SoundCloud Broadside Balladeer Vic

Friday, January 27, 2017

Red Dust and Broadsides: A Joint Autobiography by the Editors of Broadside Magazine

Country Joe McDonald surprised me one day when we were organizing an event in 2015 that he dreamed up called The Berkeley Protest Festival. He handed me a book titled "Red Dust and Broadsides", saying, "I think you will be very interested in reading this book since you mentioned that you knew these folks from Broadside Magazine". Joe said the book was edited by his friend Ron Cohen. 

Cover of "Red Dust & Broadsides: A Joint Biography by Agnes "Sis" Cunningham & Gordon Friesen". Edited by Ronald D. Cohen. Forward by Pete Seeger.

I was somewhat shocked since I had come to know them very well. I had volunteered to help them in the 1980's when they were already getting on in years. I had been reading Broadside Magazine and learning my first songs from its pages many years before I met them. They liked that I had met Phil Ochs, put him up in my apartment, and interviewed him in May 1973 while living in Washington, DC and doing social work in the school system. They published my tribute to Phil titled "Broadside Balladeer", and several other songs. My brother Joe Sadot also had several song published in the pages of Broadside.. 

"Red Dust and Broadsides" was indeed a fascinating read. "Ronald D. Cohen, professor of history at Indiana University Northwest-Gary, 1970-2005, wrote and edited numerous books and articles, many about American folk music, and co-produced compilations of folk and topical songs." is the description for one of his collections. His books about Woody Guthrie and "Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival", which he wrote with Stephen Petrus, are much better known by comparison.

Sis & Gordon

There is so much in this "Red Dust and Broadsides" book that I never knew about these two activists who met each other in Oklahoma where they had grown up on farms, where they later joined the labor movement and the then-idealistic Communist Party USA. They were the only people willing to organize the most downtrodden farmers, the sharecroppers. In addition to many stories about their childhood days, their love story is weaved into the telling of their tales. They not only met Woody Guthrie, but Sis Cunningham and Pete Seeger were in a band called The Almanac Singers with him before the more famous Weavers band came into existence and Woody was hospitalized. The other members of The Almanac Singers were Millard Lampell, Bess Hawes, and Arthur Stern. Gordon was the roadie who carried Sis's heavy accordion and did much of the booking and security for them in those early days with Woody.

The chapter titles give a good idea of how Ron Cohen approached the gathering of the information: Chapter 1: Gordon's Childhood; Chapter 2: Sis's Childhood; Chapter 3: Gordon in Kansas; Chapter 4: Sis: Youth & Politics; Chapter 5: Gordon in the 1930's; Chapter 6: Sis in the 1930's; Chapter 7: Gordon - The Almanac Singers and After; Chapter 8: Sis and Gordon following World War II; Chapter 9: The Broadside Years; Epilogue: Growing Old in New York; Appendix: "Oklahoma Witch Hunt" an engaging early piece of writing by Gordon; Afteward by Ron Cohen. 

The story of "Broadside: The National Topical Song Magazine" is true Americana as Sis and Gordon told Ron Cohen about how they met singers like Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Malvina Reynolds, Len Chandler, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Janis Ian, Patrick Sky, Julius Lester, Peter LaFarge, Nina Simone, Joe McDonald, Peter Krug, Sammy Walker, and hundreds of lesser known folk singers had their songs published in the pages of Broadside. "Sing Out! Magazine" took on the project of preserving "Broadside Magazine". They may need some volunteer help to complete that project. At this time, only the early issues are accessible in the collection. It was a labor of love involving a small community and their daughters were actively involved as well. Aggie contributed hundreds cool drawings and Jane had a major role in organizing and distributing the issues. Phil Ochs would come back to the apartment late at night from Greenwich Village with his pockets full of dollars and change from hawking the latest issues in the clubs. They loved Phil like he was family!
 Phil Ochs May 1973 Interview by Vic Sadot & Rich Lang

A very young Phil Ochs in Broadside #36 in a screenshot from the video I made from the May 1973 audio of the radio interview I did with Phil along with Jeff Lang and Skip Pizzi at WGTB Georgetown University student radio station. Click on the screenshot photo to watch it! "Phil Ochs May 1973 Interview by Vic Sadot & Rich Lang" (30:10) Truth Troubadour YouTube Channel. Phil talks about Nixon, Watergate developments, the TV show he was on the day before, and his travels in South America.

And the singers they liked sang about the Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam, labor and union struggles, Martin Luther King, Watergate, the dust bowl and depression era, poverty, farmers,  blacklist, strikes, and environmental concerns. They were close to Moses "Moe" Asch, the owner of Folkways Records, and were able to release a number of LP's full of protest songs. There are many historic moments which have become somewhat obscure in the public memory, but they most certainly come alive in Red Dust and Broadsides. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves political songs and social justice movements. 

One thing I did not realize was how important the financial support of Pete Seeger was to Broadside Magazine over the years. I remember visiting from Delaware one weekend and they said, "You can stay in the room Phil used to stay in". The Pete Seeger knocks on the door and walks in to sit down and play some songs. That was simply incredible and unexpected. I backed Sis on guitar sometimes, but usually she played piano or accordion.  I will close out this book review with a song that I wrote about Sis and Gordon that was actually published in Broadside #167 called "Comrades". It was never recorded, but it should be... So long old friends! It's been good to know you!

From the hills of Oklahoma like that “Dustbowl Balladeer”
To the heart of New York City and the songs you helped us hear
When you founded “Broadside” magazine, and you published certain songs
Of issues and of struggles, of social rights and wrongs
So here’s to you, you good ol’ comrades!
Yes, here’s to you, you good ol’ comrades!

Too many don’t remember what they put our people through
When the “Great Depression” hit so hard and the Dusbowl blizzards blew
All the heartbreak and the hunger those poor people had to stand
Family farmers became wanderers when bankers stole their land
So here’s to you, you good ol’ comrades!
Yes, here’s to you, you good ol’ comrades!

Well, you sang with Pete and Woody when the union movement rose
Did some time in Detroit city where the factory whisle blows
You wrote and sang and organized, and I guess that’s how it goes
Though you gave all that you could, now nearly no one knows
So here’s to you, you good ol’ comrades!
Yes, here’s to you, you good ol’ comrades!

On Civil Rights and Vietnam the songs kept comin’ thru
On Women’s Liberation, Third World revolution too
You kept a real consistency of solidarity
And you set a fine example for those who would be free
So here’s to you, you good ol’ comrades!
Yes, here’s to you, you good ol’ comrades!

Yes, you always stood for struggles that united black and white
Cause you knew that ultimately it’s the same class conscious fight
Once your forum featured Dylan, Ochs and Paxton too
And many more a troubadour who wrote a ballad true
So here’s to you, you good ol’ comrades!
Yes, here’s to you, you good ol’ comrades!

You put your faith in working folks, not in some god above
And it’s clear your motivation was that freedom song of love
Yet you had no use for sentiment with no analysis
For the years of vital relevance, thank you Gordon and Sis
So here’s to you, you good ol’ comrades!
Yes, here’s to you, you good ol’ comrades!

Copyright March 20, 1985 Vic Sadot, BMI, Orbian Love Music

No comments:

Post a Comment