Saturday, 10 October 2009

Pistol Packin' Mama: Aunt Molly Jackson and the Politics of Folksong

By Shelly Romalis

Folklore legend Aunt Molly Jackson grew up a coal miner's daughter in eastern Kentucky. Witness to the terrible strife between miners and mine owners, Molly became a labor activist, writing songs that fused hard experience with rich Appalachian musical traditions to become weapons of struggle.

In 1931, at age fifty, Molly was "discovered" by the Dreiser Committee and brought north. There she was sponsored and befriended by an illustrious circle of left-wing intellectuals and musicians, including Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Alan Lomax, and Charles Seeger and his son Pete. Together with Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, her sister Sarah Ogan Gunning, and other transplanted folk musicians, Molly served as a cultural broker, linking the rural working poor to big-city left-wing activism.

Shelly Romalis's multidimensional portrait of Aunt Molly illuminates Southern Appalachia during the early decades of the twentieth century, New York during the Depression years, and the folk music revival and women's resistance movements.

"This lively book fills out a lot of history and makes a whole period come alive. It is really a thrilling story [and] has challenged us to think about our own work as collectors, educators, and students of folklore and American life."
-Guy and Candie Carawan, authors of Voices from the Mountains

"[Gives] a fresh twist to our understanding of the interaction of politics and culture from South to North through the twentieth century."
-Ronald D. Cohen, author of Wasn't That a Time! Firsthand Accounts of the Folk Music Revival

Shelly Romalis, an associate professor of anthropology at York University, Ontario, is the editor of Childbirth: Alternatives to Medical Control, as well as a singer and fiddler.


A new kind of singer-songwriter - Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan - became media celebrities. Baez's pure American tones rendered multi-versed English ballads emotionally accessible; Ochs's lyrics engaged politically disfranchised youth (although he never reached the popular audiences of the others); and a generation yearning for anchors in a choppy social sea elevated Dylan to a kind of mystical Poet Laureate.


Revivalist folk singers during these years spanned the interest spectrum from traditional American music (New Lost City Ramblers, Joan Baez), internationalism (Cynthia Gooding and Theodore Bikel) to singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, whose personal/political identity probings characterized the cultural politics of the 1960s.

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