Friday, 30 October 2009

Red Dust and Broadsides: A Joint Autobiography

By Agnes "Sis" Cunningham and Gordon Friesen

Edited by Ronald D. Cohen

Foreword by Pete Seeger

Perhaps best known for Broadside, the influential magazine they founded in 1962, Agnes "Sis" Cunningham and Gordon Friesen have long been renowned figures on the American left. In this book, these two dedicated social activists - Sis the folk musician and Gordon the radical journalist - offer a spirited account of their personal and political odyssey. The story is illustrated with numerous photographs and drawings.

Born into poverty in rural Oklahoma, further shaped by the hardships of the "dustbowl" Depression years, Sis and Gordon were already committed to radical causes when they met and married in 1941. A short time later they moved to New York City, where they befriended Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Sis joined the folk protest group the Almanac Singers, and Gordon continued his work as a journalist.

Although blacklisted for their political views during the McCarthy era, Sis and Gordon persevered and eventually launched Broadside, which they continued to produce for almost twenty years. The magazine was instrumental in promoting the careers of many singer-songwriters, publicing the first works of such artists as Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, Phil Ochs, Buffy Sinate-Marie, and Tom Paxton, as well as the works of more established figures, including Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger. Indeed, Broadside helped give 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.


By the fall Phil Ochs became a contributor, and throughout most of 1963 we hardly put out an issue that didn't contain one or two Ochs songs.


Phil Ochs started coming within a few months and continued to come long after we discontinued the monthly meetings. He always visited us when in New York after his move to California; he still put his songs on tape for us, and Gordon and I taped long interviews with him, which we transcribed and printed in Broadside. We later recorded some of the conversations on L-P albums through Folkways Records. He spent a lot of time with us during the summer and into the winter of 1975, talking hour after hour about being under surveillance of the FBI. Phil was quite ill, so we taped none of this. But later we confirmed what he said by sending to the Freedom of Information Act for a report on him and receiving over four hundred pages.

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