Urban Folk Revival

Musicians and Folklorists Salute Molly as the "Real Thing"

Coinciding with the political co-optation of her folk identity, Jackson was "discovered" by musical intellectuals newly interested in the traditional songs of the American folk.

The Composers Collective (which included radical musicians and composers like Charles Seeger, Aaron Copland, and Elie Siegmeister), in the early decade rejected folk music in search of more revolutionary (i.e. dissonant) sounds for the proletariat, but by the mid-1930s had recognized folk music's value in connecting with the people. When Jackson was invited to play at one of their meetings in 1933, the collective's composers and the folksinger were mutually disenchanted with each other's style. But such opinions changed quickly. As Siegmeister recounted often afterward, in 1934 Jackson approached him after a workers' concert and asked if he knew any real American music, and then she shared some with him:

She sang in a squeaky high-pitched voice and couldn't read or write a note of music. But Aunt Molly sang great songs which dealt with her own life in Kentucky, songs of power and feeling. That was one of my first introductions to America singing (Siegmeister, New York Times 11 February 1940).

Siegmeister said that Jackson's music—the American folk music—"yields to no other in its richness, variety, and musical quality." Other musicians and folklorists soon agreed.

Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, an English and folklore professor at New York University, discovered Jackson's wealth of stories and songs, and eagerly pursued a friendship with the singer. Barnicle became Jackson's patron for a time, inviting the singer to speak to her NYU classes and introducing her to many New York intellectuals. The professor also introduced Jackson to a young man named Alan Lomax, who recorded her songs and, without Jackson's permission (or Barnicle's knowledge), submitted them to the Library of Congress collection. Jackson wrote Lomax many times in later years angrily demanding compensation for her songs.

She was not, in these recording sessions, the only victim of manipulation, however. Barnicle (unwisely, as it turned out) had lent Jackson a copy of Francis James Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads to jog her memory of any Kentucky versions she might have forgotten. The singer returned soon after and repeated verbatim many stanzas of Robin Hood, an episode John Greenway discusses in detail in his Journal of American Folklore article, "Aunt Molly Jackson and Robin Hood: A Study in Folk Re-Creation". Lomax wrote later about recording the "false" ballad in Barnicle's apartment:

By the time [Jackson] sat down in front of my microphone she was able to reel off scores of verses of it purely by memory, and interlarded with rich Kentucky-isms. The text, then, was obviously a direct lift from Child, set to favorite Molly Jackson tunes.... that is how the whole thing began—a delightful jape, played on a government folklorist (Lomax 132).

Lomax fails to point out here that he was simultaneously "lifting" Jackson's music, but the parallel is nonetheless evident: singer and folklorist were each, in a manner, using the other.

Jackson's relationship with Barnicle eventually soured; the singer resented Barnicle "messing up" her songs in transcription, and the professor came to doubt the veracity of Jackson's stories. Barnicle shelved, and never returned to, a book she planned to write about Jackson's life.

After these experiences, Jackson, though eager for recognition and money, was increasingly wary of collectors in later years, sure that they would "mess up" or steal her work. She was further disillusioned by an incident with Columbia Records, which recorded, but never released, an album of her songs.

Another musician, Pete Seeger, discovered Jackson in the 1930s, and later he credited her as one of his major influences. When introduced by Charles Seeger to his son, Pete, Jackson sang the traditional Appalachian song "Wedding Dress" and earned his lifelong admiration. The younger Seeger would provide a major impetus for the folk revival movements of the twentieth century. He was a founding member of the Almanac Singers, a group of folk artists including such members as Lee Hays, Woody Guthrie, Bess Lomax, and Sis Cunningham (among others), who traveled the country and wrote songs to instill political consciousness in the masses.

The group hosted hootenannies in a rented loft, events to which anybody might show up; Jackson and her siblings, Leadbelly, the Lomaxes, Burl Ives, and Sonny Terry were some of the regulars (Romalis 112). A benefit concert for agricultural workers, in which Jackson participated, on March 3, 1940—the "Grapes of Wrath" concert—was a pivotal event in shaping the direction of a new folk consciousness, creating a revival impulse when "real" folk and their urban admirers united creatively. While Jackson witnessed and, to some extent, participated in the resulting urban folk revival, most audiences preferred the polished voices of the urban revivalists to her own nasal, high-pitched sound. Jackson was welcomed as a symbol of the movement, and respected for her exemplary role in the class struggle, but invitations to perform became rare (Romalis 113).

