The Ballad of Sis Cunningham

by Richard Higgs

01/12/2017

In late May 1940, Woody Guthrie was riding high in New York City. Although Guthrie had already made a name for himself in California, he was still relatively unknown on the East Coast. Back in March, he performed at a musical celebration of the just-released film version of The Grapes of Wrath. Folk music archivist Alan Lomax attended the event and was starstruck. Guthrie embodied the working class hero he and other East Coast liberals imagined. Within weeks, with Lomax’s help, Guthrie recorded Dust Bowl Ballads for RCA Victor and was featured on a coast-to-coast broadcast over CBS radio. He bought a new Plymouth with his advance from Victor. Once he got paid by CBS, he drove to Washington, D.C., and picked up Pete Seeger, who was working for the Library of Congress. They drove together through the South on their way to visit Woody’s wife and children in Pampa, Texas.

When they got to Oklahoma City, sometime in the first week of June 1940, Guthrie and Seeger paid a visit to the Progressive Bookstore, upstairs at 129 West Grand Avenue. Bob and Ina Wood ran the store, which was well stocked with left-leaning political literature and consequently a hangout for Oklahoma socialists and communists. Guthrie and Seeger stayed a night or two at the Woods’ home.

“Gave me as good a feeling as I ever got from being around anybody in my whole life,” Guthrie later wrote of the Woods. “They made me see why I had to keep going around and around with my guitar making up songs and singing.” While they were in town, Ina pressed Guthrie and Seeger into performing for the desperate families of Community Camp.

While in Oklahoma City, Guthrie and Seeger met Sis Cunningham, a young woman whose lasting influence on generations of American protest music would be as profound as their own. Her real name was Agnes, but everyone called her Sis. Like Guthrie, Sis was born and raised in Oklahoma.

Cunningham and Guthrie may have first performed together that evening in 1940, at Community Camp, although neither of them said so in their memoirs. Guthrie remembered the performance in a notebook he kept: “Sung on the banks of the Canadian River to a bunch of kids. Best audience ever.”

During this same visit, Guthrie wrote “Union Maid,” which remains one of his most popular, enduring labor songs. Guthrie’s biographer Joe Klein quotes Guthrie as saying he was inspired by the story of a Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) organizer who was “stripped naked and beat up, and then hung from the rafters of a house till she was unconscious.”

Cunningham recalled a similar incident in her autobiography, Red Dust and Broadsides. In 1936, two Arkansas Southern Tenant Farmers Union organizers, Claude Williams and Willie Sue Blagden, had been “stopped on their way to a meeting by a group of planters and hired thugs, dragged into the bushes, and beaten.” Blagden’s beating—she was spanked with a studded leather strap—caused a sensation in the national press, while countless other similar incidents had gone unnoticed. Cunningham knew Williams and Blagden personally, having met them while she was attending Commonwealth Labor College.

“Welts on the behind of a white woman—this was a story,” Cunningham wrote, adding, “…the regular press gave no publicity at all to the case of Eliza Nolden, a black woman who was beaten to death by the same thugs who had delivered the blows to Willie Sue.” Both incidents had occurred in Earle, Arkansas. That same year, Earle’s City Marshal Paul Preacher became the first person to be tried and convicted of holding slaves in the 70 years since Congress had made slavery illegal.

Sis inherited a talent for music from her father, William “Chick” Cunningham, who was an in-demand country fiddler at dances around Watonga, Oklahoma. Her first job, after a few semesters at Weatherford State Teacher’s College, involved teaching music in rural western Oklahoma high schools.

Sis’s political viewpoints echoed those of her father, a socialist-leaning farmer. Although they were country poor, the Cunninghams weren’t tenant farmers. They had their own place outside Watonga. Like all small farmers, their fortunes rose and fell with the weather, and the politics of the day. One thing that remained steadfast was Chick’s admiration for Eugene V. Debs, the fiery labor organizer and perennial presidential candidate (Debs ran his final presidential campaign from a federal prison cell).

