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.

T-Bone Slim Uncategorized

Technocracy and T-Bone Slim’s Break with Ralph Chaplin

Author: Owen Clayton

Technocracy and T-Bone Slim’s Break with Ralph Chaplin

One of many mysteries in T-Bone Slim Studies is why he did not publish any new material for two and a half years, between Oct 1933 and April 1936.[1] However, in recent research trips to the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan and the IWW Collection at Wayne State’s Walter P. Reuther Library, I think I have found the answer.

There is no central location of T-Bone Slim’s writings, scattered as they are in several different libraries and special collections. His complete works have never been collected and published. Indeed, such an undertaking would be very difficult since, as the T-Bone Slim and the transnational poetics of the migrant left in North America project has uncovered, the total number of his published pieces is over 1000. Getting an overview of his work is challenging, but the large number of articles he wrote also leads to a mystery of why he did not seem to publish any original material between Oct 1933 and April 1936.

The reason is that he had a personal and political falling out with Ralph Chaplin, the then-editor of Industrial Worker. Author of the famous song ‘Solidarity Forever’, as well someone who had gone to jail during the years of repression during and immediately after WWI, Chaplin was something of a literary giant not just for the Wobblies but on the American Left in general. He was a ‘Great Man’ within a movement that did not believe in Great Men.

Ralph Chaplin and Technocracy

Chaplin was also something of a political wanderer, someone whose politics shifted over time and meandered into some dark corners. By the early 1930s, he had become a devout follower of Technocracy, a movement that sought to replace political democracy with rule by experts, in particular scientists and engineers. In the US the Technocracy Movement was led by Howard Scott, and in Canada by, among others, Joshua Haldeman, Elon Musk’s grandfather (whose views shape Musk’s own projects in the 21st Century). In a Technocratic society, energy would be the default ‘currency’ (pun intended), with experts constantly monitoring how much energy individuals and organisations needed. In theory the amount of energy could be the same for all people, which made Technocracy appealing to some on the Left, like Chaplin. However, Technocracy’s status as an anti-capitalist or even ‘Left Wing’ movement was much contested, and today most scholars see it as a fascistic phenomenon.

Chaplin’s aim in taking over the editing of Industrial Worker was to make the paper more ‘professional’, which meant moving away from opinion pieces and towards more news coverage. Chaplin’s intention for this increased news coverage was, however, that it would be written from a hard-line party position, in effect making the paper less diverse and more propagandistic. His approach, which divided the IWW, meant that there would be less tolerance for the bizarre and sometimes politically-opaque writings of T-Bone Slim.

T-Bone Slim on Technocracy

In the period before Chaplin took over on 17th May 1932, Slim had been publishing regularly, sometimes having several pieces in a single issue. He wrote for the paper for 17 months during Chaplin’s editorship but tensions soon emerged. These tensions spilled out onto the pages of the Industrial Worker, but they did so in ways that were implicit rather than explicit. On 7th Feb 1933, Slim wrote an attack on ‘bosses’ and at the end sarcastically signed off as ‘T-bone Slim, Technocrat (Not connected with trust)’, the trust in question being Scott’s Technocracy Inc. If this was a dig at Chaplin, it was subtle. It is often difficult to work out the meaning of Slim’s sarcasm, but it does seem that tensions with his editor were rising.

For the 7th March 1933 issue, Chaplin seems to have requested pro-Technocracy articles from several of his writers, including Slim. While the other published pieces are straightforward peans to Technocracy, Slim’s article was different. He wrote: “it is almost unbelievable that an adding machine puts the essence of victory into Labors [sic] hands…along comes a set of mathematicians, impervious to all sentiment, and dissect the Industrial World in cold blood”. The quote drips with irony, even sarcasm, so that we might infer that it is indeed ‘unbelievable’ that Technocracy has solved the longstanding contradictions of capitalism. This kind of ironic prose was certainly not what the propagandistic Chaplin expected from his authors.

