This photo appeared in the Daily Worker of December 5, 1931, when Dreiser was heading a committee investigating conditions of striking miners.
“Aunt Mollie” Jackson, miner’s wife, nurse, midwife, and folk singer of the eastern Kentucky coal fields, is here shown with Theodore Dreiser, famous novelist, before whom she sang her “Kentucky Miners’ Wives Raggedy Hungry Blues,” when he and other writers of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners investigated starvation and terror among the miners. Aunt Mollie is now in New York City, where she will share the platform with Dreiser. [John] Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson. Waldo Frank. Lewis Mumford and other celebrated writers at the “Harlan Terror Protest Meeting” to be held … Sunday, December 6th, at 2:30 p. m.
At this meeting Aunt Mollie will tell of the events that led up to the indictment of 47 miners on false charges of murder and of 60 miners on charges of criminal syndicalism for fighting starvation wages in the Harlan County coal fields. The writers of the Dreiser Committee were all indicted by the Harlan Grand Jury after an open hearing [held by the Dreiser Committee] in the heart of the strike zone.
Aunt Molly Jackson (1880-1960) was an influential American folk singer and union activist.
Aunt Molly Jackson (1880-1960) was an influential American folk singer and union activist. Her full name was Mary Magdalene Garland Stewart Jackson Stamos.
She was the wife of coal miner Jim Stewart, who was killed in a mine accident in 1917; shortly afterwards, she married the miner Bill Jackson. Her father and a brother were blinded in another mine accident.
Only one recording by Aunt Molly was released in her lifetime: “Kentucky Miner’s Wife (Ragged Hungry Blues),” recorded in New York City on December 10, 1931; it is posted here.
Writers Group Visits Appalachia to Report on Mining Conditions
The Dreiser Committee was a self-appointed group of left-leaning writers who came from the north to witness the desperate situation of striking Kentucky miners in November 1931, when the Communist-led National Miners Union rivaled the United Mine Workers of America for a dominant union role.
Officially calling themselves the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, the writers (including Theodore Dreiser, Lewis Mumford, John Dos Passos, and Sherwood Anderson) listened to various members of the mining communities—the oppressed—in order to learn about this vivid example of class warfare, and place it in the context of international class struggle.
In front of the group, on November 7, 1931, at a church in Bell County, Kentucky, appeared Aunt Molly Jackson to provide testimony about the tragic living conditions of her fellow Appalachian workers. She told the Dreiser Committee:
The people in this country are destitute of anything that is really nourishing to the body. That is the truth. Even the babies have lost their lives, and we have buried from four to seven a week all along during the warm weather (Harlan Miners Speak 279).
Then Jackson performed a song she had composed recently called “Kentucky Miner’s Wife (Ragged Hungry Blues).”
Dreiser’s group was so captivated by Jackson’s song that they included the lyrics at the very beginning of their published report, Harlan Miners Speak. Additionally, they invited Jackson to New York City to sing her song and speak about the miners’ plight.
Jackson was a compelling symbol of her neighbors’ struggle: an aging miner’s wife, gaunt but fierce, who had lost many friends and family members in the mines, and, most importantly, who possessed the will and the voice to tell about it.
To the Dreiser Committee, perhaps shamed by what they perceived as their own bourgeois intellectual backgrounds, Jackson represented the “real” thing, the “authentic” character and voice of the people. Moreover, she was a creative font burgeoning with songs and stories—many probably embellished or stolen, but “authentic” nonetheless. New York intellectuals would soon embrace her for this very reason.