In 1931, under the wing of her older brother, William, Sis enrolled at Commonwealth Labor College, an experimental socialist institution secluded in the hills between Mena, Arkansas, and the Oklahoma border. William was on staff there. Between classes he worked on his novel The Green Corn Rebellion. He based the novel on an armed rebellion of southeast Oklahoma tenant farmers that had occurred in 1917 to protest the new conscription law, enacted on the eve of America’s entry into World War I. Although Sis was a student at Commonwealth, she was soon leading everyone in song, playing newly minted worker’s anthems on piano and accordion.

After leaving Commonwealth in 1932, Sis returned to Oklahoma a committed activist for the hungry and dispossessed as the Great Depression tightened its grip on her home state. Here is how she remembered her work as a volunteer for one of FDR’s alphabet soup agencies, the Veterans of Industry of America (VIA):

We built a huge chapter of the VIA… we had everybody in there together—STFU folks, Farmers’ Union folks, all ages and colors—meeting in the county courthouse once a week and packing the place with lots of music and singing between the speeches. Even the vestibule outside the courtroom was filled with people standing, listening, eager to get a look inside. The kids worked on skits… our delegation provided the music, led the singing, and performed dramatic sketches on the tragedy of workers without jobs, farmers without land, old folks without pensions or anything to live on.

In 1936, she became a volunteer organizer in Oklahoma for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. In the summer of 1937, she traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, to teach music at the Southern Summer School for Women Workers. When the summer session ended, she rode along with other participants to Washington, D.C., to picket with “unemployed hunger marchers,” then on to New York City for a couple of months. The Spanish Civil War was raging, and once Sis learned about it during her time in New York, she began to understand the workers’ struggle as an international struggle against fascism. Back in Oklahoma, in 1939, she formed the agitprop theater group The Red Dust Players, playing accordion and singing protest songs in union halls, migrant camps, and Southern Tenant Farmers Union meetings throughout the state. By the end of 1940, during the infamous Oklahoma City book trials, Sis had gone into hiding, and the Players had disbanded.

“Community Camp” sounds a bit like a fun, family-friendly weekend organized by the local YMCA. It was, in fact, a stubborn hangover from the Great Depression; a shantytown of dispossessed Oklahoma tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and other economic refugees. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers had been hanging from the bottom rung of the economic ladder for generations. In the Roaring Twenties, well-healed bourgeois urbanites reacted with relief as much as sympathy to rumors of desperation and hunger in the countryside—relief of the “if not for the grace of God” variety. When the economy collapsed in 1929, the country poor found themselves in free fall, under the weight of those falling from above them. Forced off the land by economic collapse, desperate families migrated to cities, where their plight became suddenly visible to urban dwellers.

In Oklahoma City, along a smelly stretch of the North Canadian River between Pennsylvania and Blackwelder Avenues, near the city dump and the National Stockyards, they housed themselves in tents and frail shacks of scavenged lumber, scrap tin, and tarpaper. By 1931, the camp had already accrued nearly 600 desperate Oklahoma families and swollen to cover 65 acres. Cunningham remembers Community Camp years later in her autobiography:

It was the worst of the Hoovervilles I’d seen. It… was estimated to have had three thousand people living—or existing—in it. Even the word existing isn’t right, because one begins to think of how many folks, especially kids, found these foul camps a place not to exist, but to exit from. Death came calling every day, and there’d be a funeral, usually a double or triple one, in a hovel called the church house. Rent was extracted for the ground the folks built their hovels on, and there was only one water tap for the whole camp.

