Featured on the following tracks of The
Best of Broadside:
52. MY OKLAHOMA HOME (IT BLOWED AWAY)
79: BUT IF I ASK THEM
click on the
to hear an audio sample*
"Sis" Cunningham and Gordon Friesen (1909-1996), along with their young
daughters, Aggie and Jane, had moved into a two bedroom apartment in the Frederick
Douglass Housing Project on West 104th Street on New York City's Upper West Side around
1960. Despite their poverty and cramped conditions, with a small front room that doubled
as a dining area and workroom, they somehow launched a modest topical song magazine that
would quickly help stimulate a national movement.
Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen were born in rural Oklahoma, Gordon in Weatherford and
Sis in Watonga. After attending college, Sis briefly taught high school music, then
attended Commonwealth College near Mena, Arkansas, a labor college with socialist
overtones where her musical abilities -- singing, songwriting, playing the piano and the
accordion -- were now put to good use. Following Commonwealth, Sis became an organizer for
the Southern Tenants Farmers' Union, and worked briefly as a music instructor at the
Southern Summer School for Women Workers near Asheville, North Carolina, before returning
to Oklahoma in 1939. Here she helped organize the Red Dust Players, a traveling troupe
that entertained and sought to mobilize the state's poor with radical songs and
Sis and Gordon met in March 1941. Oklahoma was undergoing a frightful Red scare, and the
local Communist Party was under attack from the state government. Both members of the
party, Sis and Gordon reacted with outrage and panic during the arrest and trial of the
state party's leadership after its Oklahoma City bookstore was raided and closed down. On
the run , fearing their own arrest, Sis and Gordon, who married on July 23, moved to New
York City in late November 1941. They briefly lived with a friend while Gordon shopped
around the manuscript of a second novel and Sis picked up odd jobs. Pete Seeger, who had
met Sis previously, invited them to Almanac House, 130 West Tenth Street, and they quickly
A year earlier, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell had formed
a topical singing group soon named the Almanac Singers. Sis and the Almanacs
maintained a busy performing schedule, and she appeared on their 1942
album Dear Mr. President for Keynote Records. In late 1942, Sis
and Gordon moved to Detroit, joining their friends Bess Lomax, Butch Hawes,
Arthur Stern, and Charlie Polacheck, who were attempting to establish
a branch of the Almanacs in the Motor City. When their singing jobs dried
up, Sis went to work in a war plant, and Gordon became a reporter for
the Detroit Times. Sis performed and wrote songs for People's Songs, a
radical musical organization initiated by Pete Seeger for struggling labor
unions, and for Henry Wallace's third-party presidential campaign in 1948.
With the births of their two daughters and mounting economic problems,
her musical life wound down by decade's end.
She also felt pushed out by the urban performers with more style and polish.
The following decade was a nightmare for Sis and Gordon: they were plagued
by sickness, wrenching poverty, and endless battles with the welfare department.
Sis and Gordon picked up an odd job now and then, but music vanished from
their lives. "We had no money for any kind of recreation," she
recalled. "Rummage sale clothes, shoes. Soup kitchen food. Job hunting
for the next rotten job. Looking for some place to live -- not just exist."
As the 1960s dawned and the fear of communism began to wane, Sis and Gordon had little
reason for optimism. Yet with radical commitments intact and a belief in the transforming
power of music, they eagerly welcomed the chance to publish a topical song magazine. Sing
Out!, the national folk publication appearing five times a year, rarely
recognized the current crop of topical songwriters, so the field seemed ripe for a
contemporary folk magazine. "Pete Seeger and I have been discussing, cross continent,
a project that we'd like to put before the readers of Sing Out! for
advice, comment, and discussion," Malvina Reynolds wrote to Sing Out! in
late 1960. "I am proposing the publication of a song book or journal of topical
songs, to be called Broadside. This would begin to round up, and make available all
over the country, the songs that are arising out of the peace, labor, civil rights
movements in different areas." Sis, intrigued by the budding crop of songwriters,
discussed the possibilities with Pete Seeger. Inspired, Sis and Gordon plunged into
producing a topical song magazine. They solicited advice and money from a few dozen
friends. Sis served as Pete Seeger's paid secretary while the Seeger family conducted a
yearlong world tour from 1963 through 1964, and over the years key financial help came
from Pete and Toshi Seeger, but it was never enough. Sis and Gordon always lived on a
Sis Cunningham, apart from editing Broadside,
is a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, piano and accordion. In the
1940s, she was a member of the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger, Millard
Lampell, Lee Hays, Bess Hawes and Woody Guthrie. As finances got worse and
worse she ceased to play music concentrating on day-to-day life. During the Broadside
years she was the individual who transcribed the music from the home
recordings in order to put the music notation into the magazine. She took
part in various Broadside hootenannies, eventually recording a full
album, Sundown, produced by Paul Kaplan. These songs come from that
This song was written by Cunningham for the field
hands in the Mississippi Delta region in 1937 and performed by the Red Dust Players, the
political theater group of which Sis was a member in Oklahoma just before World War II.
"I wrote the song for the field hands of the Cotton Belt-especially for the women,
the folks I got to know at the Muskogee S. T. F. U. (Southern Tenant Farmers Union) and in
my organizing work" (Cunningham, liner notes to FW 05319).
Oklahoma Home (It Done Blowed Away)
This song was composed by Sis Cunningham and her
brother Bill (1902-1967). The dust storms and social displacement caused by the "dust
bowl" drought of the 1930s, memorialized by John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie. are the
subjects of this song. Sis Cunningham, who witnessed them firsthand, also eloquently
described her own experiences in an autobiography.
But If I Ask Them
"This song is dedicated to Aunt Molly
Jackson. I wrote it as though she herself is expressing her own life and songs."-Sis Cunningham, liner notes
to FW 05319 197, 1975.
Aunt Molly Jackson (Mary Magdalene Garland [1880-1960]
) came from a family of eastern coal miners and was a veteran of the many coal strikes of
the early 20th century (she was first jailed at the age of ten). She was also an important
labor songwriter and organizer from a family of songwriters that included her brother Jim
Garland and half-sister Sarah Ogan Gunning. Many of Jackson's relatives were killed or
injured from working in the mines. One of the most outspoken opponents of the mine owners,
Jackson was driven from Kentucky by local authorities in 1931. She moved to New York City,
where she lived in poverty. There she became acquainted with singers and songwriters such
as Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and the Almanac Singers (which included Sis Cunningham). The
other writers were all impressed and influenced by her songs. In the early 1940s Alan
Lomax and Woody Guthrie compiled a book of topical songs called Hard Hitting Songs for
Hard Hit People, with an entire chapter devoted to the songs of Aunt Molly Jackson.
Text and quotes extracted from the notes
by Ronald D. Cohen and Jeff Place accompanying The Best of Broadside.
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