intellectuals and musicians, including Theodore Dreiser, Alan Lomax, and Charles Seeger and his son Pete. Along with Sarah Ogan Gunning, Jim Garland (two of Aunt Molly’s half-siblings), Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and other folk musicians, she served as a cultural broker, linking the rural working poor to big-city left-wing activism.
Shelly Romalis draws upon interviews and archival materials to construct this portrait of an Appalachian woman who remained radical, raucous, proud, poetic, offensive, self-involved, and in spirit the “real” pistol packin’ mama of the song.
“Mr. Coal operator call me anything you please, blue, green, or red, I aim to see to it that these Kentucky coalminers will not dig your coal while their little children are crying and dying for milk and bread.”
— Aunt Molly Jackson