The Real Dirt on Red Dirt Music
March 5, 2003
The real dirt on red dirt music this week on the Oklahoma Audio Almanac.
Hello, I am Steven Knoche Kite.
Although there is currently a trend to call any song written by an Oklahoman and played on an acoustic
guitar "a red dirt song" and the writer "a red dirt musician", there was at one time genuinely original,
innovative, thought-provoking music coming from the red dirt of Oklahoma. Agnes Cunningham, or 'Sis' Cunningham,
as she is more commonly called, has carried the titles of singer, song writer, musician, performer, publisher,
activist and humanitarian.
As a young girl Sis Cunningham, a native of Watonga, Oklahoma, attended college in Mena, Arkansas
at the Commonwealth College. The school, having a definite socialist and labor foundation, influenced
Cunningham to work with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, helping poor tenant farmers and share croppers
throughout Oklahoma and the South. In 1939 Cunningham organized "The Red Dust Players," and
toured the region. The group performed what they called "topical music," songs with familiar
melodies with words that reflected or spoke to and about the downtrodden, exploited individuals of the
region. The Red Dust Players played music, sang songs, and put on plays to raise awareness of the plight
of the southern farmer. Oklahoma at this time had one of the highest rates of farm tenancy in the country
and many Oklahomans feared that whistle blowers like Sis Cunningham might spark a riot or, worse yet,
convert the farmers to communism.
Chased from the state by narrow minds in 1941, Cunningham, now married to Gordon Freeze, the Mennonite
turned Communist from Weatherford, fled to New York. In New York the two hooked up with Pete Seager, Woody
Guthrie, and other members of the Almanac Singers and began what could be called the second stage of their
journey. The couple left New York for Detroit, founding another performance group there as well as beginning
the music publication, Broadside. Broadside was
an outlet for those song writers and musicians addressing the concerns of the world at the time. Topics
included, but were not limited to, politics, organized and unorganized labor, women's rights, agriculture,
Sis Cunningham played the guitar, the accordion and piano. She wrote songs about the Dust Bowl, the
Okie migration, tenant farmers and the general conditions of poor people, communities and regions. She
gave life, light, and voice to many topics that conservative, well-to-do politicians would rather have
swept under the rug. Needless to say, Sis and her husband struggled against oppression and censorship
for the duration of their career. Cunningham is responsible for such songs as Sun
Down, My Oklahoma Home It Done Blowed Away, How
Can I Keep on Moving Unless I Migrate Too?, and many others. Her songs have been by recorded and
covered by dozens of groups from the 1930s up to the twenty-first century. It was in this week that Agnes
"Sis" Cunningham first appeared in the world, instantly screaming, I would guess, a song of
protest. Happy Birthday, Sis! Thousands of farmers and workers and conscientious citizens around the world
say "thank you" for all that you've accomplished.
I'm Steven Knoche Kite.
The Oklahoma Audio Almanac is a joint production of the Oklahoma State University
Library and Oklahoma's Public Radio.