On the 4th April, Slim once again had technocracy in his sights, writing “A Technocrat is one who rubs elbows with work, is on speaking terms with it.” Given how derisive Wobblies were about managers who did not perform the work they expected from others, this is hardly a ringing endorsement! On the 4th July, he followed this up with: “Beware of practical men. They dream only of what can be, not of what should be.” While this quote is not definitely about Technocrats, I would argue that it is an attack on a movement led by ‘practical’ engineers and scientists such as Howard Scott.

Slim’s Fluctuating Writing Career

By October, Slim’s articles vanished. No other wobbly papers existed by this time and so he seems to have simply stopped publishing. A note held in the Reuther Library indicates that some writers who once appeared in the Industrial Worker were now staying away, as they no longer wished to appear in a paper edited by Ralph Chaplin. Slim seems to have been among this group. He does not appear in the paper again for two and a half years, notably returning within only three issues of Chaplin’s departure, once the Editorship had passed to Fred Thompson. His first article back, on 11th April 1936, attacks the concept of leadership, presumably with the ‘Great Man’ Chaplin in mind, and, once again, critiques those whom he calls ‘practical men’. By now the Wobblies had turned away from Technocracy and, over time, would come to see Chaplin as a troubling, even Right Wing figure.

Slim’s handwritten notes held in the Newberry Library, it seems to me, mostly date from the period just discussed. Indeed, some of the material in those notes would appear in the paper during the late 1930s under Thompson, who claims to have been given a stack of Slim’s earlier writings, almost certainly the Newberry notebooks. As research continues, we are beginning to see how different archives build up a more complete picture of the fluctuations of Slim’s career.


[1] Slim had had publication gaps before, but this is by far the longest. Earlier gaps are often to do with illness or being away for work.

John Westmoreland News T-Bone Slim

T-Bone Slim podcast

T-Bone Slim ja hankkeemme tutkijoita Tervetuloa, tervemenoa-podcastissa

(In English below)

Siirtolaisuusinstituutti tuottaa Tervetuloa, tervemenoa -nimistä podcastia, joka “kertoo Suomeen tulleiden ja Suomesta lähteneiden kiehtovia tarinoita ja selittää ilmiöt niiden takana”. Podcastin uusin jakso käsittelee T-Bone Slimiä, hänen aikansa poliittista ja historiallista kontekstia sekä IWW (International Workers of the World) -musiikkia ja runoja. Jaksossa esiintyvät hankkeemme tutkijat Saku Pinta ja Saijaleena Rantanen sekä taiteilija-tutkija John Westmoreland.

Vaikka jakso käsitteleekin aihetta myös laajemmassa historiallisessa kontekstissa ja peilailee aihetta myös nykypäivän aktivismiin, summaa tämä jakso hyvin ja selkeästi sitä kaikkea mitä olemme tässä Koneen säätiön rahoittamassa ‘T-Bone Slim and the transnational poetics of the migrant left in North America’ -hankkeessa tutkineet. Samalla tulee esille, kuinka tärkeää laajempikin historiallisen ajanjakson ja aikaisemman tutkimuksen hahmottaminen on niin T-Bone Slimiä kuin nykypäivänkin aktivismin ilmiöitä tutkittaessa. Vaikka olemme varmasti hieman puolueellisia, suosittelemme lämpimästi kuuntelemaan! Podcastin lopussa summataan hyvin sitä, miksi T-Bone Slimin ja hänenkaltaisten historialliseen marginaaliin jääneiden yksittäisten ihmisten tutkiminen on merkityksellistä.

Kuuntele podcast alla olevasta soittimesta tai erillisestä linkistä täältä (avautuu uuteen välilehteen). Tervetuloa, tervemenoa -podcast löytyy myös useimmista ilmaisista podcast-sovelluksista sekä Spotifysta.

***In English***

T-Bone Slim and Our Researchers in  Tervetuloa, tervemenoa podcast

The Migration Institute of Finland produces a podcast called Tervetuloa, tervemenoa [Welcome, Farewell], which “tells the fascinating stories of those who have come to and left Finland and explains the phenomena behind them”. The latest episode of the podcast looks at T-Bone Slim, the political and historical context of his time, and IWW (International Workers of the World) music and poetry. The episode features our project researchers Saku Pinta and Saijaleena Rantanen and artist-researcher John Westmoreland.

