Readers of Folklife Today already know that we love Halloween. Our first post was for Halloween 2013, which means this is the 10th Halloween we have celebrated with stories and songs about ghosts, witches, spirits, death, and the Devil. You can read all our Halloween posts, and hear dozens of songs and stories, at this link!
As usual, this year we’ll feature several Halloween posts leading up to the big day. We’re starting with this one, presenting some fascinating belief stories about witches from early 20th century Kentucky. The speaker is Mary Magdalen Garland Stewart Jackson Stamos, known by the professional name Aunt Molly Jackson.
Aunt Molly Jackson was one of the most documented traditional singers in American history, having recorded for Alan Lomax, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, John Greenway, Archie Green, and others. The details of her life are somewhat obscure, though, because she gave contradictory accounts of most events to interviewers over the years. I’ll give a thumbnail account, but you can read more about her in this special journal issue. Born in Clay County, Kentucky, in about 1880, she began learning songs from her great-grandmother, Nancy MacMahan, at an early age. As a young teenager, she married Jim Stewart, the miner who told her two of the witch stories she recounts on these recordings. She became a nurse and midwife, which led to her having the nickname “Aunt” from a surprisingly young age. After Jim Stewart was killed in a mine accident, Aunt Molly married another miner named Bill Jackson. She became a member of the United Mine Workers and began writing protest songs, including “I Am A Union Woman”, “Kentucky Miner’s Wife”, and “Poor Miner’s Farewell.” These activities led to her being jailed, and ultimately to a divorce from Jackson, whose name she kept as her professional moniker. In 1931, she traveled to New York City to play benefit concerts for striking miners in Kentucky, and remained mostly based in New York from late 1931 until 1943. In this era she met her final husband, Gus Stamos, known to his friends as “Tom,” and performed and socialized with many people in that era’s folk music scene, including Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Earl Robinson, and Alan Lomax. Her younger siblings, Jim Garland and Sarah Ogan Gunning, also frequently visited and performed with her. Aunt Molly Jackson and Tom Stamos later moved to the West Coast; Aunt Molly died in 1960 and is buried in Sacramento.
Alan Lomax conducted extensive recording sessions with Aunt Molly in 1935, 1937, and 1939, leading to over 180 songs and spoken word pieces by her in AFC’s disc-era collections. The 1939 sessions occurred in Lomax’s apartment in New York, and included the witch stories we’ll hear in this blog post. They were released on Aunt Molly Jackson’s posthumous LP on Rounder Records, and were transcribed by Carl Lindahl for his book American Folktales from the Collections of the Library of Congress. Both are now out of print, but the recordings are online at the Lomax Digital Archive and the Lomax Kentucky Recordings.
I’ve written before about my transcription style, which is grounded in my training in ethnopoetics, so I won’t repeat myself here. I’ll just add that I didn’t represent Aunt Molly’s non-standard pronunciations of words like “there” and “borrow” with non-standard spellings, as some previous transcribers have done.
Alan Lomax Interviews Aunt Molly Jackson About Witches, Part 1
The conversation between Lomax and Jackson about witches begins with a story that Aunt Molly ascribes to her first husband Jim Stewart. It introduces not only witches but “witch doctors,” people who were believed to have the power to counteract witchcraft. That story, plus some conversation about witches and witch doctors, can be heard in the first player, with the text immediately below.
This witch story was told to me by my husband, Jim Stewart.
His brother, youngest brother, Albert Stewart,
he told me,
begin to have some kind of strange fits.
His father, Ike Stewart, he went and called the doctor in,
and when the doctor come and looked at the child,
he said there was nothing he could do for the child because that he was, uh,
he was bewitched
and advised him to get a witch doctor.
So they called in a witch doctor.
This witch doctor told
the mother of the child there would be someone in that house
to borrow something,
or to try to get away with a little,
just a little thread or a rag or something out of the house
and not to let anybody have anything out of the house.