The folk music revival movement, initiated in urban centers, obscured definitions of "folk" and "folk music," confusing the supposed boundaries delineating the "authentic" folk from the constructed thing. Traditional songs were learned and performed by the supposedly "nonfolk"—young middleclass intellectuals who dressed in working class garb.

But, as the complicated career of Aunt Molly Jackson reveals, the "authentic" folk identity is a similarly complex construction: Jackson "borrowed" songs, wove tall tales, and changed her stories at every turn. Her exposure to New York City inevitably altered the nature of her experience as "folk"—and, as Charles Seeger points out, problematizes the notion of her place within a folk–non-folk binary:

Put any good 'authentic,' traditional singer before a microphone or on a platform before an audience not of its own kind, and soon the peculiar requirements of the situation produce the typical traits of exhibitionism. To my personal observation, it took Molly Jackson only a few months after her expulsion from Harlan County, Kentucky, to convert herself, when expedient, from a traditional singer, who seemed never to have given any particular thought to whether anyone liked or disliked her singing, into a shrewd observer of audience reaction... (Seeger 339).

One might infer from this assertion that Jackson would have retained her "authentic folk-ness" had she remained in Kentucky and continued performing only before audiences of her "own kind." But Seeger argues even that is impossible, considering that "the avidity of the hillbilly most remote from the city for the city's nonfolkness is quite as self-propelled as that of the city-billy most remote from the country for the country's folkness" (Seeger 339). And thus:

Since each has now exploited the other for a couple of decades in the large frame of the United States, there must exist few, if any, persons left ratable as 100 percent either folk or nonfolk. The vast population lies between these limits, each individual made up of varying proportions of inhibited or released folkness or nonfolkness. (Seeger 339).

Seeger argues here that a pure "folk" can no longer exist untouched by the external influences of culture. At Jackson's death in 1960, Lomax expressed a similar sentiment: "[Jackson] was folklore itself, at its best... We won't see her like ever again, now" (Lomax 132). In this age of mass media, such an argument seems valid.

Jackson herself might disagree; she claimed folksongs were simply what folks sang, and she spent very little time haggling over scholarly definitions. Nor might Jackson have appreciated Seeger's assertion that she compromised her authenticity by performing before a broader audience than her mountain "folk." After all, it was by coming to New York City that Jackson exposed the plight of, and thereby garnered needed money and publicity for, her Kentucky friends and neighbors; while she reveled in the spotlight, the city merely provided a bigger stage for Jackson to continue her life's work struggling against social injustice.

John Greenway explains the singer's creative self-construction in this way:

Aunt Molly survived, and helped countless others to endure, but she succeeded through not worrying over petty bourgeois scruples. When the enemies of her people counted murder a misdemeanor, she could hardly be blamed for prevarication (Greenway, Kentucky Folklore Record 143)

Perhaps this is how Jackson would have liked herself to be explained. Nonetheless, it is a romantic oversimplification of a woman whose complexity underscores the complications of attempting to demarcate clean divisions of authenticity. Whatever the case may be, the "pistol packin' mama" perceived a value in the reconstruction of her own folk identity and actively repackaged it to please any interested listeners and scholars—for reasons both altruistic and self-serving.


Back to Top | Molly in the Media



AMJ in the New York Times.

Aunt Molly in the New York Times, November 21, 1935.



Read what Woody Guthrie had to say about Aunt Molly. Source: My Song Is My Weapon.


letter to alan lomax.

Aunt Molly warns Alan Lomax not to use any of her songs or he "will be sorry." See larger image. Source: Pistol Packin Mama.


letter to earl robinson.

June 10, 1943, letter asking Earl Robinson to write music for Aunt Molly's new war song. See larger image. Source: Pistol Packin Mama.


letter to alan lomax

Molly to guest lecture in a ballad writing workshop, April 27, 1941, New York Times.


leadbelly and aunt molly.

Leadbelly and Aunt Molly perform in program for relief of Dust Bowl refugees, March 3, 1940, New York Times. See larger image.


archie green and aunt molly, late 1950s.

Folklorist Archie Green with Aunt Molly at her Sacramento home in the late 1950s. See larger image. Source: Pistol Packin Mama.