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
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.
[This obituary is reproduced by courtesy of the