At the Crossroads of Art & Research T-Bone Slim

Recording “Crossbones Scully” Then & Now

Author: John Westmoreland

Aunt Molly Jackson & T-Bone Slim:
At the Crossroads of Art & Research

Part 3: Recording “Crossbones Scully” Then & Now

Featuring a new in studio video release!

My role as a musician, independent researcher, and relative of T-Bone Slim places me at a unique crossroads of art, research, and family history. With that perspective in mind, in this three part blog series, “Aunt Molly Jackson & T-Bone Slim, at the Crossroads of Art & Research,” I share my thoughts on the origins of a mysterious folk song, the fascinating woman who wrote it, the relationship between folklorist and informant, and how this research relates to T-Bone Slim.

In Part 1, I introduced the song and its composer, Aunt Molly Jackson. In Part 2, I discussed Aunt Molly’s biographical history, her connection to the Communist Party USA, and tensions between the IWW and Communists. This final part of the blog series will be an examination of the historical recordings of “Crossbones Scully,” release of my new in-studio recording/video of the song, and a discussion of the relationship between the Kentucky folk singer and the folklorists who studied her.

1939 Recordings    

While the precise date of composition is unknown, famed folklorist and song collector, Alan Lomax, recorded two renditions of Aunt Molly singing “Crossbones Scully” in New York City during the spring of 1939. These a capella recordings are available online through the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress, catalogued as AFS 2539B and AFS 2556A respectively. The acetate disc jacket sleeve notes for AFS 2556A state that Molly’s half brother, Jim Garland, suggested the name and that “Molly says it was inspired by T-Bone Slim’s stories.” From this documentary evidence we know that Aunt Molly was claiming the song was about T-Bone Slim as early as 1939, and apparently her brother chose the title. Two other versions of the song were recorded by Mary Elizabeth Barnicle in the fall of 1939, her recordings are catalogued as Disc 155, side B, and Disc 157, Side A at the Archives of Appalachia. Notably, Barnicle’s jacket sleeve documents the song’s title as “T-Bone Scully.”

Image of a paper with a scanned image of the jacket sleeve. There's some handwriting on the sleeve: " 22) A) Crossbones Scully (This name suggested by [unclear name] - Molly says t was [unclear] by T-Bone Slim's stories). [unclear] "Oh twll me how Iäll have to wait for a job," variant melofy - Hentation [?] Blues. B) The [unclear] Ranger (my father's favorite son [unclear] want to sing it as [unclear] like him as of can).
Fig 1. Scan of the jacket sleeve for AFS Disc 2556, Side A. (Archie Green Collection at the Southern Folklife Collection UNC Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library). Copyright: Archie Green Family.
Image of a paper with a scanned image of the jacket sleeve. There's some handwriting on the sleeve: "Aunt Molly Jackson, 19 Oct. 1939. 1. T-Bone Scully 2. Ma[unclear] had an old black cow. BC 157. #212."
Fig 2. Scan of the Jacket Sleeve for Disc 157 Side A. (Mary Elizabeth Barnicle Cadle Recordings at the Archives of Appalachia East Tennessee State University).
If as Archie Green theorized, that Aunt Molly may have co-opted the identity of an IWW hero, why did she let her brother title the song “Crossbones Scully?” Or “T-Bone Scully?” Wouldn’t it have been more clear and effective to simply call it “T-Bone Slim” if the goal was to “misappropriate” the identity of the Wobbly poet laureate? And by that same token, if the song is indeed about T-Bone Slim, why choose a name that creates confusion and vagueness as to the identity of the song’s protagonist? In either of these cases, the choice of song title seems mysterious, perhaps even deliberately so.

Pseudonyms & Monikers

During his lifetime, Matti V. Huhta made use of a number of pseudonyms in addition to the moniker T-Bone Slim, but no evidence has surfaced that “Crossbones Scully” was ever one of them, and my own efforts thus far have not discovered a single reference to anyone using the appellations “Crossbones Scully,” or “T-Bone Scully.” Furthermore, T-Bone Slim research to date has not uncovered any court records or stories—other than Aunt Molly’s own account—of Matti V. Huhta serving a jail sentence for beating up and robbing a “rich old geezer.” The gaps in the current biographical narrative of T-Bone Slim’s life are substantial though, so it’s likely there are significant events which remain unknown. New findings indicate that he did spend time behind bars on at least two occasions, and an undated letter written to his sister Sofie—my great grandmother—sometime during the last decade of his life states, “My case is coming up next Friday; so pull for me hard. Of course I win—now or later.” The letter indicates a great deal of concern and a sense of injustice that will be made right in the future if not in the present. He signs the letter, “Joe Hilger,” a pseudonym which invokes the memory of Joe Hill, the most legendary IWW martyr who was killed by firing squad on November 19th, 1915 in Utah.

The Folklorists & The Folk Singer

“Aunt Molly’s Truth was often greater than the facts.”—John Greenway (Wilgus 1967)

During her lifetime, Aunt Molly Jackson was interviewed and studied by many folklorists including Alan Lomax, Archie Green, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle Cadle, and John Greenway. Many if not all of these scholars and song collectors came to view her as an “unreliable informant,” who at times fabricated events and claimed authorship of songs composed by others. Still, their respect for her as a genuine representative of folk tradition and as a tireless fighter for the working class and poor was not diminished.

“She was folklore itself, at its best, and its best is that it won’t stop growing, and it can’t be beaten. We won’t see her like again ever, now….”—Alan Lomax (Wilgus 1967).

