Agnes “Sis” Cunningham: 1909 to 2004
Chances are that anyone reading this magazine was touched by the life and work of Sis Cunningham, who died on June 27 in a Brooklyn nursing home. I was: Broadside, the magazine she and her husband Gordon Friesen (who died in 1996) published out of their New York apartment, printed my first pieces.
Of course, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Len Chandler and Malvina Reynolds, among others, could say the same thing. I wrote prose, but their contributions were songs, which Sis and Gordon transcribed and printed in their funky mimeographed magazine and distributed nationwide at the height of the folk boom. Other magazines concentrated on traditional music, but Broadside was all topical songs, all the time.
What I wasn’t aware of until their co-autobiography, Red Dust And Broadsides, came out a couple of years ago, was that Sis had quite a history. Raised in the Oklahoma dust bowl by a father who had come to socialism through contemplating his own failure to make a living farming, she became radicalized at Commonwealth College in Arkansas, one of the worker’s colleges that had sprung up in the aftermath of World War I.
Getting a job with the WPA’s Cultural Division in Oklahoma City, she joined an agitprop theater group, the Red Dust Players, who performed in hard-hit rural areas all over the state during the Depression. Among other things, she was the orchestra; if there was a piano in the hall, she played it. Otherwise, her trusty accordion would do. She wrote songs based on the day’s headlines, most of which were predictably forgettable, but one of which — “How Can You Keep On Moving Unless You Migrate, Too?” — was recorded by the New Lost City Ramblers and Ry Cooder.
Fleeing a red scare in Oklahoma after the troupe disbanded, Sis and Gordon settled in New York, living in Almanac House on West 10th Street, where a young Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, along with Millard Lampell, Bess Hawes Lomax and others, had a folk-singing group, the Almanac Singers. Although she wasn’t one of their featured members, she contributed songs.
In February 1962, the first issue of Broadside came out. With the financial help of Pete and Toshi Seeger, the good fortune to attract young Bob Dylan, and the insatiable thirst of the day’s folkies for good topical songs, the magazine played a key role in the folk scene, even if it was never a cash cow.
Sadly, Sis and Gordon’s politics were doctrinaire Communism, so when things loosened up, they didn’t bend. They continued to live in poverty in subsidized housing in poor health until the end, under-recognized but committed. With Sis gone, an era has passed.