“I am a union woman”: gender, class, and folk music in the Harlan County War and beyond

WCU Author/Contributor (non-WCU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
John Cullen Moran (Creator)
Western Carolina University (WCU )
Web Site: http://library.wcu.edu/
Robert Ferguson

Abstract: The onset of the Great Depression led to severe work shortages for miners in Harlan County, Kentucky. In turn, low wages exacerbated by shorter hours created starvation conditions for their families. In 1931, organizers from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) travelled to Harlan County to unionize miners. While it succeeded in organizing thousands of miners, it failed to complete a bargaining agreement with Harlan County’s coal operators. The union abandoned its efforts after less than a year. Throughout 1931, violence sprouted between miners who supported unionization efforts and the armed guards and sheriff’s deputies hired by their employers. Following the UMWA’s withdrawal from Harlan County, the National Miners’ Union (NMU), a Communist Party-supported union came to Harlan County with a more radical vision than that offered by its predecessor. The violence that characterized Harlan County during this period became known as the Harlan County War. This thesis will address the Harlan County War from the perspective of three women who wrote and performed songs intended to organize and encourage striking miners. By examining the words and experiences of Mary “Aunt Molly” Jackson, her half-sister, Sarah Ogan Gunning, and Florence Reece, this thesis will address the impact of folk music on efforts to organize workers. Additionally, Jackson, Gunning, and Reece all addressed the violence and exploitation they witnessed from a gendered perspective. Their lyrics reflected an inclusive understanding of working-class organization, even as they worked to organize laborers in an industry that excluded women. By analyzing their words and those of their contemporaries, the content of their lyrics, and newspaper reports of their actions during and after the Harlan County War, this thesis will address women’s activism in Appalachia, the meaning of working-class identity, and the efficacy of music as an element of social movements.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2021
Coal Mining, Folk Music, Gender, Labor History
Coal mines and mining
Folk music
Identity (Psychology)
Labor -- History

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