And first and all, the old lady neighbor that lived near them
she came for a half a pint of cornmeal.
And Mrs. Stewart refused her the cornmeal.
Then she come back for a needle
full of sewing thread,
and she refused her.
And when she refused her of the sewing thread,
when she started out of the house,
when she started out of the house,
she grabbed up a string
in the floor and tried to get away with it.
And, and Mrs. Stewart struck her in the,
the mother of the child struck her in the back with a broom
and knocked the, knocked the string out of her hands
and she run down the pathway
about fifteen feet from the house
and fell in the road
and begin to take the same kinds of fits that the child was taking
in the road.
But before she come,
when uh, when this witch doctor
was a-working with this child,
his elbows would fly out of joint
and his knees would fly out of joint
just like the child’s
and he was all in a perspiration of sweat.
And as soon as this old woman
in the path
with a fit,
well that was the last fit that the child had
and the spell was broken;
he never did have another spell like that in his life.
My husband told me this story to be the truth.
Alan Lomax: It happened to his brother?
Yes, his youngest brother, Albert Stewart.
Alan Lomax: Were there still any witch doctors around when you were growing up in Kentucky?
Oh, yes, there was witch doctors
and also there was said to be plenty of witches.
Alan Lomax: Well, what were the witch doctors…what did they do?
Did they ever give people these spells too?
Oh, no, the witch doctors, they…
the witch doctors was the ones that broke the craft,
Like I say,
if anybody would witch your cow
till the milk wouldn’t turn,
then you’d send for the witch doctor to know what was wrong,
and they would advise you to put a piece of silver
in the churn
and churn on a silver half a dollar,
for so many times.
And if they…if your cow began to uh
if your cow began to uh
give lumpy milk,
or something like that,
you’ re supposed then to milk the cow and set the milk down….
[Disc side runs out]
Alan Lomax Interviews Aunt Molly Jackson About Witches, Part 2
The second part of Aunt Molly Jackson’s conversation with Alan Lomax about witches begins with Jackson explaining how people in her community believed a person became a witch. It quickly moves on to another fully developed “witch story,” which Jackson recounts in full, and continues with several more interview questions about how witches could be foiled by witch doctors. It’s in the player below, followed by the text.
How you come to be a witch:
you go on the, the
on the top of a mountain
and as the sun comes up,
you turn your face to the sun,
and cuss God
and give yourself over to the Devil.
A witch story that was told to me
that it was told by a neighbor woman of mine
that uh there was a woman by the name of Baker
That everybody was afraid of her,
afraid she was a–would cause em to have some kind of spells,
or bewitch their cows and have em to die
or bewitch their children or something like that.
So Lulu Paine she had a cow that,
every time that she was turned out of the barn lot,
she’d go straight and jump into Old Aunt Jane Baker’s corn.
And Old Aunt Jane Baker
she came over and told her,
”If you don’t keep that cow out of my corn
the next time that I have to drive her over here,
when I drive her inside of the barn lot,
she’ll fall and she’ll never get up no more.”
So, she uh
the next rime she turned the cow out,
she went straight back to the field and jumped in.
Old Aunt Jane Baker,
she brought her
and turned her into the lot and just made her hands, uh,
Waved her hands over the cow’s back
three times, and the cow fell down and
and straightened out and
just laid like she was dead.
And Lulu Paine said that she went and told her,
said, “Aunt Jane,
some of the children turned the cow out of the barn lot,
and I didn’t know it,” and said,
“If you’ll break the spell from off my cow,
my little children will starve without milk…
If you’ll break the spell from off the cow,
I’ll see that she’s not turned out no more.”
And she just walked up,
Lulu Paine said,
and kicked the cow with her foot and told her to get up,
and she just jumped up.