Black and white photo of a man (Alan Lomax) playing a guitar. He holds one foot on a chair.
Fig. 3. Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C. United States Asheville North Carolina [Between 1938 and 1950]. (Library of Congress)
Black and white newspaper clip portraying five men standing and leaning towards sitting Aunt Molly Jackson. They seem to be singing. Image caption: "Hillbilly turns collegiate- Aunt Molly Jackson, Kentucky mountain ballad singer, leads a class of New York university folk culture students in singing one of her own mountain ballads. The pipe-smoking hillbilly has composed several songs, and delights in telling the story of how she "made up" the ballad "Mr. Cundiff, Won't You Turn Me Loose?" when she was thrown into jail at the age of 10. That song, according to Molly, won over the jail and [blank] also several plugs of chewing tobacco for her."
Fig. 4. Photo of Aunt Molly Jackson in Daily News Greensboro, North Carolina, 23 November 1935. Photographer: Unknown. (Greensboro Public Library).
According to Aunt Molly Jackson biographer, Shelly Romalis, the folk singer also distrusted and resented many of these same folklorists, accusing them of “momicking” her songs and writing “nothing but lies.” Both Molly and her half-sister, Sarah Ogan Gunning, claimed Alan Lomax never had permission to put the recordings he made of their songs into the archives at the Library of Congress, and that not a penny was paid to them (Romalis 1999, 165). Only one commercial recording of Aunt Molly’s music was produced and released during her lifetime. Kentucky Miners Wife (Columbia 15731) was recorded on December 10th, 1931, days after Aunt Molly first arrived in New York City. She maintained that she never received any payment or royalties for that recording either. (Romalis 1999, 114)

Handwriting on a paper. "Sep the 2 1939 NYC. mr alan lomax is ancer to your letter i am not interested in you useing eney of my story or songs as i am riting a book of my own i want to use all of my songs an storys in my own book, so do not [unclear] eney of my songs or story, whatever you do if you so i am shure you will be sariy [?] from molly jackson [address unclear] NYC"
Fig. 5. Scan of Aunt Molly Jackson’s  letter to Alan Lomax, 2 September 1939. From Pistol Packin’ Mama Photo plate (the 6th) after p. 88. (Archie Green’s private research materials).

“Molly’s truths fell by collectors’ and folklorists’ waysides, unvalidated, discredited. How do I, as a writer of their stories, know who to believe? Does the truth of one mean the lies of another? We know that everyone remembers selectively, fictionalizes, informants, and writers alike; as scholarly gatekeepers, we and our editors (not our informants) have the final say in published words.” (Romalis 1999, 197)

The song “Crossbones Scully” was documented by at least four of the folklorists who collected Aunt Molly’s songs—Alan Lomax, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, John Greenway, and Archie Green. Unfortunately, none of them took enough of an interest in the ballad to question her about its subject matter and origins in any detail.

“To put it bluntly, the ballad may not have appealed to any listeners… Molly’s account troubled me in 1957, but did not lead me to undertake a detailed case study. Her ballads, awkward lines, weak plot, and dated posture blocked the opening that might have spurred my study… ‘Crossbones Scully’ does not rank with aunt Molly‘s best ballads. We find no evidence that it entered tradition, or that she prized it after leaving New York.”—Archie Green (Archie Green Collection, SFC)

So why did Aunt Molly perform “Crossbones Scully” for both John Greenway in 1951, and Archie Green in 1957 if she didn’t value the song, almost two decades after recording it twice for Alan Lomax and twice for Mary Elizabeth Barnicle in 1939? Green speculated that Greenway likely heard the Lomax recordings thus peaking his interest in the song and leading him to ask Aunt Molly about it. However, the transcript of Archie Green’s own interview with the Kentucky folk singer perhaps indicates another possibility—that Aunt Molly may have brought up “Crossbones Scully” of her own accord simply because she felt it was an important song.

Black and white photo of an older man (Archie Green) sitting in front of a book shelf full of books.
Fig. 6. Photo of Archie Green. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Archie Green: Aunt Molly, of all the songs that you wrote, which song became best known to other people. People outside of Kentucky. Other students and singers. Which is your most popular song Aunt Molly?

Molly: You mean that I wrote myself? Well, always what I’d go to these musical divisions of the colleges to entertain. After they found out that I had wrote that song its in the book maybe Jim named it T Bone Skully that song. That’s a day we’d had a big seaman strike in New York and we had a big party to collecting funds for the seamen and I met this here T Bone Slim. I composed a song from that and he told me he said I laughed so about that he said aunt Molly, he says. I’m ___ that big top silk hat on my head and that suit and he says my old ragged shoes. And dog gone me he says I’m taking the old geezer’s shoes off, and I aim to throw my old ragged shoes down here come a dog gone police man he says. And they give him a year and one day for that.”—Archie Green & Aunt Molly Jackson interview (Archie Green Collection, SFC)