Although the episode also deals with the topic in a broader historical context and mirrors the topic in contemporary activism, it sums up well and clearly everything we have been researching in this Kone Foundation funded project ‘T-Bone Slim and the transnational poetics of the migrant left in North America’. At the same time, it shows how important it is to have a broader historical perspective and an outline of previous research when studying both T-Bone Slim and contemporary activist phenomena. While we are certainly a little biased, we highly recommend a listen! The end of the podcast sums up well why it is relevant to study T-Bone Slim and individuals like him who have been historically marginalized.

Listen to the podcast from the player above or from a separate link here (opens in a new tab). The Tervetuloa, tervemenoa podcast is also available on most free podcast apps and Spotify. The podcast is mainly in Finnish.

T-Bone Slim

T-Bone Slim’s Forgotten Finnish-Language Writings in the IWW Press

Author: Saku Pinta

T-Bone Slim’s Forgotten Finnish-Language Writings in the IWW Press

Many new discoveries have been uncovered as the T-Bone Slim and the transnational poetics of the migrant left in North America research project has progressed over the last ten months. These discoveries have helped to shed considerable light not only on Slim’s life but also on his relationship to the Finnish-language and to Finnish immigrant communities in North America.

Last month, for instance, project research assistant Lotta Leiwo announced the discovery of a Finnish-language text written by Slim in 1903, using the pseudonym Mathew Houghton, during his time as a participant in the Finnish immigrant temperance movement.

This discovery shows that Slim had a much higher level of Finnish-language fluency than previously assumed. Until very recently, Fred Thompson – formerly the editor of the Industrial Worker newspaper as well as an instructor and director of the Work People’s College, among his many other roles in the IWW – had been the main source of information on the topic of T-Bone Slim’s ability to communicate in the Finnish-language.

T-Bone Slim’s Finnish Writing: The Evidence

This comes from one little snippet from an interview conducted by Franklin Rosemont with Thompson – who personally knew Slim – which appeared in the introduction to Rosemont’s edited volume Juice is Stranger than Friction: Selected Writings of T-Bone Slim. In the interview, Thompson says “I doubt whether T-Bone was familiar enough in Finnish to be funny…though he could speak it.” As a non-Finnish speaker, Thompson could only modestly doubt, rather than completely rule out, Slim’s ability to communicate effectively enough in Finnish to be funny.

However, we now have compelling evidence that suggests that Slim wrote for the Finnish- language IWW press in the early 1920s. As many as three Finnish-language writings by T- Bone Slim have been uncovered, but there may be more. This blog post will focus on one of these texts – the earliest confirmed Finnish-language writing by T-Bone Slim, or at least the earliest one uncovered so far.

It is a short piece entitled “Joitakin Terveysopillisia Neuvoja” (Some Hygienics Advice) which appeared in the August 27, 1922 issue of the Duluth, Minnesota-based Finnish IWW newspaper Industrialisti.

The English-language translation is as follows:

Some Hygienics Advice
By T-Bone Slim

Exercise for fifteen minutes in the morning, and the same amount in the evening. Do it when the boss is watching.

Use as much oxygen as possible. Sit down and breathe deeply occasionally. Nobody will care about that – they will think you are sighing. [Note: in the original Slim says “happoa” or acid, instead of “happea” or oxygen. This may be a typo or it might be that Slim accidentally used the wrong Finnish word – albeit one that was similar to the intended word – which was then reproduced in the newspaper.]

Never unbutton after eating – buy looser fitting clothes. Sleep sixteen hours a day in an airy room.

Don’t try to lift too much. There are over 6,000,000 unemployed, who are very willing to “give a hand” and also – you can tear something.

Don’t eat hastily (A horse is given an hour and fifteen minutes to eat).

Don’t go to work early. “Organization in everything.” Your employer might soon say that you are showing too much affection for the workplace – which is “theirs.”

Read I.W.W. literature, in order to be able to say something.

T-Bone Slim’s Finnish Writing: Some Conclusions

How do we know that this is a text originally written in Finnish?

