Death of Mother Jones, The
DESCRIPTION: "The world is mourning today The death of Mother Jones; Grief and sorrow hover Around the miners' homes." The miners lament the death of the organizer who "was ready to help them; she never turned them down."
AUTHOR: unknown (see NOTES)
EARLIEST DATE: 1931 (recording, Gene Autry)
KEYWORDS: labor-movement death mining
c. 1837-1930 - life of Mary Harris "Mother" Jones
FOUND IN: US
REFERENCES (3 citations):
Greenway-AmericanFolksongsOfProtest, pp. 154-155, "Mother Jones" (1 text)
Green-OnlyAMiner-RecordedCoalMiningSongs, pp. 241-243, "Mother Jones" (1 text, 1 tune)
Gene Autry, "The Death of Mother Jones" (Banner 32133/Jewel 20033/Oriole 8033/Perfect 12696/Regal 10311/Romeo 5033/Conqueror 7702, 1931)
NOTES [549 words]: Greenway notes that his text differs from that in Korson's "Coal Dust on the Fiddle," implying oral transmission. I'm not sure this really follows -- but there is enough doubt that I have indexed the song. - RBW
Jim Nelson reports that the song was copyrighted by American Record Company A & R man William R. Callaway, but it's virtually certain that he did not compose it, but rather purchased the rights from an unknown composer. His widow told Archie Green that her husband never had composed anything, but would often purchase material from musicians he worked with or people he met on the road. - PJS
Details about the early life of Mary Harris "Mother" Jones are vague, in part because her autobiography -- which was published when she was at least in her late eighties and perhaps older -- is unreliable, especially for dates (DAB). Estimates of the date of her birth vary from 1830 (so DAB) to 1837 (which apparently was when she was baptized -- which to me argues that the dates in the early 1830s are simply too early). She was born in Cork, Ireland, daughter of Richard and Helen Harris (Weir/Hanlan). Her father went to the United States in 1835, then brought his family over; they also spent time in Canada. Her education came from both public and convent schools (Weir/Hanlan). A tiny woman -- she was less than five feet tall -- she had enough energy for a woman twice her size.
Her first known work was a a teacher in a convent school in Monroe, Michigan. She then opened a dressmaking business in Chicago, but moved to Memphis, Tennessee and returned to teaching (DAB). It was there that she married George Jones, a member of the Iron Molders' Union, in 1861. They had four children by 1867 -- but her husband and all four children died in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1837 (Weir/Hanlan). She went back to dressmaking in Chicago, but the Fire of 1871 destroyed everything she owned (DAB). With little else to do, she started attending Knights of Labor meetings -- and quickly became a dedicated organizer. As she grew older, she became known as "Mother" Jones, in part because of her gray hair and in part because of her tendency to call the workers "boys" (Weir/Hanlan).
She was often present at major events in labor history, such as the Pittsburg Labor Riots of 1877, the Haymarket violence of 1886, the A. R. U. strike of 1894 (DAB), and the Ludlow Massacre of 1913 (Weir/Hanlan). In 1903, she tried to convince Theodore Roosevelt of the evils of child labor. She was an early worker for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), split with them for a time because they were too conservative, then rejoined (DAB), but later quit again(Weir/Hanlan). She died of old age in 1930, six months after a celebration of what was said to be her hundredth birthday (DAB).
Although associated with radical causes, with some hints of socialism, she was not a pure liberal -- e.g. she had a conservative view of women's issues and opposed suffrage. Nonetheless she was imprisoned many times, once even being charged with conspiracy to commit murder (Weir/Hanlan). But she died in peace, widely respected even by fairly conservative figures.
Her heritage was preserved, e.g., by the magazine Mother Jones, although I think it is more consistently liberal than Jones herself was. - RBW
Last updated in version 6.1
- DAB: Dumas Malone, editor, Dictionary of American Biography, originally published in 20 volumes plus later supplementary volumes; I use the 1961 Charles Scribner's Sons edition with minor corrections which combined the original 20 volumes into 10. The biography of Jones is on pp. 195-196 of volume V, part 2 (i.e. the original Volume X)
- Weir/Hanlan: Robert E. Weir and James P. Hanlan, editors, Historical Encyclopedia of American Labor, 2 volumes, Greenwood Press, 2004. The biography of Jones is on pp. 258-260
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