A ninth-generation Kentuckian, Mary Magdalene Garland (whose name would later grow to include Mills, Stewart, Jackson, and Stamos) was born in 1880 in Clay County and wrote her first song at the age of four. From her great-grandmother, Nancy MacMahan, young Molly acquired a repertoire of more than 100 old songs, which folk collector Alan Lomax would later record her singing for the Library of Congress archive.
When Jackson was six years old, her mother died and she took over much of the responsibility of caring for her siblings. Oliver Garland, Aunt Molly's father, later remarried a woman named Elizabeth but his young daughter resented her new stepmother. Jim Garland, Jackson's younger stepbrother, provides the earliest example of Aunt Molly's tendency to make up stories. He says she "claimed [her stepmother] would tie a meat skin to a piece of string, force us to swallow the meat, and then pull it back out of our throats" (Garland 62).
By all accounts Aunt Molly was something of a troublemaker in her youth. She often recounted—"elaborat[ing] slightly depending on her audiences" (Romalis 68)—the story of her arrest at age ten (or twelve, according to Jim Garland ). After blacking her face with charcoal and donning a disguise, Jackson spooked the residents of a neighboring farmhouse who reported her to the sheriff. To teach her a lesson, Oliver Garland made his daughter serve the brief jail sentence, during which she composed a song pleading to the jailer for her release. Listen to "Mr. Cundiff, Turn Me Loose":
Jackson claimed the song was so well liked around the jail that she was given "thirty-seven dollars and twenty seven plugs of 'tobaker' and the jailer's wife made me a satin dress with 'yeler' butterflies, and she bought me a high top pair of fine button shoes and a handbag" (Romalis 71). In other retellings of the incident, perhaps when convenient in establishing her union activist persona, Jackson would claim she was jailed for her family's unionizing efforts (Wolfe 157).
According to her brother Jim Garland, Aunt Molly briefly married a man named John Mills, though she never mentioned him to the folk researchers interested in her history. At thirteen, she married Jim Stewart, and soon they had two children who died in infancy. She raised two of Stewart's children from a previous marriage and four of a later husband, Bill Jackson (Romalis 73). Presumably, it was one of these stepchildren about whose death in the coal mines Jackson would later sing of "her son" dying.
Jackson became a midwife at twelve; young for her profession, she was called "Aunt" Molly instead of the usual mountain term for midwives: "Granny." She nursed and delivered babies at Clay County Hospital for ten years before setting up her own practice in Harlan County.
Biographer Shelly Romalis notes the significance of the fact that even the usually skeptical Jim Garland confirmed his sister's reputation as a midwife. Garland wrote: "[She] delivered far more babies during those years [1910 to 1932] than did all the doctors on both Horse Creek in Clay County and Straight Creek in Bell County. According to Molly's own estimate, she attended over 5,000 births" (Garland 33). This number, like so much data in Jackson's history, varies widely according to the telling; Jackson told Dreiser Committee interviewers that she had delivered 65 children (Harlan Miners Speak 282), Woody Guthrie was under the impression that "she helped to bring over a hundred little babies into the world" (Guthrie 139), and a New York journalist—presumably sourcing Jackson—put the number at 600 (Robertson 139).
Whatever the gross factual disparities, Jackson's experiences as a midwife provided ample opportunity to witness the impoverished situation of neighboring mining families. Many of Jackson's protest ballads woefully testify about these sick and starving children of Kentucky miners.
Never one to keep her mouth shut, Jackson often spoke out angrily when she observed instances of social injustice in the community—many times at the cost of her husband's mining job. In one such instance, Jim Stewart was fired after his wife distributed her song "Fare Thee Well, Old Ely Branch" at the spring where the miners' wives came for water. Jim Garland described Jackson's pugnacious nature in this way:
She was at the height of her glory when she was giving someone she thought was no good a hard time. If she believed someone was taking advantage of his or her position in life, whether that was a coal operator, a husband who beat his wife, a man who would not support his family, or a bookkeeper who denied some needy family scrip to buy food with, she made her feelings known. These troublemaking instincts led her to write many a fine song (Garland 63).
In one of Jackson's famous escapades, which would later cause ballad scholar John Greenway to liken her to the fabled Robin Hood, she pulled a pistol on the clerk of the company store, demanding that he allow her to take food for her neighbors' starving children. Significantly, this was a story Jackson often told about herself, an act epitomizing what biographer Romalis calls Jackson's "savior self-image" (Romalis 81). Here is Molly's version of the "Robin Hood" story:
In a similarly self-aggrandizing vein, Jackson (falsely) identified herself as the inspiration for the 1943 Tin Pan Alley song "Pistol Packin' Mama" composed by Al Dexter (Romalis 84). Listen to Molly's version of the song's origin:
Jackson's "pistol packin'" reputation was not without a factual basis, however, as brother Jim Garland attested. When Jackson and some other miners' wives were approached on the picket line by scabs in Ross, Kentucky, the women grabbed the gun thugs and stripped them naked. Garland recalled: "After four women had managed to hold down one of the gun thugs, my sister Molly took his pistol and shoved the barrel right up his rectum. Never did this particular gun thug show his face there again" (Romalis 86-87). Despite this recollection, Garland also asserted that his sister's role in the mining strikes had been drastically exaggerated:
The Dreiser people were so impressed by her that they thought she was just about the whole Kentucky strike. In fact, she had done very little in the strike aside from going down into Knox County a time or two to solicit vegetables for the community kitchen (Garland 149-150).
Whatever the level of Jackson's involvement in the strikes, many accounts (including, of course, her own self-promoting myths) reveal her intense desire to speak out against a system of injustice—especially when this garnered attention in the spotlight.
Aunt Molly, undated photo.
First Creek Company Store in Kentucky. Miners were forced to shop at the company store, which was often the only place to buy food for miles around. See larger image.