Alan Lomax: Didn’t the folks ever…didn’t the people ever prosecute any of these witches, Molly, in the courts, or any other way? Didn’t they ever beat ’em, or do anything to the witches when they found out?
that if you made a silver ball,
and then made
a picture of…
and named this picture the witch,
and made the picture of a heart,
and shot that silver ball through the heart,
that wherever that witch was,
fall dead of that.
And that was one way they had of killing the witches,
to get rid of em.
Alan Lomax: Well, how did these, how did these witch doctors learn their trade?
How did they learn their secrets? Do you know?
All I know is just what that they claim.
They claim that
they had power
from the Lord.
The Lord give them power to break these witchcrafts,
as the Devil give the witches power to put the
the spells on the people,
is what the witch doctors claimed.
Alan Lomax: Are there still witch doctors and witches in Kentucky?
Yes, a few,
but not so many
as they used to be,
but there’s still a few,
said to be.
My Brother’s uh
mother-in-law…[Disc side runs out]
Alan Lomax Interviews Aunt Molly Jackson About Witches, Part 3
The third segment Aunt Molly Jackson’s witch-lore begins where the second disc side ran out, with a discussion of Molly’s brother Bob’s mother-in-law, Rache Baker, and proceeds to another fully developed story, along with Molly’s own belief about what was going on. it’s in the player below, followed by the text.
My Brother, Bob Garland
His mother-in-law, Rache Baker,
which is the daughter-in-law of this old woman Jane Baker,
everybody that believes in
In witches at all,
they’re afraid of her
until this day.
She’s about eighty years old now,
and all the people in the neighborhood and country that believes at all in witches,
or even thinks that there might be
something in witches,
they’re afraid to insult
old Aunt Rache Baker about anything,
afraid that she’ll put some kind of spells
on their children,
Alan Lomax: Did the witches ever go to church, Molly?
They’re the biggest hypocrites that we have.
The ones that they claim to be witches,
well they pretend to be the best people,
the very best people.
Alan Lomax: Do they ever actually kill anybody, these witches?
Well, it’s said
that people dies with spells,
some kind of sudden death,
and they believe that,
it’s caused by witches,
by what they call the witchcraft,
put on em,
by these witches,
Alan Lomax: Do you know of any stories about these witches riding out at night, or doing anything like that?
This, this one particular,
this one particular witch story
that I’m gonna tell you right now,
It’s too long to…it’ll cover up one whole side of a record.
This man–Newt Payne–said that he would swear this,
about this same old woman,
that she turned him–he said
she turned him into a horse
Alan Lomax: Let’s tell it all. We can turn over the record.
Newt Payne said that Old Aunt Jane Baker turned him into a horse one night
and rode him through a briar field
got his hands,
the palms of his hands,
and his feet was all full of,
of a thorns from the briars-·and tied him up then,
turned him into a horse and rode him,
and then tied him up to a poplar hitching post
and he stood there and gnawed that post almost in two.
And another time he said then that she turned him into a dog
when he come to himself he was in a smokehouse
with his head hung in a soap gourd,
eating soap grease
and trying to get the gourd from off of his head.
And another time, he said,
that she turned him into a cat,
and that he got into a bunch of other cats,
and got into a terrible fight with the other cats and
the next morning he said
that his face was literally scratched to pieces.
Alan Lomax: Well do you know that any of this is true or do you think it’s Newt making it up?
Well, I always had my opinion about these things,
of course everybody has their opinion,
and my opinion
was that Newt Payne
He wasn’t really a well man
and he dreamed these things.
He had these terrible dreams,
and he was really afraid of
of Jane Baker a-witching him,
and he went to sleep and he had these bad dreams,
and, and he actually thought the dreams was so plain [Disc side runs out]
As Aunt Molly said, “Everybody has their opinion.” Before we go, I should say that these stories don’t represent my beliefs or those of the Library of Congress. But we hope they give you some insight into the beliefs about witchcraft and witches that some people from Aunt Molly Jackson’s community held in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Happy Halloween! We’ll be back before the big day with some more spooky stories for the season…stay tuned!