Typed text on a paper. "Tape #2838 song I said sadly blow that weeping willow, just like me it's stands alone. I have had no one to love me since my mother's dead and gone. I was seven then. A.G.: That's a beautiful song. Molly: Oh it is beautiful. I got all the words written. A. G.: Aunt Molly, of all the songs that you wrote which song became the best known to other people. People outside of Kentucky. Other students and singers. Which is your most popular song Aunt Molly? Molly: You mean that I wrote myself? Well always I'd go to these musical divisions of the colleges to entertain. After they found out that I'd wrote that song its in the book maybe Jim named it T Bone Scully ["T Bone Scully" underlined] that song. That's a day we'd had a big seaman strike that ["that" crossed over] in New York and we had a big party to collecting funds for the seamen and I met this here T-Bone Slim ["T-Bone Slim" underlined] Side B: I composed a song from that and he told me he said I laughed so about that that he said Aunt Molly he says. I'm [blank] that big top silk hat on my head and that suit and he says my old ragged shoes. And dog gone me he says I'm taking the old geezers shoes off and I aim to throw my old ragged shoes down here come a dog gone police man he says. And they give him a year and one day for that. Interviewer: Could you just give us the first few lines of that. How it went? Molly: I want to tell you firsta about that. So they foun ["they foun" crossed over] after they found out in these places you know Charles Haywood ["Charles Haywood" underlined] if he was in the musical [ends in the middle of the sentence]"
Fig. 7. Transcript of Archie Green’s 1958 interview with Aunt Molly Jackson(Archie Green Collection at the Southern Folklife Collection UNC Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library). Copyright: Archie Green Family.
I find it fascinating that in the transcript, Archie Green straightforwardly asks Aunt Molly what is her most popular song, and rather than mentioning “Hungry Ragged Blues,” “I Am a Union Woman,” or “The Death of Harry Simms,”—which are arguably some of her more well-known compositions—she brings up “Crossbones Scully,” a song which Green described as unappealing and dated. To me this could be an indication that “Crossbones Scully,” while perhaps not her most popular song, was still valued by Aunt Molly, a song she wanted to have documented and heard. Could that explain why she recorded it a total of four times, instead of once or twice as is the case with the vast majority of her hundred’s of archived audio recordings? It could be possible that Aunt Molly, rather than answering Archie Green’s question about her most popular song, instead chose to speak about a lesser-known song, but one that was perhaps more important to her.

Aunt Molly Jackson died in 1960. Many years have passed and all of the folklorists who knew her and documented her life and music are also deceased. No scholars ever made a study of “Crossbones Scully” or took much interest in the song during the lifetime of its author, and it may be unlikely that any new evidence of its origins will come to light. Therefore, we are left mostly with speculation. Do we take Aunt Molly’s word that she met T-Bone Slim and wrote a song based on factual or at least partially factual events? Did she make up the narrative out of whole cloth but choose T-Bone Slim’s identity to be the fictional protagonist—before or after she composed the song? Is there a hidden story behind “Crossbones Scully” as Archie Green believed?

Text and an black and white photo of old Aunt Molly Jackson. Text in all-caps: "Aunt Molly Jackson Memorial Issue. Mary Magdalene Garland Stewart Jackson Stamos 1880-1960"
Fig. 8. Photograph of Aunt Molly Jackson from the Kentucky Folklore Record 1961 Memorial Issue. This image is part of a group of research materials collected by Alan Lomax (Alan Lomax Collection, Manuscripts, Big Ballad Book. 1961-1991). Photographer: Unknown. (Alan Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress American Folklife Center).

I’ve spent many hours going down the “Crossbones Scully” rabbit hole, and researching Aunt Molly Jackson. Ultimately, I don’t know if she ever met my great granduncle, but I found the mystery surrounding her song to be intriguing and compelling enough of a reason to make a new recording of “Crossbones Scully” for my upcoming T-Bone Slim album, Resurrection. You can check out a live in studio video of the song at the YouTube link below. It was a unique recording experience for myself and the other musicians because we actually played along to Aunt Molly Jackson’s AFS 2539B recording from 1939, accompanying her voice with our instruments. I hope Aunt Molly would approve of this posthumous collaboration, it’s meant to pay homage to her music and legacy. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we didn’t “mommick” it up…

Video: John Westmoreland’s recording of “Crossbones Scully” with violinist Jennifer Curtis, and bassist Ron Brendle. Recorded Live at Overdub Lane Studio in Durham North Carolina.


Archival References:

Archie Green Collection at UNC Chapel Hill’s Southern Folklife Collection (SFC)

American Folklife Center Archives (AFC)

Aunt Molly Jackson Kentucky Lomax Recordings Collection

Mary Elizabeth Barnicle & Tillman Cadle Recordings Collection at East Tennessee State University’s Archives of Appalachia

Book References:

Greenway, John. (1953). American Folk Songs of Protest. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Romalis, Shelly. (1999). Pistol Packin’ Mama. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Journal References:

Wilgus, D. K. (1961). “Aunt Molly Jackson Memorial Issue.” Kentucky Folklore Record 7 (4): 129–176.

At the Crossroads of Art & Research T-Bone Slim

Who is Aunt Molly Jackson?

Author: John Westmoreland

Aunt Molly Jackson & T-Bone Slim:
At the Crossroads of Art & Research

Part 2: Who Is Aunt Molly Jackson?

Text and drawing from a newspaper. Decorative.
Fig. 1. Illustration of Aunt Molly Jackson by Russell Theodore “Butch” Limbach. Unkown Author. The Communist Party USA’s newspaper The Daily Worker, 2 December 1931, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library, Urbana, IL.

My role as a musician, independent researcher, and relative of T-Bone Slim places me at a unique crossroads of art, research, and family history. With that perspective in mind, in this three-part blog series, “Aunt Molly Jackson & T-Bone Slim, at the Crossroads of Art & Research,” I share my thoughts on the origins of a mysterious folk song, the fascinating woman who wrote it, the relationship between folklorist and informant, and how this research relates to T-Bone Slim. Stay tuned for a new recording and video release at the end of Part 3.

In Part 1 of the series, I discussed a fascinating song, “Crossbones Scully,” written by Kentucky folk singer, Aunt Molly Jackson—allegedly about T-Bone Slim. In this second part I take a wider view of Aunt Molly’s life history and try to contextualize her artistry and activism in relationship to political ideology.