Again, no English-language version of this short piece has been found (although there is one text with similarities, which will be discussed below). Also, unlike most of the Finnish-language translations of Slim’s writings that appeared in Industrialisti in the 1920s, of which there are several examples, this one did not include the short introduction from the translator. These short intros by a translator would became standard feature, apologetically noting that much of Slim’s wordplay is nearly impossible to render into Finnish from English, and has thus been lost in translation. Finally, the possible accidental use of the word “happoa” instead of “happea” as well as the use of a fairly well-known, old Finnish idiom in quotation marks also suggest that this was originally written in Finnish. The idiom in question is “Järjestelmällisyyttä kaikessa”, translated above as “Organization in everything,” which could also be rendered in English as “systemitization in everything” or “be methodical in everything”.

Those familiar with T-Bone Slim’s writings will notice similarities between “Some Hygienics Advice” and “Recipes for Health,” published about a year later in 1923 in the pamphlet Starving Amidst Too Much. Aside from being similarly structured as a series of eight, short pieces of advice for workers, these two pieces also discuss things like the importance of an airy room for sleeping as well as cautioning against being in a rush.

While Slim’s hygienics advice may have served as a kind of template or first draft of his “Recipes for Health,” there is a notable difference. “Some Hygienics Advice” uses humour and hyperbole to emphasize the fact that workers and bosses have different interests. The main lesson is that workers should not eagerly participate in their own exploitation. Rather, slowing down at work can, for example, serve to reclaim some dignity (even a horse is given more time to eat than a worker) or convince the boss to hire more people and thereby reduce unemployment (working faster, or working overtime, as the old union saying goes, is scabbing on the unemployed). “Recipes for Health”, by contrast, uses a much more serious and forthright tone throughout.

There is much more work to be done around Slim’s Finnish-language writings and the many questions that they raise. But one thing is certain: the satisfaction of uncovering these lost writings by T-Bone Slim is only matched by the satisfaction of making them available to a wider readership. We very much look forward to finding and sharing the next discovery.

T-Bone Slim Uncategorized

Creosote Boxcars

Author: John Westmoreland

Creosote Boxcars

Since December 2017, when I first discovered that T-Bone Slim is my great granduncle, I’ve endeavored to learn as much as possible about his life and work. In my experience perhaps the best resources to accomplish this are the columns he authored for IWW periodicals, as well as the existing handwritten manuscripts housed at the Newberry Library and in my family’s archive. However, since the topics of T-Bone Slim’s writings are focused on contemporary events and issues of his day, and because he writes in a rather surrealistic and free flowing manner, understanding and contextualizing his work is not always an easy task—there are many references which could slip past a researcher. I’ve found that one useful way to gain insight into what T-Bone Slim is expressing is to take note of particular words or phrases found in his writings and to use internet keyword searches to find other content containing the same references. This tactic helps to elucidate T-Bone Slim’s perspective and often provides fascinating parallels to issues of importance in our society today. This blog post will be an investigation into one such word—“creosote.”

In the Franklin Rosemont – T-Bone Slim Research Collection at the Newberry Library in Chicago, there is an undated handwritten manuscript which can also be viewed via their online archive of T-Bone Slim papers, approximately 1934–1942 (pages 79, and 81). True to T-Bone’s characteristic elusive style, it is really up to the reader to decide exactly how much one believes he is making definitive claims here, or if the message should be taken to some degree in a tongue in cheek manner.

“Drouth seems to smell heavily of carbon monoxide, medicated gasoline, pickled railroads, perfumed-boxcars (hydro-chloric-creosote), treated-water and liquid chlorine. (Isn’t there a way to make them “let up” before they destroy the world and themselves with it?)—

In language fluent raw and terse
I’ll say the world is getting worse”

Image of a manuscript, text written with pencil. Text quoted in full on the blog text
T-Bone Slim writings, approximately 1934–42,Box: 1, Folder: 1-2. The Newberry Library – Modern Manuscripts, page 79/168.
Creosote in the 21st century

In an article from the Gothamist—a New York City online news, arts and entertainment outlet—published August 10th, 2011 residents of Queens, New York express concern over a nauseating smell emanating from the railroad tracks in Middle Village. According to one resident, “The odor is so bad it can choke a horse… You smell it for a while and you start to get woozy.”

