Folk Scene

February 1977

"Broadside: The Struggle Continues" by Jim Capaldi

Protest songwriting and singing has had a long and glorious history in America. Songs were written against the British during the Revolutionary War 200 years ago; prior to the Civil War, the singing Hutchinson Family toured the country performing their own compositions in favor of the abolition of slavery. In this century we have seen Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers, all putting new words to old folk tunes to influence people; but perhaps the greatest manifestation of topical songwriting has taken place within the past fifteen years. It is no coincidence that for a similar period of time a modest little magazine named Broadside has been published, for Broadside has been the catalyst in this new wave of protest songs. A New York City couple, Agnes Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, have published the magazine since its inception in 1962;it is the purpose of this article to examine this couple, their lives and what led them to begin a topical song magazine.

Gordon Friesen is descended from Mennonites, a religious sect adhering to strict non—violence. He was born on March 3, 1909, in Weatherford, Oklahoma. Similar to Woody Guthrie’s Okemah, as described in Bound for Glory, Weatherford was one of the "drinkingest, yellingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist-fightingest, gamblingest" towns of the Old West. It was founded in August, 1898, when the tracks of the Rock Island Railroad reached the townsite. In the beginning, Main Street consisted of 24 saloons and one general store. The town received its name from William Weatherford, a soldier who fought on the side of the South in the Civil War and later became a Federal Deputy Marshall. Law and order was maintained by the barrel of a gun. In typical western style, Weatherford’s Colt .45 had 14 notches, which he mostly acquired when outlaws resisted his attempts to bring them to justice at the hands of Hanging Judge Issac Parker at Fort Smith, Arkansas. All four of Gordon’s grandparents migrated to Marion County, Kansas, in the summer of 1874. Later, several of the Friesens, including Gordon’s parents, homesteaded on land in Oklahoma taken from the Indian nations. When Gordon was just seven years old, his parents moved the family to Kansas; after a short while, an uncle moved them back to Oklahoma, in time for the Depression era and the Dust Bowl migration.

Most of the Friesen family made the "Grapes of Wrath" trek to California, which inspired some of Woody Guthrie’s best songs, but Gordon chose to remain in Oklahoma to pursue a career in journalism. He began writing feature articles for local newspapers and worked for a Midwest wire service; the only one of his books ever to be published, although he wrote several, was written in this period, in 1936. In the late Thirties, the Communist Party, which had led the fight for Social Security, Workman’s Compensation and various other reforms, had made some inroads in the country. In an act of vigilante terrorism, the FBI and local police raided the Communist Party bookstore in Oklahoma City, arrested six people, and began a mass book—burning in the town’s football stadium. Angered by the injustice of these events, Gordon Friesen wrote a series of letters to the Oklahoma Times, denouncing the raids as a breach of the right to freedom of speech guaranteed under the first amendment. On the basis of these letters, Bob Wood, the head of the Oklahoma branch of the Communist Party, asked him to become the chairman of the Oklahoma Political Prisoner’s Defense Committee. It was while serving in this capacity that he met Agnes Cunningham.

Agnes "Sis" Cunningham, two weeks older than Gordon, was born just 30 miles northeast of Weatherford, in Watonga; her parents had homesteaded on what had formerly been the Cheyenne-Arapaho Indian Reservation, as had the Friesens. One of five children, Sis was raised on a small farm which her father, a Socialist and a follower of Eugene Debs, struggled to maintain. They were faced with crop failures, hunger, illness, wind storms, fires and loss of livestock. Through all of these natural disasters, the family survived; but eventually the bankers foreclosed on the mortgage, driving the family from its home. Because her mother had been a school teacher for eight years, Sis decided that she would become one, too. She attended Teachers’ College in Weatherford (not yet knowing her future husband) for two years, supporting herself by working as a waitress.

After graduating and teaching school for four years, Sis felt a need for theoretical training in radical politics and enrolled in Commonwealth College, an unaccredited radical institution. Of this most influential period of her life, Sis was later to state, "Commonwealth taught me the most important thing in my life. It was there that I learned that my father was right, by God, and that the Socialist System remains the only means by which this great country will survive." While at Commonwealth Sis began writing songs, among which were: "How Can You Keep On Movin’ Unless You Migrate Too" (Ry Cooder heard this song on a New Lost City Ramblers album and recorded it. Unfortunately, he labeled the song "traditional," which meant that Sis was deprived of payment for her song.); most of the well-known verses to "There is Mean Things Happening in This Land" (written with her father’s help) by John Handoox; and a song called "Sundown," described by Pete Seeger as one of the best he’s ever heard.

Sis next became an organizer for the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, an organization which lobbied unsuccessfully to obtain government loans to enable sharecropping farmers to purchase their own land. During 1939 she helped organize and performed with a theatrical ensemble calling themselves the "Red Dust Players;" the troupe toured Oklahoma and the surrounding states, entertaining and educating the remainder of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and the newly formed Auto Workers’ Union. Late one evening, after dark, fascist vigilantes raided the homes of union officials and organizers in Oklahoma City in an attempt to halt union activity; fortunately, Sis and her family lived on the outskirts of the city and were overlooked. Not knowing what to expect next, she hid in the Oklahoma badlands for a short period. Upon returning to Oklahoma City, she met Gordon Friesen; they were married three months later.

