Agnes Cunningham

Co-founder of the folk magazine 'Broadside'
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The Independent Online

Small magazines can have an impact out of all proportion to their print run or market penetration, because people feast on and are inspired by the ideas contained in them. That was nowhere better illustrated than in the case of Agnes Cunningham and the folk magazine, Broadside, that she ran in New York with her husband, Gordon Friesen. Broadside may have been state-of-the-art Roneo primitive for much of its life, but it shaped people's consciousnesses on both sides of the Atlantic through the two-way exchange of song.

Agnes Cunningham, social and political activist, musician, publisher and songwriter: born Watonga, Oklahoma 19 February 1909; married 1941 Gordon Friesen (died 1996); died New Paltz, New York 27 June 2004.

Small magazines can have an impact out of all proportion to their print run or market penetration, because people feast on and are inspired by the ideas contained in them. That was nowhere better illustrated than in the case of Agnes Cunningham and the folk magazine, Broadside, that she ran in New York with her husband, Gordon Friesen. Broadside may have been state-of-the-art Roneo primitive for much of its life, but it shaped people's consciousnesses on both sides of the Atlantic through the two-way exchange of song.

It did not matter that, in London, only habitués of Collet's folk emporium were aware of Broadside's existence between 1962 and 1988, let alone its importance and impact. By championing songs of social justice and social conscience such as Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind", Janis Ian's "Baby I've Been Thinking", Peter La Farge's "The Ballad of Ira Hayes", Phil Ochs's "Changes", Thom Parrott's "The Aberfan Coal Tip Tragedy", Malvina Reynolds's "Little Boxes", Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Welcome, Welcome Emigrante", Pete Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" and Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam", Broadside incited and ignited. Many of those songs are such standards now that it is easy to forget the courage it took to publish them back in those days.

One of five children (her elder brother gave her the nickname "Sis"), Cunningham grew up about 30 miles from Weatherfield, Oklahoma, birthplace of Gordon Friesen, two weeks her junior, whom she would marry in 1941. The story of their early lives and political activism is told wondrously in their "joint biography" Red Dust and Broadsides (1999). Initially she intended to become a teacher, beginning studies at Commonwealth College at Mena, Arkansas, in the summer of 1931, and indeed did teach in schools for a while.

Concurrently she was building on her family's socialist and union background and belief in organising politically. At Commonwealth College, she sought expression through song, penning a song called "How Can You Keep Movin' " that entered the post-war folk consciousness through the New Lost City Ramblers and Ry Cooder, though it took her years to assert her authorship.

By 1939 she was performing with the punningly named Red Dust Players. "We talked it over one evening," she wrote,

recalling that Oklahoma was dubbed in some history books the "little red island of the West" (a lot of the soil was red, and the area had been bypassed by very early settlers because it was Indian territory, hence the term " island"). And there was the dust.

All she missed out in that description was the colour's other association. By the following year the couple had met Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in Oklahoma and the meeting set in train events that led to them making the step of moving to New York and moving into Almanac House, the home of the Almanac Singers, formed in late 1940 and the first urban folk-singing group of any stature that the United States produced.

The Almanac alumnus Mill Lampell described Sis Cunningham as "an angular, square-jawed woman who played the accordion and had a singing voice as sharp as the wind whipping across the flatland". By late 1942, the Almanacs had been broken up by the draft and the Friesens decamped to Detroit where they launched a satellite Almanacs and lived until 1944.

Then, back in New York, they were perfectly placed to encourage a new generation of songwriters through the magazine that they started publishing. As far as aural testimonies go, Smithsonian Folkways' five-CD The Best of Broadside 1962-1988 (2000) tells the story of how, and of whom they championed from their apartment on West 104th Street.

To conclude on a domestic note, amongst the people whose careers they assisted (and vice versa) were British or British-based songwriters such as John Brunner, Alex Comfort, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, Matt McGinn, Vanessa Redgrave and Leon Rosselson. Some went on to fame of other sorts, but Sis Cunningham made her mark through songs.

Ken Hunt



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