Activism & the Left in 1930s New York City

Aunt Molly Crosses State Lines and Cultural Boundaries

Jackson's arrival in New York City was announced in a December 2, 1931, New York Herald-Tribune article, which presents the Kentucky woman's Southern style and speech as appropriately quaint and charming for a member of the "folk" class to which she belonged. The journalist's use of quotation marks indicates his intention to reveal Jackson's folk authenticity:

She said the men and women in the mountains 'were powerful thankful' to Mr. Dreiser and his party 'for the foreign help' they had given them.... Mrs. Jackson's conversation was enriched with allegory, with frequent idiom and colloquialisms from her section. She drew many similes from the woods and from the Bible.

The article then comments on Jackson's public manners:

She calls Mrs. Walker "Miss Adelaide" in old-fashioned Southern style. It is no startling thing to Aunt Molly that she is visiting on Park Avenue.... She crossed her hands on her lap when she spoke (Robertson 135-139).

Amusingly, Jackson—always the self-promoter—fibbed to the reporter about her age, saying, "I am almost ashamed to tell you how old I am—I look so old. I was forty-six years old the 30th day of last month" (Robertson 136). In fact, she was fifty.

Such accounts of Jackson—on good behavior before polite society—became a rarity; many stories in the following decade chronicle her irreverent spirit and defiant actions—a reputation Jackson encouraged. Jackson's presence in New York, and her authentic folk-ness, as the New York Herald-Tribune article suggests, were a trendy novelty to New York elite in the coming months.

On December 6, 1931, Jackson appeared before an audience of 3,000 at the Harlan Kentucky Terror Mass Meeting at the Star Casino on Park Avenue and 107th Street, where she sang her "Hungry Ragged Blues" and another song composed for the occasion. Many members of Dreiser's committee spoke, including Sherwood Anderson, who blamed the silent apathy of the "speakeasy generation" for the triumph of machines over the brains of men, resulting in societal fear. He said:

We writers ought to quite thinking so much of money and fame and social position and safety and line up with the under dogs.... It is a machine world.... It has got out of our hands.... We are afraid of one another. Millionaires are afraid, workers are afraid, merchants, doctors, lawyers, school teachers, preachers, newspaper writers and publishers—almost without exception we are all afraid. Fear is what is ruling now in Harlan County, Ky (New York Times 7 December 1931).

Read the New York Times account of the event.

Jackson, sharing the stage with Anderson, was just such an "under dog" for the writers' group to symbolically embrace and "line up with." While the writers co-opted Jackson's folk identity for their own interests in the workers' struggle, her own cause profited, too. Of the meeting, she wrote: "I collected hatfuls of bills that night, and my youngest brother, Jim Garland, pulled off his two socks and filled them full of silver, and next morning we sent over $900 to the starving miners and their families" (Greenway 260).

In the coming months and years, Jackson and her brother Jim were in the busy center of New York political activities, raising money and publicity for the miners' cause. For a short period, until an injury from a bus accident forced her back to New York the following year, Jackson traveled around the country speaking and singing to groups to raise money. Though she visited Kentucky briefly, Jackson remained in New York for much of the decade, a witness to—and subject of—the New Deal's cultural awakening among the artistic elite.

In these same years, living in an apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Jackson learned that poverty, squalor, and worker injustice were not problems singular to her native Kentucky. She became an outspoken demonstrator for social justice in the city, too, writing songs like "My Disgusted Blues" about her troubles there.

The famously outspoken and irreverent singer was a popular dinner guest at the homes of wealthy radicals and intellectuals, and was notorious for telling dirty jokes at these events to shock her hosts. Jackson apparently resented being "treated as a token representative of the oppressed" and vocalized this sentiment often and loudly enough for her hosts to hear. Fellow Kentuckian Tilman Cadle remembered her saying, "Them goddam bourgeous [sic] shits think they know more than me, don't they? ... Well, I'll show em!" (Romalis 105). Many such stories of Jackson's encounters with the New York elite reveal her frustration with class attitudes toward her.

Despite her popularity, Jackson found Depression-era times hard in New York, and she was often forced to seek help from her new friends, from the state welfare system, and apparently in more creative ways. It was claimed that Jackson acted as a madam for a Kentucky friend named Elizabeth Baldwin in an apartment on Third Street, while Jim Garland played harmonica downstairs to muffle the noise. Additionally, Woody Guthrie claimed Jackson ran a whorehouse in the early 1940s (Romalis 93).


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AMJ in NY Herald Tribune.

Molly's arrival in the city was featured in this New York Herald Tribune article by Ben Robertson, December 2, 1931. See larger image. Source: Only a Miner, p. 79.


anderson speech headline.

This December 7, 1931, New York Times article describes the Dreiser Committee rally for the Harlan miners, at which Aunt Molly performed and Sherwood Anderson delivered the keynote address. Read the full article.


reds in riot headline.

This New York Times piece recounts a violent clash at a union meeting Molly attended in New York. Read the full article.