The novelist and journalist Gordon Friesen described it this way in his pamphlet about the book trials, Oklahoma Witch Hunt:

In the shadow of Oklahoma City’s skyscrapers lies Community Camp, the worst human scrapheap of its kind. Its 3,000-odd inhabitants, living under rusty scraps of tin, in disease-infested filth, forced to carry their water from one common drinking tap, and forced to pay rent for this misery…

Had capitalism failed those folks, or had they failed capitalism? The city fathers seem to have concluded the latter. In 1932, to manage the squalor, and keep an eye on any political agitators that might be lurking there, the city took possession of the camp. The city then began charging the families rent at either one dollar or eight hours of labor per month, as a way, it seems, to redeem themselves for their failures.

On June 9, 1940, a few days after Guthrie and Seeger had departed Oklahoma City for Pampa, 10 young men disrupted a meeting of the Oklahoma Communist Party at the Woods’ Progressive Bookstore. The men began shouting down the speaker and pulling down books and pamphlets off the bookshelves into piles on the floor. The ruckus was a dark omen.

Guthrie returned to Oklahoma City from Pampa on June 13, on his way to back New York City. Seeger had parted ways with Guthrie and continued to make his way west from Pampa to California. Guthrie picked up Bob Wood and several other members of the Oklahoma Communist Party, and drove them to New York City to attend a Communist Party convention. When asked if he was a communist, Guthrie liked to say, “I ain’t a communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life,” as a way of avoiding a direct answer. In this instance, however, he couldn’t deny that he was, literally, a fellow-traveler. When they got to New York City, Guthrie gave his new car to Wood so he and the others would have a way back to Oklahoma. And that is how—in the words of Woody Guthrie biographer Joe Klein—Woody Guthrie’s Plymouth became “the official car of the Oklahoma Communist Party for several years after that.”

One day, before Bob had returned from New York, and while Ina was alone at the store, the same group of men returned who had disrupted the meeting on June 9. When Ina tried to block their entrance to the store by standing at the head of the stairs and gripping the rails, they forced their way past her, knocking her down, and went on a rampage. They pulled her books off the shelves, they ripped books apart, tossing the shreds onto the floor, and they stuffed hundreds of books into sacks and carried them off. Ina reported the attack to the Oklahoma City Police, but nothing was done.

The Reverend Doctor Edward Frederick Webber, a Pentecostal preacher, hosted a fire-and-brimstone radio program three mornings each week from the studio of Oklahoma City’s KTOK. If there was anything he hated worse than the devil, it was a communist. His program was so popular it was syndicated to 10 other stations in the region, giving him an estimated audience of two million listeners. A few days after the men had ransacked the Progressive Bookstore, Webber invited his listeners to attend a public burning of communist literature in the stadium of his Calvary Tabernacle. (He didn’t say how the material had come into his possession.) As he set fire to the books and pamphlets a few nights later, he led several hundred attendees in a chorus of “America the Beautiful.” The reverend’s book burning occurred seven years after the infamous Nazi book burnings that had taken place between May 10 and June 21, 1933, in cities throughout Germany. Friesen, in his pamphlet Oklahoma Witch Hunt, claimed that 31 copies of the U.S. Constitution were among the documents that Webber burned.

During the next few weeks, Oklahoma City’s war on Communism ratcheted up. On July 1, a local FBI agent reported that city authorities were investigating a plot by the Woods and others to overthrow the city’s government. One has to wonder what the authorities imagined Bob and Ina Wood had planned for the city once they had completed their overthrow. Several days later, the Daily Oklahoman urged authorities to ignore the bleating of civil libertarians and punish those who violated Oklahoma’s anti-syndicalism law.

On July 24, an undercover detective from the city police department visited the Progressive Bookstore. After browsing for about 30 minutes, the detective left with copies of the Daily Worker and a handful of communist pamphlets, for which he paid Bob Wood 55 cents.

Not quite a month later, on August 17, the Oklahoma City Police raided the bookstore, the Communist Party office, and several homes. About a dozen people were in the store. They were all placed under arrest, along with whoever they found at the other locations. Sis Cunningham wasn’t among the detainees. Sixteen-year-old Wilma Lewis, who had been left standing on an Oklahoma City sidewalk when her father, mother, and brother were arrested in her presence and hauled away, made her way to Sis’s home to hide from the police.

