Sis CunninghamSis Cunningham at a meeting to support an oil workers strike in Bristow, OK, 1940. photo by Russell Lee
(b. 1909)
Featured on the following tracks of The Best of Broadside:
      
51: SUNDOWN
52. MY OKLAHOMA HOME (IT BLOWED AWAY) 
79: BUT IF I ASK THEM

click on the to hear an audio sample*

Agnes "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 skits. 
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 moved in. 
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 lifeSis Cunningham & Gordon Friesen, early 1960s, photo by Diana Davies48 bytes) 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 shoestring.

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 recording. 
 

Sundown

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).  

My 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.
*if you are having trouble listening to the audio sample, click here to download a free Real Player.

Listen to Sis Cunningham speak with Pete Seeger, Gil Turner, and Izzy Young on The Broadside Show.  

Smithsonian Folkways recordings featuring Sis Cunningham:

That's Why We're Marching - Smithsonian Folkways 40021 

Smithsonian Folkways recordings featuring Aunt Molly Jackson:

Songs and Stories of Aunt Molly Jackson - Folkways 05457 

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