Union activist and folksinger. During the 1930s, Jackson was an important advocate for
the unionization of the Appalachian coalfields. Her appearances at labor rallies featured
original protest songs that were closely tied to the melodic shape and balladic form of
traditional Appalachian music.
Molly Jackson, the daughter of coal miner, preacher, and union activist Oliver Perry
Garland and Deborah (Robinson) Garland, was born in Clay County, Kentucky, in 1880.
The family, of Scotch-Irish and Cherokee lineage, stretched back seven generations in
Clay County. As described by Molly:
They cut down trees and built their own log cabins, they cleared their own
land, they built their own fences, and split their own rails, they built their
own church houses, and their schools out of logs, they raised their own
corn, that fattened their own hogs, they caught possums and coons with
their own dogs, they owned the stuff that they worked and raised—I still
say them were the good old days (Greenway  1977:253).
As a five-year-old child, Molly was already engaged in caring for her younger siblings
and assisting her father on picket lines and at union meetings. Molly’s mother died of
tuberculosis in 1886, and eleven months later her father married Sarah Lucas with whom
he had an additional eleven children, including well-known union activists Sarah
Elizabeth Ogan Gunning (1910–1983) and Jim Garland (1905–1978).
At the age of fourteen, Molly married Jim Stewart, a coal miner, and she bore two
children while training as a midwife and working as a nurse in a Clay County Hospital. In
1912 her husband’s poor health required a move to Florida, but five years later Stewart
died in a mining rockslide accident. Returning to Kentucky, Molly married another
miner, Bill Jackson, and moved to Harlan County, where she worked as a midwife,
delivering 884 babies by her own reckoning.
During the Depression years Aunt Molly Jackson, as she became popularly known,
totally dedicated herself to labor organization on behalf of the National Miners’ Union. In
this cause, she gave speeches and performed her powerful protest songs such as “I Am a
Union Woman” (1931), “Kentucky Miner’s Wife” (1932), and “Dreadful Memories”
(1935), which was also claimed by her half-sister Sarah. “Poor Miner’s Farewell,”
written three months after the death of her brother Richard in a mining accident, was
widely disseminated through inclusion in the Red Song Book published in 1932 by
Workers Library Publishers.
Jackson’s activity caused her to be blacklisted by the mine operators in 1931, and
subsequently she was compelled to divorce her husband so that he could continue to work
in the mines. That same year, The National Committee for the Defense of Political
Prisoners sent a delegation (including authors Theodore Dresiser and John dos Passos) to
Kentucky to focus attention on the poverty and starvation in the coal camps. Influenced
both by the hearings and the advice of folklorist Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Aunt Molly decided to extend her efforts outside the Appalachian region. In December 1931,
accompanied by Jim Garland and Sarah Ogan, she traveled to New York City and made
her first public appearance in front of an audience of 21,000 at the Coliseum.
Aunt Molly spent the next five years traveling on behalf of labor, despite serious
injuries sustained in a bus accident in Ohio. In 1936 she settled in New York City with
her final husband, Gustavos Stamos. She died on August 31, 1960, in Sacramento,
California, where she was buried.
Aunt Molly Jackson’s use of folksong as a political weapon compelled her to tread
that fine line separating tradition from innovation. Her songs were always modeled on
folk sources, but the composition was dictated by utilitarian function rather than folkloric
context. Jackson’s own definition of folksong, as she wrote it, provides the best
description of her role as a traditional singer in the modern world. “This is what a folk
song realy is the folks composes there own songs about there own lifes an there home
folks that live around them” (Greenway  1977:8).
Ardery, Julia S., ed. 1983. Welcome the Traveler Home: Jim Garland’s Story of the Kentucky
Mountains. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Green, Archie. 1972. Only a Miner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Greenway, John.  1977. American Folksongs of Protest. New York: Octagon Books.
Jackson, Aunt Molly. 1991. The Songs and Stories of Aunt Molly Jackson. Folkways Records FH
Lomax, Alan, Archie Green, and D.K.Wilgus, eds. 1961. Aunt Molly Jackson. Kentucky Folklore
Record (Special Memorial Issue) (October-December): 129–176