Sis grew worried for her own safety. She arranged for another friend to shelter Wilma, and then went into hiding herself. Her fear was well founded. The authorities, apparently unaware that the Cunninghams had recently moved, showed up in Watonga, looking for Sis. An uncle of hers became so annoyed at the agents that he threatened to become a communist himself if they didn’t stop asking him questions.

The raids took place under the pretext of a search warrant claiming that the bookstore was in the business of selling illegal liquor. The warrant had a penciled-in addendum authorizing police to also search for any evidence of criminal syndicalism, including books, records, papers, and other printed materials. Although the police didn’t find any liquor, they arrested everyone under Oklahoma’s criminal syndicalism statute. The law had been enacted in 1919 to suppress the sometimes violent union organizing efforts of the International Workers of the World (popularly known as the Wobblies), and other labor organizations. The law, still on the books, makes it a felony in Oklahoma to advocate crime, physical violence, arson, destruction of property, sabotage, or other unlawful acts or methods, as a means of accomplishing or effecting industrial or political ends, or as a means of effecting industrial or political revolution, or for profit.

Simply owning books that advocated communist revolution was enough to make the Woods and others guilty of the felony, according to Assistant County Attorney John Eberle. The trials of Bob and Ina Wood and the others continued through the fall of 1940 and into the summer of 1941.

That same summer, during a secret convention of the Oklahoma State Communist Party on the grassy bank of the North Canadian River, Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen fell in love. She and Gordon were both 32 years old. They had met in March, early one morning while he was having a smoke in the yard outside her mom and dad’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. Sis knew right away that Gordon wasn’t one of those New York communists who’d been coming around since the trials had begun. He was too tall, too polite, and too soft-spoken to be one of them. And he rolled his own cigarettes. He was an Oklahoman, like her.

Ina Wood, who was out on bail at the time, had called Sis the day before and asked if Gordon could stay the night at the Cunninghams’. Sis’s parents agreed. Ina told Sis he’d be coming in late, so she laid out some blankets for him on the sofa and the family went to bed. Gordon got there around midnight, so it wasn’t until morning that Sis and her parents met him.

Gordon’s novel Flamethrowers, based on his Mennonite childhood in Kansas and Oklahoma, had been published in 1936. He had finished his second novel, Unrest, in 1937. When he met Sis, he was working as a freelance journalist, covering Oklahoma for the Associated Press. He had been attending the trials in Oklahoma City. His pamphlet Oklahoma Witch Hunt was written to publicize the trials and raise funds for the defense. Bob Wood, who was also out on bail, formed the Committee to Defend Political Prisoners for the same purpose. Bob was the Oklahoma State Communist Party secretary, and Gordon became the committee chairman at Bob’s request. He and Sis began to encounter each other at the trials and committee meetings. It’s likely that Bob and Ina Wood were at the convention, considering their positions in the party. It’s also likely that they had driven there in Woody Guthrie’s Plymouth.

About 20 people showed up that June to attend the state party convention. Sis and Gordon sat next to each other in the grass sharing cigarettes and falling in love as committee heads addressed the gathering, droning on about the struggles of their committees, or the Peoples’ difficulties in Stalingrad, or New York, or other far-flung places. When Gordon’s turn came, he reported, with what Sis considered admirable brevity, on the status of the Committee to Defend Political Prisoners. He got right to the point, which was that things weren’t going well, and then returned to his place in the grass beside her.