Born Mary Magdalene Garland—but using “Molly” as a first name—Aunt Molly Jackson grew up amid the cultural and socioeconomic environment of rural southern Appalachia at a time when grave exploitation of workers was institutionalized by the mining industry. Low wages paid in “scrip”—which could only be used to purchase inflated goods at the company store—as well as the practice of deducting extraneous expenses directly form a miners paycheck left many workers and their families in dire circumstances. Hunger, disease, and egregious safety standards in the mines contributed to high mortality rates amongst the population.

At the age of twelve, Molly began serving her community as a nurse and midwife which earned her the affectionate title “Aunt Molly”. Customarily midwives were referred to as “Granny” but being so young “Aunt” was thought to be a better fit in her case. Claims have been made by Aunt Molly and others that she delivered hundreds or even thousands of infants during her years as a midwife. She herself married twice before the age of twenty, and is believed to have had two biological children both of which died in infancy. Her second husband, Jim Stuart, was killed in a mining accident circa 1917 and soon after she married another coal miner, Bill Jackson, whose last name became part of her official identity as a folk singer for the remainder of her life.

“People just opened their mouths like the birds in the trees, and whatever melody come to them and whatever was on their minds, they just sang it out and that’s a folksong.”—Aunt Molly Jackson (Romalis 1999, 159)

Text and photo from an old newspaper. Headline is "'Aunt Molly Sings Mine War Ballads;". In the photo, Aunt Molly is singing. Bu her is sitting a man. Part of the other photos and rest of the headline are cropped out.
Fig. 2. Photo of Aunt Molly Jackson. Photographer: Unknown/ possibly Herndon Evans. The Milwaukee Journal, 8 December 8, 1935 (Milwaukee Public Library).
Photo from and old newspaper. Aunt Molly is smoking a pipe and wearing dotted dress and a hat.
Fig. 3 Photo of Aunt Molly Jackson. Photographer: Unknown.  Baton Rouge Louisiana Morning Advocate, 8 December, 1935 (East Baton Rouge Public Library).

Steeped in the traditions and lore of the Kentucky mountains, learning songs and stories passed down from older relatives—“knee to knee” as it’s been called in Appalachia—Aunt Molly Jackson began composing her own songs at the age of four. However, she would have likely remained an obscure figure were it not for the activism of the Dreiser Committee (also known as the NDPP) during the early days of the Harlan County War (see also the Raye 2020). Authors Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos and other prominent communist intellectual figures from New York City traveled to Harlan County in the fall of 1931 to document and raise national awareness about the conditions of exploitation and oppression unfolding in Kentucky. On November 7th, 1931 Aunt Molly attended a gathering at Glendon Baptist Church in Bell County and gave her own testimony to the committee, after which she proceeded to burst into song, belting out a version of her “Hungry Ragged Blues.” The performance left such an impression on Dreiser that he felt she would make an ideal symbolic representative for the miners’ cause. Aunt Molly through her appearance, manner, and actions projected a rural Appalachian cultural authenticity that was lacking in a movement comprised of urban intellectuals from the north.

“These women grabbed the gun thugs and stripped them naked while some of the local men took off through a cornfield after the strikebreakers. 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.”—Jim Garland (Romalis 1999, 86–87; about gun thugs see Raye 2020)

Aunt Molly, for her part, seemed happy to go along with Dreiser’s vision. She accepted an invitation from members of the Dreiser Committee to travel to New York City in an effort to help raise funds and publicity for the cause. It’s also been alleged that after Aunt Molly’s performance of “Hungry Ragged Blues,” she was arrested and only released by Judge David Crockett Jones on the condition that she leave Kentucky, so perhaps there were compounding factors which led to her exodus from the Appalachian coal country. (Collett 2006)

Communism & the IWW

In late November of 1931, Aunt Molly Jackson boarded a northbound bus headed for New York. Upon her arrival on December 1st, she was thrust into the public eye. Many newspaper articles were published about her, and on a couple of occasions she performed for crowds of workers numbering in the thousands. She also went on a performance and speaking tour, collecting money to send back home to the striking miners in Harlan and Bell Counties. Many of these public events were organized as communist gatherings, and as such Aunt Molly was on the fringes of mainstream society despite receiving publicity in major press outlets such as the New York Times. Her own relationship to the communist party however appears to be opaque.

 “The only ism we knew in Kentucky was rheumatism; I never heard tell of such thing as a communist or a radical until I was 50 years old when I come to New York. I got all of my progressive ideas from my hard, tough struggles and nowhere else.”—Aunt Molly Jackson (Wilgus 1961)

Whether or not her assertion about learning of communists and radicals only after leaving Kentucky is literally true, Aunt Molly’s point that her ideas and values come from her own life experience and not any ideology is certainly believable. By late 1931 however, she did have connections to communist circles, and some of her songs carry overt references to Communist organizations such as, “I am a Union Woman,” with a refrain that states “Join the NMU, come join the NMU.” The NMU (National Miners Union) was a Communist union which attempted from 1931–1932 to organize rural miners in Kentucky—an effort which met with limited success (on NMU see Soodalter 2016).

Interestingly, a December, 1931 issue of the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker, features an interview with Aunt Molly as well as a separate article disparaging the IWW’s and UMWA’s (United Mine Workers of America) organizing efforts in Kentucky.

“The UMWA and the IWW are betraying us (– –) Now, when we are once more organizing, under the National Miners Union leadership, to strike against starvation, the UMWA and the IWW are again trying to step in in order to betray us. We must be on guard against these agents of the coal operators.”—Unknown author (Daily Worker, 2 December 1931)

Text from an old newspaper. Decorative.
Fig. 4. Daily Worker, 2 December, 1931 (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library).

