Aunt Molly Jackson and the Politics of Folksong
About fifteen year ago, I was taking my one and only post-MFA class with folklorist (and folksinger) Ellen Stekert at the University of Minnesota (my final project for her class was the ethnographic poem “Zwyczaj,” which appeared in Sylvester Pollet’s Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet Series (a format I wish some young poet-publishers would revive), was reprinted by Barbara and Dennis Tedlock in American Anthropologist (issue 100, no. 2), and eventually made its way into Revenants). One day after class, Ellen started talking to me about her research on Aunt Molly Jackson and, intrigued, I set off to the libraries and local used book and record stores in what turned out to be a mostly futile search. A few years later, however, the University of Illinois Press released Shelly Romalis’s excellent book, Pistol Packin’ Mama: Aunt Molly Jackson and the Politics of Folksong (1999).
My interest continued to grow through the late 1990s, and Aunt Molly eventually turrned up in my verse play “Francine Michalek Drives Bread” (published in Shut Up Shut Down) which was the first of my “mining” works (followed by “Hoyt Lakes / Shut Down” and, more recently, Coal Mountain Elementary).
Today, thanks to the work of students (and web programmers) at the American Studies department at the University of Virginia, anyone interested in reading more about (and hearing more from!) Aunt Molly has immediate access to a detailed introduction to her work. If you’re unfamiliar with Aunt Molly Jackson, start with the songs: ” “Hungry Ragged Blues,” “I am a Union Woman (Join the N.M.U),” etc. There’s also a good introduction to the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners (which included Theodore Dreiser, Lewis Mumford, John Dos Passos, and Sherwood Anderson) and Aunt Molly’s testimony before them in Kentucky in 1931. And though I could do without some of the stereotypical categorization that’s done in page descriptions and some of the writing (“a Kentucky coal mining diva“?, “folk authenticity,” etc.–please), I’m still grateful for all the work that went into making access to Aunt Molly Jackson’s incredible music and life so much easier than it was for me in the early 1990s.