Agnes Cunningham

Antiwar songs by Agnes Cunningham

Agnes "Sis" Cunningham, a founder of the influential folk-song journal Broadside, died on Sunday, June 27, at a nursing home in New Paltz, N.Y. She was 95.

Born to a poor farming family in Watonga, Oklahoma, she married Gordon Friesen, another Oklahoman, in 1941. Both had been shaped by their early years of living through the Depression in the "dustbowl" of Oklahoma. They came to New York soon after they married and moved into the communal Almanac House in Greenwich Village with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and others. Cunningham joined the Almanac Singers and performed on their 1942 album, Dear Mr. President.

Although blacklisted for their political views during the McCarthy era, they remained staunch leftists. Cunningham and Friesen started publishing Broadside in 1962. During its 26-year run, Broadside published more than 1,000 topical songs. It was instrumental in promoting the careers of many singer-songwriters, publishing the works of such artists as Bob Dylan ("Blowin’ in the Wind"), Phil Ochs ("I Ain’t Marching Anymore"), Janis Ian, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Tom Paxton. Cunningham and Friesen invited musicians from the New York folk scene to their apartment in the Frederick Douglass housing project on West 104th Street in Manhattan to perform their newest songs into a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Cunningham, the musician, transcribed the chords and lyrics to songs from the tape recordings. Mr. Friesen, a journalist, wrote the commentaries. (Early issues were printed on a mimeograph machine once owned by the American Labor Party. Since it was illegal to run a business in their housing project, they smuggled copies out the door in a baby carriage.)

Though its circulation never reached higher than four figures, it lasted for 187 issues. Broadside gave birth to a musical revival that energized the country and forged a vital link between the folk music of the 1930s and 1940s and the urban folk revivalists of the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1997 Cunningham donated the Broadside collection to the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Library (For further information on the collection: www.lib.unc.edu/mss/sfc1). In 2000, the SFC made the collection available to the Smithsonian Folkways label who produced a five-CD boxed set, The Best of Broadside, 1962-1988.

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