When Sis’s turn came to address the convention, she stood up, strapped her accordion onto her slender frame, leaned back against its weight, and played a John Handcox song, “Strange Things Happenin’ in This Land.” Sis and her father had added their own couplets to the song:

Strange things happenin’ in this land

Strange things happenin’ in this land

O’ the landhog boasts and brags

While the tenant goes in rags

Strange things happenin’ in this land

As she led the 20 or so conventioneers in song, two local teenage boys on horseback rode up. The boys didn’t know it, but they were a danger to the group. If they went back home and described what they’d seen, it could cause big trouble. Sis immediately transitioned into a spirited version of “Shall We Gather at the River.” The communists sang along, if perhaps a bit uncertainly at first. Sis hoped the hymn would convince the boys that they’d encountered a Christian baptizing, although, as Gordon later recalled, there was hardly enough water in the river to save a soul.

After that June morning in 1941, when Sis and Gordon fell in love, things changed quickly for them. They married by the end of July. Sometime soon after that, authorities raided the home of one of the The Red Dust Players and seized more documents. Sis and Gordon left Oklahoma in October, bound for New York City. According to Gordon, their luggage, when they arrived in New York, consisted of two suitcases, Sis’s accordion, Gordon’s typewriter, and the manuscript of Unrest. Sis found odds-and-ends work while Gordon pitched his manuscript, without success, to New York publishers.

Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and others had recently formed the Almanac Singers, and were hosting hootenannies in Greenwich Village. When a mutual acquaintance told Seeger that Sis was in town, he sent an invitation for her to visit them at the Almanac House on West Tenth Street in Greenwich Village. When she and Gordon arrived, they found Guthrie, Seeger, and Lee Hays making music in the tiny office. Seeger and Guthrie remembered Sis from Oklahoma City, and, it turned out, Sis and Lee Hays were both alumni of Commonwealth College. Sis had been keen to join the group, so she sang them a few of her songs, and soon thereafter she was one of the Almanac Singers.

Sis and Gordon lived for a while with photographer Sid Grossman, whom they’d met in Oklahoma, but before long, they moved into Almanac House with the other singers. The Almanac Singers broke up in 1943.

When 19-year-old Bob Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1960–61, on the tide of the new generation of folk music revivalists, Sis and Gordon had been living there since about the time he was born. In 1962, Sis and Gordon started a mimeographed publication they called Broadside to promote and nurture the new generation of folkies who had been migrating to the Village, with a particular emphasis on what Sis called “topical” songs, or songs of protest. Broadside’s first issue, February 1962, contained a song written by Sis, called “Will You Work for Peace, or Wait for War?” and the first-ever published song written by Dylan, “Talking John Birch,” a song in the talking blues style of his idol, and Sis’s old friend, Woody Guthrie. Broadside was hugely influential as an outlet for topical songs, until it ceased publication in the 1980s.

Sis and Gordon remained in New York for the rest of their lives, in a hand-to-mouth existence. Broadside was never a big moneymaker, and Gordon had been blacklisted, which made it difficult for him to find work. Seeger employed Sis in his office, which gave them a small but stable income.

Cunningham had once followed Guthrie from Oklahoma to New York. In 2013, the Woody Guthrie Archive was moved from New York to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Shortly thereafter, many of Cunningham’s papers, including a complete collection of Broadside, were donated to the archive in Tulsa.

Bob Dylan had once followed them both to New York. Now, in 2016, the Bob Dylan Archive is also being moved to Tulsa. The archive will be housed at the University of Tulsa’s Helmerich Center for American Research. The public will have access to a rotating display of items from the Dylan archive in a storefront just a couple of doors down from the Woody Guthrie Archive.

If you go looking for the address of the old Progressive Bookstore on West Grand Avenue in Oklahoma City, you won’t find it. In 1961, the city decided that Grand Avenue had acquired too many negative connotations, so they renamed it Sheridan Avenue, after famed Indian-killer Philip Sheridan. An upscale steak house is now located at the approximate location of the old bookstore.

On February 17, 1943, the Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals reversed the convictions of Bob and Ina Wood, and the others who’d been convicted of violating the anti-syndicalism law.


Originally published in This Land: Fall 2016