It was at a benefit for migrant workers held in New York City in March, 1940, that Pete Seeger met Woody Guthrie for the first time; this meeting has been described by folklorist Alan Lomax as the single most important event in the entire folk music revival. Shortly afterward, Pete and Woody decided to travel to Oklahoma because Woody wanted to visit his wife and children. During this visit (on this trip Woody wrote "Union Maid" while attending a meeting with Bob Wood and others in a hall surrounded by thugs), they met up with Sis and Gordon and invited them to come to New York. A year later, the couple did move to New York City to obtain better medical attention for a heart condition that Gordon developed. Soon after their arrival they looked up Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, who invited them to stay at Almanac House and become part of the Almanac Singers, the legendary first urban folksinging group ever. The Almanacs consisted of Seeger, Guthrie, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Arthur Stern, Baldwin and Peter Hawes, Hess Lomax, Cisco Houston and occasionally Josh White and Burl Ives. Songwriting ideas flourished freely and most of the songs produced were group efforts. Sis can be heard on the Almanac album, Dear Mr. President, for which she wrote the song "Belt Line Girls" urging women to aid in war—time production at the start of World War II.

At the end of 1942, with most of the Almanacs either drafted or enlisting in the Armed Forces, the Friesens temporarily moved to Detroit and set up a branch of the Almanac Singers there. While in Detroit both worked in a war plant for a short time, and then Gordon became a reporter for the Detroit Times. They returned to New York in 1944 where Gordon worked for the Office of War Information and, shortly thereafter, was blacklisted. Their daughter Agnes was born in 1945, and in 1949 their second daughter, Jane, was born. During this difficult time, from 1945 on, because of the blacklist, Gordon was unable to hold a steady job, so he and Sis took turns working and caring for the little girls. Although Sis found occasional work singing, she mostly held low-paying secretarial jobs. Two of the songs that Sis wrote in this period were to achieve some popularity among the then miniscule audience for folk music: "Mister Congressman," written just after World War II, and the stirring "Fayette County," one of the earliest songs concerned with the Black struggle for equality.

The next important event in their lives was the beginning of Broadside. Pete Seeger, on a tour of England in 1961, had noticed that an abundance of new songs were being written there on social and political topics of the day, such as nuclear disarmament. He returned and began wondering why a similar revival in songwriting was not taking place in the United States. Some people he discussed the problem with believed that the McCarthy era of repression, along with the "silent generation" of college students of the Fifties, had stifled any songwriting on controversial topics; others felt that the songs were being written, but without a central forum for the exchange of ideas, the new songs could not be circulated. Pete talked to the great West Coast songwriter, Malvina Reynolds, and for a time she had thoughts of starting a magazine which would print new songs based in the folk idiom but concerned with current events. Later Malvina decided to concentrate on her own singing and songwriting career and the project was temporarily abandoned. Shortly afterward, Sis and Gordon decided to publish the magazine themselves; they called it Broadside, based on the centuries-old tradition in England of printing songs on sheets of paper and selling them on the streets for pennies. With financial support from Pete Seeger and others, the first mimeographed issue appeared in February, 1962. That first issue contained six songs, including one called "Talking John Birch" by a young, unknown fellow named Bob Dylan; it was the first Dylan song ever to appear in print anywhere.

Gil Turner was a performer and frequent emcee at Gerde’s Folk City; it was he who persuaded Dylan to visit the Broadside apartment to sing some of the new material he had been writing. John Hammond of Columbia Records had already recorded Bob’s first album, but the record contained only two originals, "Talkin’ New York" and "Song to Woody." Broadside provided a showcase for Dylan’s talent, and soon nearly every issue featured one or more of his new protest songs. "Blowin’ in the Wind" was in the magazine nearly a year before Peter, Paul and Mary recorded and made the song popular. In fact, almost every protest song Bob Dylan has written can be found in Broadside, from his earliest to more recent ones, such as "George Jackson," "Idiot Wind" and "Hurricane." As Moses Asch of Folkways had done with Woody Guthrie twenty years before, Gordon took clippings from the New York Times and gave them to Dylan to inspire new songs. One of the songs resulting from this method was one of Dylan’s best, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."

Phil Ochs, who died recently, was with Broadside almost from the start; the Friesens arranged to have him appear at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, an event which Phil credited with starting his career. Janis Ian arrived at the apartment at the age of thirteen, with her song, "Society’s Child," which was printed in the magazine. Gordon and Sis gave advice and encouragement to all who came Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Buffy Ste. Marie, Patrick Sky, Len Chandler, Mike Millius, Jimmy Collier, Peter LaFarge, Fred Kirkpatrick and countless others. While Broadside printed songs by these young songwriters, it also published the latest works of older, established writers, such as Pete Seeger, Malvina Reynolds, Lewis Allan and Ernie Marrs. The Friesens’ latest "discovery" is a young man from Georgia named Sammy Walker. Many feel that Sammy is better now than Dylan was 10 years ago at the start of his career. Phil Ochs produced Sammy’s first album on Folkways and obtained a contract for him with Warner Brothers.

In the beginning, Broadside was issued semi-monthly, then monthly, and then bimonthly. At the close of the Sixties, with the decline of interest in protest songs and politics in general, the magazine lost many subscribers and was forced to publish semi-annually for several years. However, they have recently begun printing quarterly; though it is by no means adequate to keep up with all of the new songs being written about fast—changing events, it is all the editors can afford at the present time. These days, they are supporting themselves mainly by selling complete sets of back issues of Broadside. Several years ago, Bob Dylan promised to do a benefit concert for them at Madison Square Garden; since the Friesens helped him at the start of his career, it would be appropriate for him to aid them now when they need support.

What of Broadside’s future? Gordon and Sis are not very optimistic; they say that unless some people come along to help with the work and support it financially, they aren’t certain how much longer they can continue. After all of their struggle and sacrifice, it would be tragic to see them forgotten by those whom they assisted over the years and those who sing the songs that have appeared in Broadside. Discouraged as they may now be, one thing is certain they will continue the struggle. If they have demonstrated one thing over the years, it is their faith in humanity and the durability of the radical movement. Gordon Friesen and Sis Cunningham know that a better world is coming, and therein lies their strength.

 

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