T-Bone Slim, in his writings for the IWW in late 1931 also commented on the events in Kentucky, such as the following statement from the IWW’s Industrial Worker, published the very same day that Aunt Molly Jackson made her pivotal performance for the Dreiser Committee.

“There is no such thing as freedom of silence. No man has the right to contain in himself the thought, the knowledge, the experience, the eloquence, the prestige that might remove injustice from our fair land ( that might arrest the so called legal murders now in the making in the state of Kentucky…”—T-Bone Slim (Industrial Worker, 7 November 1931)

Text from an old newspaper. Decorative.
Fig. 5. Cropped excerpt from T-Bone Slim’s column in Industrial Worker, 7 November 1931 (University of Michigan, Joseph A. Labadie Collection).

Days later in an article for another IWW periodical, Industrial Solidarity, we find T-Bone Slim weighing in on the subject of aid for the striking workers in Kentucky in relationship to the activities of Socialists and Communists.

“The socialist party has aided the Kentucky miners in their hour of gloom—not blindly as some people do but with their eyes open. Not only did they give but they took the trouble to trace their gift and found it in a communist office—heluva place for a needy miner to be? The presence of the gift in possession of ‘comrades’… indicates extensive lack of consideration, if not complete contempt for the suffering miners.” T-Bone Slim (Industrial Solidarity, 17 November 1931)

Text from an old newspaper. Decorative.
Fig. 6. Cropped excerpt from T-Bone Slim’s column in Industrial Solidarity 17 November 1931 (University of Michigan, Joseph A. Labadie Collection).

The above excerpts quoted from the Daily Worker and T-Bone Slim’s Industrial Solidarity column exemplify the distrust, and animosity which sometimes characterized the dynamic between the Communist Party and the IWW. Folklorist Archie Green’s skepticism that Aunt Molly ever truly met T-Bone Slim derives largely from his awareness of that tenuous historical relationship.

“Plainly put, IWW’s and communists during sectarian years, worked together on various jobs, but did not fraternize in meetings or social events. At times, the ideological differences between them led to bloodshed. Many Wobblies were among the earliest critics of Stalinism on the American left. Communists responded both by denigrating, anarchist values and appropriating Wobbly lore.”—Archie Green (Archie Green Collection, SFC)

Putting aside Archie Green’s skepticism for the moment, it’s important to mention that both T-Bone Slim and Aunt Molly Jackson lived in New York City during the 1930’s and early 1940’s. In a geographic sense it’s certainly not out of the question that they could have crossed paths, and Green himself acknowledges that regardless of ideological tensions between the IWW and the Communist Party, it’s not impossible the two songwriters met.

Further evidence that perhaps T-Bone Slim did have some connection to communist MWIU members can be found in an anecdote from Communist MWIU organizer,  Al Lannon, who claimed that T-Bone Slim was invited to perform at a 1933 Communist event in New York City.

“Hoping to capitalize on lingering IWW sentiment among seamen, Lannon set up an open-air meeting at Thames and Broadway featuring T-Bone Slim. Lannon gave the singer a big introduction, expecting the singer to open with his well-known ‘Popular Wobbly.’ T-Bone Slim began yelling at the crowd about ‘those fuckin’ bastards down in Alabama’ who had framed the Scottsboro Boys. An embarrassed Lannon hustled the living legend, away from the microphone. They later made T-Bone Slim, an honorary member of the Port Organizing Committee, allowing him to sell The Marine Workers Voice along the waterfront.” (Lannon 1999, 45–46; about the Port Organizing Committee see Bailey 1993)

Al Lannon’s assertion is quite interesting—especially the bit about T-Bone being pulled off stage—if true it certainly lends credibility to Aunt Molly Jackson’s claim that she met T-Bone Slim in person. I’m somewhat skeptical that T-Bone Slim ever became a member of the Port Organizing Committee and sold Communist newspapers on the New York waterfront, but if further supporting evidence comes to light my opinion is of course subject to change. Archie Green speculated in some of his writings on the topic of “Crossbones Scully,” that Aunt Molly Jackson may have been attempting to “misappropriate” the identity of an IWW hero (Archie Green Collection, SFC), the same question could be asked of Al Lannon’s claim. Ultimately, the veracity of either or both Aunt Molly’s and Al Lannon’s T-Bone Slim encounters may never be known, it could be impossible to prove whether these stories are completely true, completely fabricated, or partially true and partially fabricated.

In part 3 of the series I will discuss archival recordings of “Crossbones Scully,” the relationship between Aunt Molly Jackson and the folklorists who studied her, and release a new video of the song filmed in studio during production of my forthcoming T-Bone Slim album, Resurrection.

Archival References:

Archie Green Collection at UNC Chapel Hill’s Southern Folklife Collection (SFC)

Book References:

Author Unknown. (1942). The Kentucky Miners Struggle. New York City, New York: American Civil Liberties Union.

Bailey, Bill. (1993). The Kid from Hoboken: An Autobiography. San Francisco, California: Circus Lithographic Press.

Lannon, Albert. (1999). Second String Red. Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania: Lexington Books.

Romalis, Shelly. (1999). Pistol Packin’ Mama. Champaign, Illinois: Univeristy of Illinois Press.

Journal References:

Collett, Dexter. (2006). “The Musicians of the Mine Wars.” Appalachian Heritage 34 (2): 72–81.

Wilgus, D. K. (1961). “Aunt Molly Jackson Memorial Issue.” Kentucky Folklore Record 7 (4): 129–176.

