Introduction

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 (Guthrie 140).

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.

A creative storyteller who delighted in the limelight, Jackson was an active and willing participant in the production of her folk identity. Notorious for her tendency to embellish and prevaricate, she confused and frustrated folk collectors and biographers by telling contradictory stories and falsely claiming authorship of others' songs. This habit, though it branded Jackson as a problematic informant in folk collection circles, reveals a fascinating aspect in the process of her identity construction: a pattern of reciprocal manipulation between subject and researcher. The complicated nature of this relationship is evident in the rich stories—though sometimes of ambiguous veracity—told of Jackson's life.

 

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Aunt Molly, circa 1935. See larger image. Source: Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People.

 

November 4, 1973, New York Times article "Is the Folk Gone from Folk Music?"