T-Bone Slim in his manuscript describes a dark and “ill smelling fluid… which exudes fumes for six months, possibly years without recharging”. He states that this substance was used to line the interiors of boxcars, and that for the hobos traveling and sleeping in such cars, it amounted to a “death penalty” or at the very least an “accelerated dispatch to a haven of rest”.

“Death penalty seems rather a heavy punishment to lay on a man for sleeping in a box car. Such is the punishment however, the end slightly deferred. Here it might be argued the punishment is not a death penalty in so far as it lops off only the closing years of the slumberers life and might be classed as accelerated dispatch to a haven of rest. Be that as it may, here is how it is accomplished:

The cars are doped with an ill smelling fluid; with but few exceptions. We won’t go into the nature of the stuff, sufficient to say it makes the homeless one ill. We won’t go into the motives, which are many and all pointing in one direction; sufficient to say the evidence is in those cars, a dark shade, stain, which exudes fumes for six months, possibly years without recharging. Freight moved in those cars becomes as contaminated and the noble businessman and householder hasten to make their wills—noble martyrs to the cause of brainlessness!”

Image of a manuscript, text written with pencil. Two thirds of the text is quoted on the blog text.
T-Bone Slim writings, approximately 1934–42,Box: 1, Folder: 1-2. The Newberry Library – Modern Manuscripts, page 81/168.

What to do with “pickled” railroad ties?

Over the past couple decades aging creosote treated railroad ties have at times been burned in large scale incinerators and biomass energy plants in the United States to create electricity. Through this process railroad companies are able to grind down and dispose of tons of hazardous old ties which would otherwise have to be stored in industrial waste sites. This solution, however, elicits concern among some residents and environmental groups in the areas surrounding the energy plants which burn these creosote “pickled” railroad ties. For instance Flagpole, a local magazine in Athens GA published an online article from January 27th, 2020 featuring a video of members of the Madison Clean Power Coalition holding a protest against the burning of creosote treated railroad ties by the Colbert, GA Biomass Energy Plant over concerns that the smoke produced is toxic and poisoning the air.

Whatever one makes of the controversies related to creosote and its continued usage, it is certainly fascinating to see how issues which concerned T-Bone Slim 80 to 100 years ago are often still quite relevant and topical in our society today…

John Westmoreland T-Bone Slim

“Weary Years”: A Retrospective 101 Years Later

Author: John Westmoreland

“Weary Years”: A Retrospective 101 Years Later

On June 11th, 1921, exactly 101 years ago, a song appeared in the pages of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) periodical, the Industrial Worker, titled “Twenty Years”. It was credited to T-Bone Slim, and as of this writing, represents the earliest known publication of his work in the IWW’s flagship newspaper.

T-Bone Slim's text "Twenty Years"
T-Bone Slim’s text in Industrial Worker 11.6.1921.

Unlike the majority of T-Bone Slim’s songs-and indeed the vast majority of those found in the IWW’s infamous Little Red Songbook—it doesn’t appear to be based on any popular tune, or traditional melody from the past, as had been common practice among songwriters such as Joe Hill, the IWW martyr who penned classic labor anthems like “The Preacher and the Slave” and “There Is Power in a Union”.

The idea of using well established melodies—be they religious hymns, revolutionary or civil war era songs, or contemporary hits of the day—and rewriting the lyrics, with an infusion of irony, sarcasm, and revolutionary sentiment, allowed IWW songwriters to breathe new life and spirit into music that was already deeply ingrained into the consciousness of western industrialized society.These new lyrics often flipped the script on the original song’s meaning and implored the working class to rise up collectively against the shackles of the capitalist system and the “industrial overlords” ruling it.

One significant benefit of this songwriting practice was that rank-and-file IWW members, who might not have any formal music training, could pick up a copy of the Little Red Songbook and easily begin singing together as a group. The songs were published using their new titles and printed beneath would be the name of the original melody in parentheses.

