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Sis Cunningham : biography

February 19, 1909 - June 27, 2004

Agnes ("Sis") Cunningham (February 19, 1909 – June 27, 2004 Retrieved on 06-01-07) was an American musician, best known for her involvement as a performer and publicist of folk music and protest songs. She was the founding editor of Broadside magazine, which she published with her husband Gordon Friesen and their daughters.


In 1937, she became a music teacher at the Southern Labor School for Women in North Carolina. She taught politically oriented music, including labor-union standards, political songs such as those written by Bertholt Brecht and Hanns Eisler, and topical songs, including some of her own original compositions. [Pietaro, 2004]

In late 1939 or early 1940, she was a founding member of the Red Dust Players, an agit-prop group in Oklahoma. Fleeing harassment, she and fellow Communist Party member Gordon Friesen married on July 23, 1941 in the course of fleeing to New York City. [Pietaro, 2004].

In New York, they moved into the Greenwich Village household known as Almanac House: housemates included Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and Cunningham was briefly a member of the Almanac Singers, appearing on the 1942 album Dear Mr. President for Keynote Records. After attempting unsuccessfully to start a Detroit, Michigan, equivalent of the Almanacs, she took a job in defense plant, while Friesen went to work as a reporter for the Detroit Times.

Sis Cunningham was also a songwriter: her "How Can You Keep on Movin' (Unless You Migrate Too)?" found its way into the New Lost City Ramblers' 1959 album Songs of the Depression, and following them, Ry Cooder also recorded it, as a strident march, on his album Into the Purple Valley; Cooder was unaware of its authorship and attributed it as "Traditional" Retrieved on 06-01-07 until the omission was pointed out to him; he and the label corrected the attribution on later pressings: see Track listing of Into the Purple Valley.

Her Dust Bowl tale "My Oklahoma Home", written with her brother Bill Cunningham, was performed by Seeger in 1961, fell into oblivion, and then was revived by Bruce Springsteen in 2006 for his We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions album and subsequent Seeger Sessions Band Tour.

A lasting contribution of Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen was to publish a little magazine for 26 years: Broadside, which printed the words and music to newly written folk and topical songs by Bob Dylan, Malvina Reynolds, Phil Ochs, Janis Ian, Tom Paxton, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and many others. Recordings of songs that had been published in their magazine were collected in 2000 in a 5-CD set, , on , which received two Grammy nominations.New York Times, June 30, 2004

1945 to 1962

After World War II, Cunningham and Friesen were among the first victims of the anti-communist blacklist. She secured a few bookings as part of the roster of Pete Seeger's booking agency, People's Songs, but between ill health, trying to raise a family in poverty, and personal depression, she largely fell out of the music world for over a decade. [Pietaro, 2004].

In 1962, Cunningham reemerged into the public eye as the founding editor of Broadside magazine. This magazine published the songs of many of the 1960s' most influential topical songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Janis Ian, Tom Paxton, The Freedom Singers, Buffy Ste. Marie, Len Chandler, and Malvina Reynolds. Although the magazine, in John Pietaro's words "a vital part of the folk revival", survived until 1988, it was always a shoestring operation — several times, subsidies from Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi Seeger kept it afloat. [Pietaro, 2004]. Among its legacies was a five-CD box set called .

In 1976, Folkways Records released Broadside Ballads, Vol. 9: Sundown, Cunningham's only solo album on the label (though she had been featured on several other albums, including Seeger's Broadside Ballads, Vol. and Phil Ochs' Broadside Tapes 1).

Early life

Agnes Cunningham was born in Oklahoma in 1909, the daughter of Ada Boyce and William Cunningham, Schrems, Suzanne, "Cunningham, Agnes", Oklahoma Historical Society's Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture Blaine County, Oklahoma sharecropper, fiddler. Her father was a socialist and follower of Eugene Debs, socialist leader. As a child, she learned piano, accordion, and musical arrangement. She attended the Weatherford (Oklahoma) Teachers' College and then went on to the Commonwealth Labor College near Mena, Arkansas, where she studied labor organizing and Marxism. [Pietaro, 2004].


Later years

During most of their later lives, Cunningham and Friesen lived on West 98th Street in Manhattan,[Pietaro, 2004]. with her daughter Jane Friesen, grand daughter Ellie Thomas, and great grandson Nicholas Toth. Toward the end of their lives they wrote a "joint autobiography", Red Dust and Broadsides. Friesen died in 1996, Cunningham in 2004. [Pietaro, 2004].

Living octopus

Living octopus

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