Website References:

Raye, Janet. (2020). “Hellraisers Journal: Company Gunthugs Beat Up and Shoot Down Union Coal Miners in Harlan County, Kentucky”. Hellraisers Journal. May 14, 2020.

Soodalter, Ron. (2016). “The Price of Coal Part II”. Kentucky Monthly. October 31, 2016.

At the Crossroads of Art & Research T-Bone Slim

The Mystery of “Crossbones Scully”

Author: John Westmoreland

Aunt Molly Jackson & T-Bone Slim:
At the Crossroads of Art & Research

Part 1: The Mystery of “Crossbones Scully”

Black & white image of Aunt Molly Jackson. She wears a hat and a shirt that has small square pattern.
Fig. 1.  Photo of Aunt Molly Jackson from her Lomax Kentucky Recordings Artist Page. Unknown Photographer.

“Who can rescue Molly’s ‘Crossbones Scully’ from obscurity? Who will pose fresh questions about its meaning to present day guardians of radical tradition?… In my view, the hidden story behind Aunt Molly‘s ‘Crossbones Scully’ is more intriguing than the narrative of a poor sailor robbing a rich geezer.” —Folklorist Archie Green (Archie Green Collection, SFC)

My role as a musician, independent researcher, and relative of T-Bone Slim places me at a unique crossroads of art, research, and family history. With that perspective in mind, in this three-part blog series, “Aunt Molly Jackson & T-Bone Slim, at the Crossroads of Art & Research,” I share my thoughts on the origins of a mysterious folk song, the fascinating woman who wrote it, the relationship between folklorist and informant, and how this research relates to T-Bone Slim. Stay tuned for a new recording and video release at the end of Part 3.

The song “Crossbones Scully” was composed by Kentucky folksinger and union activist, Aunt Molly Jackson (1881–1960), who became a forceful advocate for the plight of impoverished coal miners and their families in Eastern Kentucky during the 1930’s. Folk music icons such as Pete Seeger have credited her as a major influence (Romalis 1999, 101), and Woody Guthrie once wrote that she was the “best ballad singer in the whole country.” (Guthrie 1967, 139)

The title of Aunt Molly’s aforementioned song may to some readers bear a resemblance to the nom de plume of Matti V. Huhta—T-Bone Slim— the illustrious hobo, songwriter, poet, and IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) columnist. In fact the first publication of “Crossbones Scully” in print comes from folklorist John Greenway’s chapter on Aunt Molly for his 1953 anthology, American Folk Songs of Protest, which lists the title simply as “T-Bone Slim” (Greenway 1953, 264). A spoken word introduction Aunt Molly recited to Greenway during an interview in 1951 precedes the lyrics.

Text. The quote from this book page is mostly written in the blog text.
Fig. 2. Page 264, American Folk Songs of Protest.

“This is the story of T-Bone slim. He told me how he got put in jail for a year and a day. He said he had tried to get a job for two months, and had been picked up as a vagrant different times till he had become desperate. He had not eat a bite in two days, he said, and it had been 10 weeks since he had lain in a bed. He was so cold and hungry he said he was desperate. When he saw this old ‘big shot,’ as he called him, he just knocked the big shot down, and took his suit of clothes, watch, money and all. Just as he was taking off the old man’s shoes he saw some men coming and he ran off with the fine suit on and a high top hat, and when they saw him with his old rags and shoes and that high silk hat and that fine suit of clothes, they grabbed him and pulled him before the judge. He said when they turned him out and he did not have a cent and he could not get a job for food and rent. He said he did not want to steal and rob; he said he began to wonder how he could find a job. He said he was almost out of his mind when he went down on the waterfront and joined the seamen’s picket line. I was leading the picket line and I met him there. In the Seamen’s union hall he told me this story. I remembered it all, and a few days later I composed this song. Old T-Bone Slim got sunk in a ship when World War II come along. He was a good union seamen, but he is dead and gone.”—Aunt Molly Jackson (Greenway 1953, 264)

The Story of T-Bone Slim?

While Aunt Molly Jackson’s introduction clearly indicates that her song is indeed about T-Bone Slim, it may be helpful to take a step back and consider a broader perspective of the song, the folksinger who composed it, as well as the folklorists who collected and studied Aunt Molly’s life and compositions.

“Let me confess that I can’t get this song out of my mind. All the forces that pushed me to ballad scholarship in the 1950s have converged again. Molly’s maritime song has become a metaphor for the questions I neglected to ask in visits with her.”—Archie Green (Letter to Shelly Romalis April 21st, 1992, Archie Green Collection, SFC)

In her introduction to “Crossbones Scully,” Aunt Molly is speaking in verse. In a sense it’s as if she’s already singing the song, and as such may be favoring musicality and rhyme over dry facts. In my view this versification adds an enigmatic and mysterious air to the narrative she describes. But to state it as plainly as possible, in “Crossbones Scully” we have the story of a desperate out of work sailor, cold and hungry, who comes across some wealthy old “big shot,” knocks him down, robs him, and as a result gets thrown in jail for a year and a day. Upon his release the sailor is still desperate and contemplates that out of necessity he may have to repeat his crime. Ultimately, the unlikely hero goes down to the waterfront and joins the seamen’s picket line which Aunt Molly is leading. The sailor recounts his story to her at the seamen’s union hall and she composes a song out of it. Aunt Molly concludes her introduction stating “Old T-Bone Slim got sunk in a ship when World War II come along. He was a good union seamen, but he is dead and gone.” As Franklin Rosemont pointed out in the biographical introduction of his anthology Juice is Stranger Than Friction: Selected Writings of T-Bone Slim (1993), it’s factually inaccurate to say that T-Bone Slim’s ship was sunk during World War II. Rather, he fell, was murdered, or jumped off, and the boat itself—a scow—was certainly not sunk. That being said, in a more poetic sense, could it be—as Rosemont considers a possibility—that Aunt Molly is tying T-Bone Slim’s demise to the US entry into World War II?