However, in the case of T-Bone Slim’s “Twenty Years” (Or “Weary Years” as I’ve taken to calling it) there is no subheading pointing to a previously written melody. Instead, beneath the title, there is only a question to the reader, “Who knows this tune?”

“Weary Years” Today

Putting that question aside for the moment, let’s have a listen to the song. This recording and video marks its first known release—exactly 101 years to the day after the lyrics were published on June 11, 1921.

John Westmoreland’s music video “Weary Years”. If the video doesn’t show properly, click this link to view the video on YouTube.

I must say that it’s been a truly unique and deeply meaningful experience for me to have the opportunity to collaborate with my long forgotten great granduncle; composing and arranging music to accompany the words he wrote over a century ago… And I’m sincerely grateful to the musicians, sound engineers, videographers, and artists who contributed to this work in the US and Finland, and to fellow T-Bone Slim researcher, Dr. Owen Clayton, who brought this song to my attention in 2018. “Weary Years” is one of 9 songs comprising a new, full album of T-Bone Slim’s songs and poems, Resurrection.

Trial of Life to Trail of Life

So why did T-Bone Slim choose the title “Twenty Years”? What is he referring to? Well, it’s certainly up for debate, but perhaps one important clue lies in the first verse. Astute listeners and readers may notice a discrepancy between the original published phrase “Trial of life” and what I sang on the modern recording, “trail of life”. Admittedly, this was not a conscious decision on my part, but seeing as I’ve been on the “trail” of T-Bone Slim for quite a while, I hope Uncle Matt forgives me for the artistic indulgence. In any case, what “Trial” might he be referring to? T-Bone Slim researcher, Dr. Saku Pinta, has a good theory about this. It involves the massive show trial against IWW leaders during the first half of 1918…

Since its founding in 1905, the IWW’s numbers and influence had grown significantly over the years. As their organization and effectiveness increased, they also found themselves evermore in the cross hairs of government and corporate powers. This came to a head most brutally during the period of the first World War.

Because of their uncompromising antiwar stance and their successful efforts to organize in key war time industries such as copper mining and lumber, the IWW, or “Wobblies” were viewed as Enemy No.1 by the Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Justice Department, and the aptly named, War Department.

On September 5th, 1917, just months after the US entered into the worldwide conflagration, and Congress had passed the draconian Espionage Act, the Bureau of Investigation undertook an unprecedented operation. In the span of 24 hours, they raided every IWW office across the country, in what may well be the widest ranging search warrant ever executed in US history. Ultimately, the Justice Department would go on to successfully prosecute one hundred and one IWW leaders. After a months long trial, all of them were found guilty in less than one hour of jury deliberation, and fifteen received the maximum sentence, “Twenty Years” in prison…

The Espionage Act was brought into existence and first implemented as a means to brutally attack and cripple the IWW, but today it continues to be wielded against modern dissidents, whistle blowers, and publishers, in particular those who expose US war crimes.

If T-Bone Slim were to write the song today, perhaps he would title it “One Hundred and Seventy Five Years”.

—“Who knows this tune?”

T-Bone Slim

Who Killed T-Bone Slim? PART 2

AUTHOR: Saku Pinta

Who Killed T-Bone Slim?

You can read the first part here.

The October 24, 1942 issue of the Industrial Worker made T-Bone Slim’s death widely known in an article entitled “T-Bone Slim, IWW Humorist, Passes Away.” The information published in the Industrial Worker was, however, apparently first uncovered by a certain Anna Mattson – presumably someone who knew Slim well enough to go on a fact-finding mission – and published nearly two weeks earlier, on October 12, in the Industrialisti.

As the Industrialisti article explains, T-Bone Slim was a well-known writer who worked as a deck scow captain in New York, but belonged to the “hobo army” of agricultural workers who criss-crossed the continent, working and travelling by freight train, with no fixed address. Many of the paper’s readers had wondered why Slim hadn’t published anything at all over the summer. Rumours began circulating that he had drowned. Anna Mattson – a member of the Finnish IWW-affiliated Tarmo Club on 2036 Fifth Avenue in Harlem (a location that Slim was known to frequent and had in the past used as a mailing address) – took it upon herself to find out.

