Sis Cunningham: 1909-2004




Agnes
Cunningham was born in Blain County, Oklahoma in 1909. She described
her father, Chick, as a champion fiddler and a “Debs Socialist.”
As a child of poverty, she watched the erosion of the soil expand
into the erosion of the sharecropper community she lived in. Sis,
as she came to be known, also watched the mounting greed of the
privileged class, banks, and corporations as they claimed the land
that had been cared for by poor hands for generations.  


A
musician since childhood, Sis regularly performed with her father.
She quickly demonstrated her skill as a pianist, accordionist, and
arranger. It was rare to have a trained musician in such circles
and she soon became a music teacher. During the Great Depression,
Sis went to nearby Teachers College and then to Arkansas’s
renowned Commonwealth Labor College, where she studied labor organizing
and Marxism. For the first time, Sis was surrounded by outspoken
people who fought for the rights of workers and the dream of a socialist
U.S. In order to help pay her tuition, Sis taught music and directed
many college theatrical productions. It was from these agit-prop
performances that Sis came to understand the power of the arts as
a force for unity and expression. 


In
1937, Sis took a job as the music teacher at the Southern Labor
School for Women in North Carolina. She brought to these students
much of the militancy she had developed from hard times in Oklahoma
and her experiences at the Labor College. Most of the women she
taught were factory workers, largely from a share cropping background.
Much of the music she presented was adapted hymns, country tunes,
and soft ballads infused with relevant, timely lyrics about their
own struggles. In addition to originals, there were union standards
such as “We Shall Not Be Moved” by John Handcox, “Solidarity
Forever” by Ralph Chaplin, and much of Joe Hill’s repertoire. 


There
were also songs like “In Praise of Learning” by Bertolt
Brecht and Hanns Eisler. Like all their works, this piece from their
production of

The Mother

proclaimed the people’s struggles
through its lyrics, dark harmonies, and modernist melodies. Some
60 years later, Sis told of her experience bringing Brecht and Eisler
to U.S. workers: “First I taught the melody to a chosen chorus
of ten or twelve of my most eager singers. Then I arranged the piece
for three parts and it became one of the school’s specialties
when performed by three young women with beautiful, natural voices—totally
untrained. To teach the music of ‘In Praise of Learning’
to those girls who had previously had no chance to participate in
something so inspiring—this I have remembered through the years
with a feeling of elation” (interview with Sis Cunningham,
July 1998). 


In
the early 1940s, Sis was a founding member of the Red Dust Players,
a traveling agit-prop group that made a strong impact with workers
around Oklahoma and the rest of the southwest. They strung together
classic street theater with group singing and discussion—a
kind of drama therapy for the dispossessed. Yet, so strong was their
message and their attempts to strengthen the radical Southern Tenant
Farmers Union that the forces of reaction did their best to destroy
the group. During this particular “red scare,” both overt
and covert harassment became the rule of the day; members of the
group had homes broken into, files ransacked, property destroyed,
and families’ lives threatened. Uniformed deputy sheriffs blurred
into hooded Klans- people as oppression morphed into grave danger.
Understandably, the group broke up under the pressure and the members
disbursed. Shortly thereafter, Sis and writer Gordon Friesen, soon
to become her husband, left the state that no longer welcomed them. 






In
New York City, Sis and Gor- don immediately sought out Almanac House,
the Greenwich Village home Pete Seeger shared with other members
of the Almanac Singers. With hindsight, the Almanacs were the super-group
of protest songs. Its original line-up of Seeger, Millard Lampell,
and Lee Hays had already been expanded to include Woody Guthrie
when Sis joined them. Credited as being the first of the urban left-wing
folk groups, the Almanacs were unflinching in their radicalism.
Closely associated with the Communist Party, the group sang of militant
unionism and lasting peace at a time when the country was on the
verge of world war and a no-strike pledge led by the American Federation
of Labor. Later, the Almanacs, too, would join the war effort, incorporating
music of the battle against fascism alongside songs of the common
person (their “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave” is
the best example). Still, as the war pressed on it was not long
before the right-wing media exposed their activism and earlier anti-war
music. Dubbed as “reds” by the same reviewers who once
praised them as original American voices, the Almanacs became victims
of a pre-blacklist blacklist and they disbanded. 


Leaving
New York to follow the expanse of unionism in Detroit, Sis led a
midwest offshoot of the group for a time. She took a job in a war
plant, moving from membership in NYC’s Local 802 of the American
Federation of Musicians to Detroit’s United Auto Workers. Even
a post-war return to New York would not relieve her of this self-described
period of “silence.”  


By
1945, Friesen became one of the earliest victims of the official
blacklist. He could not secure work as a journalist and bookings
for Sis, even via Seeger’s post-war People’s Songs organization,
were scarce. Money was drastically tight. Memories of a childhood
filled with poverty haunted her. Succumbing to personal demons of
anxiety and depression that had always dogged her, Sis could no
longer sing (“I no longer suffered from the lost music; I had
blocked it out. I could no longer deal with it, so it was not there,”
she wrote many years later). 


Sis
reemerged with the folk revival of the early 1960s. In 1962, with
Seeger acting as mentor and financier, she created

Broadside

magazine. Through this vehicle, Sis and Gordon (and their daughters)
gave to the world such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Janis
Ian, Tom Paxton, the Freedom Singers, Buffy St. Marie, Len Chandler,
and many more.

Broadside

also trumpeted the works of Malvina
Reynolds and the lost history of protest song.

Broadside

first published “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Little
Boxes.” It gave a voice to Phil Ochs’s philosophical editorials
and the growing movements for Civil Rights and against the Vietnam
War. 



Broadside

remained a vital part of the folk revival and survived long enough
to see the passage of the Voting Rights Act, campus activism and
street demonstrations, the disgrace of Nixon, the explosion of women’s
rights, conservation, gay liberation and Black Power movements,
and the last embers of the war. It kept a lower profile as the music’s
popularity diminished, but grew again, briefly, along with a new
generation of folk singers. As the magazine dwindled due to a lack
of funding, Sis released two songbooks, mostly dealing with issues
of corporate greed and the right-wing oppression of Reagan’s
administration. It was easy, even for a tired older militant, to
become angry again and Sis did. There were not a great many performances
after this, but she was always there, always a part of the heritage
of the cultural worker. In more recent years, Sis grew weary with
illness and age. Always happy to meet with fans and younger musicians
of conscience, Sis Cunningham ultimately had to leave her long-term
home on Manhattan’s upper west side for a re-hab community
upstate. 


Sis
finally transitioned out of this life on Sunday June 27, 2004. She
must surely be once again leading choirs, playing her accordion,
and singing the organizing songs of old. If you listen carefully,
you can probably hear the faint echoes of “Round and Round
Hitler’s Grave” along the saddened strip of West 98th
Street.


 





John Pietaro
is a protest singer, labor organizer, and writer from Brooklyn, New
York.