Fellow researcher Dr. Saku Pinta noted in his blogposts, Who Killed T-Bone Slim Part I & Part II, that the last published article of T-bone Slim’s career appeared in the Industrial Worker on April 4th, 1942. Within that article references are made to the blackout drills which had begun to take place in New York at the end of 1941.

“To say the least, blackout is a promise, a prophecy, foreboding eternal darkness.”

“When New York City is bombed, say May 10-20, you may be sure I will not run.”

T-Bone Slim’s body was found floating in the East River at Pier 9 in Manhattan on May 15th. The question arises, is it a coincidence that T-Bone Slim’s final article speaks of “prophecy,” “foreboding eternal darkness,” and a bombing between May 10th–20th which happens to coincide with the time frame of his own death? Is it possible that in a veiled manner T-Bone is ominously predicting the end of his own life? Dr. Pinta’s blogposts offer thoughts and reflections on the matter including consideration of the possibility that T-Bone Slim’s death could have been connected to the US intelligence collaboration with organized crime on the waterfront of New York City, ”Project Underworld,” which began in the spring of 1942. Bearing this additional information in mind, I do wonder whether Aunt Molly’s account of T-Bone Slim’s ship being sunk “when World War II come along,” might be a metaphor implying he was murdered and that somehow his death was related to the onset of US involvement in WWII. Of course, another possibility is that it’s simply a poetic way of mourning the loss of a sailor.

Despite Aunt Molly’s introduction to “Crossbones Scully” in John Greenway’s, American Folk Songs of Protest, another distinguished folklorist, Archie Green, has cast doubt on the idea that she ever truly met T-Bone Slim and wrote a song about him.

“I am uncertain whether Molly had actually met T-Bone Slim and heard him tell a story about going to jail after robbing a big shot, or had read such an account in either an IWW or CP (Communist Party) publication, or had heard the anecdote from a third person.“—Archie Green (Archie Green Collection, SFC)

In Part 2 of this three-part series I will explore the background and biography of Aunt Molly Jackson, her ideological affiliation, as well as the divisive relationship which existed between the IWW and the Communist Party USA.

Archival References:

Archie Green Collection at UNC Chapel Hill’s Southern Folklife Collection (SFC)

Book References:

Greenway, John. (1953). American Folk Songs of Protest. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Guthrie, Woody. (1967). Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Romalis, Shelly. (1999). Pistol Packin’ Mama. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Rosemont, Franklin. (1993). Juice is Stranger Than Friction: Selected Writings of T-Bone Slim. Chicago, Illinois: Charles H. Kerr Publishing.

Ashtabula materials

Folk poetry and songs

AUTHOR: Kirsti Salmi-Niklander

Finnish American folk poetry and songs

Newspaper Amerikan Sanomat organized a writing competition for Finnish Americans, and published its results both in the newspapers and as a series of books 1899–1901: these include collections of short stories, three novels by pseudonym “Eekku” and an anthology of poems entitled “Finnish American folk poetry and songs” (Amerikan Suomalaisten Kansan runoja ja lauluja). This anthology gives an interesting overview on variety of the songs and poetry, which were popular in Finnish immigrant communities. Most of the songs and poems have the author’s name, pseudonym or initials and the place. Many songs resemble very much the folk songs, which were popular in Finland, and distributed orally or as broadsides. The first song in the anthology is “Suruni” (My sorrow), including the information that it could be sang with the melody of “The Last Rose of Summer”. The song is a lament on the death of a sweetheart:

“Lempi täyttää rinnan multa/suru sortaa sydämen/kuolo korjas kullan multa/ijäisehen unholaan”. (Love fills my soul/the sorrow breaks my heart/the death took away my sweetheart/to the eternal oblivion.)

The next poem in the collection (“Rukkas runo”) has been dictated in Iron Belt, Wisconsin, which indicates that this is an orally transmitted folk song. The title refers to the experience of being turned down in a romantic relationship. The poem tells about love and courtship in the immigrant community in a more humorous tone, giving a detailed account on the dances on Sunday nights at “Kojo-Antti’s hall”, accompanied by “savikukko”, a kind of ocarina. The poem depicts the rivalry between immigrant men: the miners are successful with the girls, whereas trammers, landers and loggers are hanging out in the corners chewing tobacco. The narrator of the song, one of this “mölö”-group makes an approach on one of the small group of charming girls – but the girl turns him down pointing out to five handsome miners: “Näethän tuolla perässä/tulee mainareita viisi/Joll’ et nyt ala pyörtämään/niin sinut perii hiisi.” (See behind you/ there are five miners coming / If you don’t turn away now/ the “hiisi” [evil spirit] will get you).

The anthology includes many patriotic poems, which refer to the actual political events in Finland during the period of russification measures. Many Finnish young men had left Finland at the turn of the century to flee the illegal conscription to the Russian army. One of these is a short poem “Vielä nytkin” (Still now) by the pseudonym Eekku, whose two novels and short stories were published by Amerikan Sanomat: “Oi kaunis, kallis syntymämaani. Pääseekö enään kevät luonnonkaan/sun sydäntäsi lämmittämään” (Oh my beautiful and dear fatherland. Can even the spring/warm up your heart?) The poems give some more information of Eekku: he was from the parish of Maalahti in Ostrobothnia, and lived in Laurier, Michigan. Some poems are written with Kalevala metre, such as a poem celebrating the foundation of the Onnela temperance society (J S-N, Iron Mountain, Michigan). The poem depicts the sceneries and the results of the hard work of Finnish farmers: “Ken matkaillessaan näillä mailla/kujillamme kulkiessaan/on kaupunkiamme katsastellut/silmäellyt seutuamme/havainnut on halmeillamme/vainioillamme varmasti/kasken kovan kasvamasta/kohoomasta kolkon korven”.