In her investigation, Mattson contacted one of the officers of Slim’s other union, the Deck Scow Captain’s Local 933-4 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, who confirmed the drowning. With a membership of between 700 and 1000 workers, Local 933-4 had the same two paid officials from its formation in 1934 up around 1960, or a short time after the local disaffiliated from the ILA. These two union officials were Hugo Kaston (secretary-treasurer) and David Graham (delegate).

Did one of these union officials from Local 933-4 identify Slim’s body? They certainly would have been familiar with him. As Mattson found out, Slim’s last known address was 2 Stone Street in Lower Manhattan – the address of the ILA union hall. A sizeable minority of deck scow captains chose to stay on the living quarters aboard their scow on a more or less permanent basis, maintaining a shore address for mail.

Who identified the body was not a central concern. The Industrialisti article mourned the loss of T-Bone Slim as a valuable organizer and educator for the cause of industrial unionism, and concluded that his death “added to the number of casualties in industrial accidents on the alter of the capitalist system of exploitation and profit.”

This raises another question: was it a workplace accident that claimed the life of T-Bone Slim? It is a possibility. Other New York Wobblies – above all those who frequented the lively IWW Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union hall on 134 Broad Street – and many of those who knew him well similarly concluded that his death was an accident.

Cause of death: workplace hazards?

Work on the waterfront and maritime industries can be dangerous, even with the many occupational health and safety improvements that have been implemented over the years, so one can only imagine what working conditions were like in the 1940s. Working alone, as was typical for T-Bone Slim and other deck scow captains, is a significant hazard as is fatigue. Slim in fact complained about being overworked in the months leading up to his death.

In the September 20, 1941 issue of the Industrial Worker, Slim explained that the unusual three-month gap between his columns in the paper was due to the long hours he was working. He claimed that at one point he had worked a 62.5 hour shift without sleep, joking that he might “be the sole cause of all this unemployment we hear about.” As wartime production ramped up in the maritime industry, the imposition of long hours became much more common. In a March 13, 1942 article – less than a month from T-Bone Slim’s death – one Finnish shipyard worker and New York correspondent to the Industrialisti complained of the 7 day work weeks and 10 to 11 hour days.

Belonging to a radical union like the IWW was another well-known workplace hazard, especially in the mobster-controlled New York waterfront of the 1940s. In March 1942, the New York mafia began to act with impunity on the waterfront thanks to a deal they had struck with a seemingly unlikely ally: the United States federal government. “Operation Underworld”, the code name of the top secret organized crime deal, was designed to protect northeastern American ports from enemy sabotage and to ensure labour peace by violently crushing militant unions and leftist union organizers. As Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn have documented in their book Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, “between 1942 and 1946 there were 26 unsolved murders of labor organizers and dockworkers, dumped in the water by the Mob, working in collusion with Navy Intelligence”. Similarly, political assassinations carried out by mafioso, like that of the Italian-American anarchist organizer Carlo Tresca – shot point blank in an unsolved murder a little more than a year after Slim died – were not unheard of during this period. For this patriotic service the crime boss Lucky Luciano, who controlled the waterfront and longshore unions from his prison cell, was freed after the war.

Was T-Bone Slim the victim of mobsters? This too is a possibility. Consider the following, almost surreal, occurrence.

So, who killed T-Bone Slim?

The May 18, 1942 issue of Industrialisti reported that the body of a Finnish deck scow captain had been pulled from the Hudson River on May 4, eleven days before Slim’s body was discovered. The body was that of George Blad (alias of Yrjö Lehti), an active member of the Tarmo Club in Harlem who had gone missing sometime between the evening of April 17th and the morning of the 18th. Blad who, despite being slightly younger (42) at the time of his death than Slim (62), was in many ways his doppelganger. Both had “hoboed” around the continent working various jobs. Both worked as deck scow captains on the New York waterfront. Both belonged to the IWW and, presumably, to the same ILA local. They may have even known each other. Both had Finnish ancestry, Blad having been born in Finland, Slim having been born to Finnish immigrant parents. And astonishingly, Blad too was a poet, but he wrote in his native tongue for the Finnish-language IWW press.

