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The Real Dirt on Red Dirt Music

March 5, 2003

Almanac Transcript

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, and ecology.

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.

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