Book in a person's hand
Booklet of “Finnish American folk poetry and songs”, Amerikan Sanomat publishing, 1901. Available at the National Library of Finland.


Ashtabula materials

Pohjantähti Newspaper PART 1

AUTHOR: Lotta Leiwo

Pohjantähti (The North Star) Newspaper

Pohjantähti was a weekly newspaper published in Ashtabula, Ohio from late 1886 to 1887. It came out every Monday evening and had five columns and eight pages. By reading the Pohjantähti we can track some of the networks Finnish immigrants had in the 1880s in North America. Additionally, the newspaper helps us understand the context of T-Bone Slim’s childhood. At the time T-Bone Slim turned five.

The founders of the paper were Finnish immigrants Aleksi Wirtamo, who was T-Bone Slim’s uncle, and Ino Ekman. Wirtamo left the paper during 1887 for yet unknown reason but remained an important and established person in the area. Also, the paper itself was short lived, even though its other founder Ino Ekman invested into new technology (cylinder press and boiler) in fall 1887. Apparently, the newspaper continued to be published for a while in Ishpeming, Michigan in 1888 but Ekman abandoned the paper the same year after its circulation declined.

Pohjantähti published two sample issues in late 1886 and was launched officially on 3.1.1887. One of the sample issues and first 17 issues of 1887 are available in the National Library of Finland as microfilmed copies.

Pohjantähti title and image
First official issue of Pohjantähti. The title image has a picture of farming crops with factory and railroad in the background. In the middle of the picture is a person holding U.S. flag and a text on a ribbon: ‘Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain’.

The reasons to publish Pohjantähti newspaper were multifaceted. In the first four issues of Pohjantähti, Aleksi Wirtamo writes about the objectives of the publication in his editorial:

“the primary purpose is the preservation of the [Finnish] language and nationality, to keep an eye on and promote the spiritual and material well-being of the people of Wäinö [Finnish] who live here, to instruct the citizens in what is noble, good and civilized; to give a freer voice to all discussions in the social sphere; to give attention to the temperance movement of our time, namely to work for the development of this noble cause; to have the courage to express one’s thoughts on all social matters that are highly relevant to Finnish, not to get involved in religious controversies, as the position of the newspaper will be Evangelical Lutheran, as well as to be non-partisan in matters of religion.”

(Pohjantähti n:o 1, 3.1.1887, Kansalliskirjasto/ National Library of Finland).

Additionally, Aleksi Wirtamo’s affiliation of the temperance movement is apparent in the contents of the paper as one regular news section is “Raittiuden alalta” or “From temperance sector”. In the following blog post we’ll discuss more about the news sections of the Pohjantähti newspaper.

Networks of Texts and People

Text in Finnish: excerpt from Callus-Topias story.
Excerpt from Känsä-Topias Story fromn sample issue of Pohjantähti December 1886. Available at the National Library of Finland.

One very interesting aspect of texts published in Pohjantähti is the ‘Finnish folklore immigration’ (as we like to call it) they portray. For us, the digitized Finnish newspaper database in the National Library of Finland has been an alternative and comparative way of tracking the networks of not just people but texts as well. Several (folklore) stories and also correspondent’s poems were published in the Pohjantähti.  Many of the longer stories were previously published in Finnish newspapers. One example of serials is Väinö Kataja’s “Jutelmia ja seikkailuja Pohjolasta, Känsä-Topias” (Stories and adventures from the North, Callus-Topias), a story about a sage/witch living in Northern Finland/ Sapmí (area where indigenous Sámi people live).

The story is told by first-person narrator who is one of the young boys who visit Känsä-Topias’ cottage and bully him by stoning the cottage and the sage and his wife Liisa. Later, the narrator meets Aamos, a very kind, new boy in the village. Aamos teaches the narrator kindness and they stop bullying Känsä-Topias. The story shifts to telling the story of these two befriended boys and their friendship and sops after three issues. The story was originally published in full length in the Oulun Lehti in six issues starting from November 11, 1886 issue. Click the Oulun Lehti link to read the story from digitized Oulun Lehti in Finnish (note: the story is not published consecutive issues). Apparently Väinö Kataja wrote at least one another story about Känsä- Topias: “Känsä-Topias tullinkawaltajana” (Callus-Topias as customs embezzler), published at least in Tornion Lehti in the 1910.

The other American Finnish newspaper in Ashtabula, Ohio Amerikan Sanomat issued a fruitful writing competition in 1901 and American Finns started to have their own, ‘self-sufficient’ supply of stories that were published in four booklets and one song and poem compilation in addition to publishing them in Amerikan Sanomat. We will discuss these in more detail later in this blog!

Digitized Finnish newspaper database has also been a fruitful way of tracking Aleksi Wirtamo’s life. Based on several texts published in 1894 (for example, Paimen Sanomia, 24.1.1894 and Kaiku, 7.3.1894). Wirtamo used also names Sergei Dunajeff, Aukusti Fredrickson and A. W. Keto, apparently using the latter when spending time in Illinois in 1894. For us, it is interesting to study both the texts and stories themselves and the networks of people and texts. This helps us understand the local, national and transnational publishing practices and possibilities in immigrant communities.