The death of two IWW poets on the New York waterfront, whose bodies were recovered within eleven days of each other. Strange indeed. Evidently nobody had made this unusual connection at the time, again, due to the 5 month gap between T-Bone Slim’s death and his death becoming widely known, so it did not raise any suspicions.

So who killed T-Bone Slim? Perhaps the only thing that we will ever know for certain is that he and others, like George Blad, did not die of natural causes. They were either victims of direct violence – sanctioned by the powerful – or had succumbed to some form of the indirect, “slow violence”  so brutally common to working-class life in the twentieth century: unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, starvation wages (or the impacts of what today might be called the social determinants of health), minds and bodies ground down over years of hard work and uncertainty.

T-Bone Slim

Who Killed T-Bone Slim? PART 1

AUTHOR: Saku Pinta

Who Killed T-Bone Slim?

“To say the least, blackout is a promise, a prophecy, foreboding eternal darkness.” These chilling, and perhaps even cryptic words, penned by T-Bone Slim (born Matti Valentininpoika Huhta) appeared in his semi-regular column, published April 4, 1942 in the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”) union.

The grim “eternal darkness” that Slim evoked turned out to be all too prophetic, as they would be among his last known words to appear in print. The Finnish-language IWW newspaper the Industrialisti reprinted the column that they appeared in six days later, and then he fell silent. A little over one month later – on the early evening of May 15, 1942 – the lifeless body of T-Bone Slim was recovered from the East River near Pier 9 in New York City.

While the exact date of his death is unknown, the autopsy report produced by the Office of the Medical Examiner – describing an unidentified white male “found floating in water, undetermined circumstances” – estimated that the body had been in the water for about four days. This suggests that Slim passed away on or around May 11th – exactly eighty years ago today.

It is unknown how the medical examiner determined the length of time that the body was in the water. It is not even known who identified the body. Like so many aspects of T-Bone Slim’s enigmatic life it seems that once one mystery is unravelled, another puzzle soon emerges to take its place.

The final spring of Slim’s life, in the city that never sleeps, is no exception. An examination of the most recent discoveries of his final weeks and days is a reminder that “beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined.” We may never get the answers that we are looking for, but that shouldn’t stop us from looking.

Slim’s last column provides a starting point. Is there deeper meaning behind this “eternal darkness”? Did T-Bone Slim foresee his own death?

Last column in the Industrialisti

To place this passage into context, the “blackouts” T-Bone Slim discussed refer to the blackout and dim-out drills that began in New York in December 1941.These drills began soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that same month – along with the entry of the United States into the Second World War – as precautions against German U-boat attacks and possible bombing raids.

In his final column Slim mentions the danger that U-boats posed to sailors on the North Atlantic and the fact that the last three ships to be sunk by torpedoes were north of Norfolk, Virginia. Over the span of around eight months in 1942, German U-boats sank some 500 American ships – killing over 5000 sailors – along the U.S. Atlantic coast in a disastrous, and lesser-known today, series of attacks.

“When New York City is bombed, say May 10-20, you may be sure I will not run.” Slim continued, “I’d be an awful donkey, were I to skedadle, good as my insteps are. No, I would give them the bronx cheer and stand my ground.”

Slim maintains a fatalistic yet defiant tone here. Not only will he not run, but he will stand his ground. However, there is something unsettling about the fact that dates when he expected New York to be bombed are within the date range of when his death and when his body was found. The fact that Slim’s father – with whom he shared a first name and an occupation as a maritime worker – had drowned after plunging into the waters of Erie Bay from Hanna Dock in Erie, Pennsylvania in August 1901, in an apparent suicide, certainly adds a tragic, macabre dimension to Huhta family lore.

Yet the dark tone of Slim’s writing would not have seemed out of the ordinary at the time. It only seems strange with the benefit of hindsight, because the death of T-Bone Slim only became known to the Wobblies and others five months after his body was found in the East River.

Read “Who Killed T-Bone Slim? PART II” here.