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"Have You Ever Written A Folk Song? I Have, I Have"

"Sis" Cunningham, Gordon Friesen and Broadside Magazine


Down a dimly-lit aisle at UNC-Chapel Hill's Southern Folklife Collection, a shelf of frayed, fading reel-to-reel boxes sits unassumingly. It seems like your typical archival jumble of long-lost recordings until you start to look more carefully at the names scrawled in black marker. Paxton. Anderson. Ochs. Seeger. Ian. Dylan. This little local treasure trove of tapes helped bring into being Smithsonian/Folkways' Grammy-nominated box set, The Best of Broadside, 1962-1988: Anthems of the American Underground From the Pages of Broadside magazine, a lovingly-compiled 5-CD tribute to a tender, mimeographed flower of a publication that helped launch the careers of artists like Bob Dylan, and, more importantly, presented the postwar folk revival in all its gawky, yearning, holy sincerity.

"Sis" Cunningham and Gordon Friesen were emigr&233;s to New York from their native Oklahoma, where they engaged in leftist struggles against Great Depression poverty. They founded Broadside magazine in 1962, running 300 copies off on an old mimeograph machine discarded by the American Labor Party and selling them for 35 cents. From their cluttered apartment in the Frederick Douglass Housing Project on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the couple went on to publish topical songs by aspiring songwriters off and on until 1988. Despite their own continual financial struggles, the couple grew famous among young folk-revival musicians for their support--from publication and praise to a sofa to crash on for the night.

Seasoned by their bohemian love of labor fostered while organizing unions (Sis sang and played accordion in the labor-connected Almanac Singers, a group that also featured Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger; Gordon was a left-wing journalist and writer), they came to publish Broadside as a labor of love. It was a magazine that lurked on the fringes of popular music for 25 years, an inky cry from the margins, filled with songs, articles and drawings. The magazine's songs, usually transcribed by Sis, eventually led to the release of a number of Broadside albums on Moe Asch's famous Folkways label.

Folkways, now administered by the Smithsonian Institution, is the same label that recently reissued Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, an album that, in CD form, regained cult status for its mystical assemblage of old-timey commercial recordings. But while Smith's Anthology is magically creepy, shrouded in a foggy, foggy dew of mystery, Cunningham and Friesen's box set shows a different side of the folk revival.

It's the '60s folk movement in full force: faux-dirty and pseudo-scruffy, a bit gawky and pimply, and full of earnest songs. Instead of striking Smith's mystical and unearthly tones, much celebrated on the Anthology box set, the Broadside songs--divided up among topics from anti-nuclear protest to civil rights to Vietnam to black power to feminism--sounds human, fallible, sometimes clich&233;d, occasionally transcendent, but above all, humble, hopeful, always grappling with realities and social concerns. Where Smith's aims were big, universal, spiritual, thrillingly bizarre, Broadside is less crackpot-brilliant, more courageously straightforward. But no less important, no less moving.

"It was a feeling of being part of something," singer-songwriter Tom Paxton reminisces. "It made us feel part of the larger struggle for human rights being waged at the time." Paxton's "Ain't That News?" and a number of other compositions appear on the Broadside box set, alongside songs by Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, Eric Anderson and many others--some famous, some not. One hears Nina Simone crack bitter jokes as she swings her band through a protest against "Mississippi, Goddamn." Pete Seeger emerges as the calypsonian toaster of the folk movement, plucking out gentle rhythms on his 12-string guitar or banjo as he rhymes about how we should "Do as the Doukhobors Do," telling the story (put into song by Malvina Reynolds) of an ethnic group in Canada whose women protested at a government meeting by appearing in the nude.

Dispelling the notion that Broadside was exclusively for acoustic folks, the Fugs present a warped garage-rock protest against Vietnam, "Kill For Peace." El Teatro Campesino sings about "El Picket Sign" and the efforts to organize migrant farm workers. Louisiana's Lucinda Williams asserts her roots in "Lafayette." And then there is Phil Ochs, who emerges as the symbolic voice of Broadside. In songs such as "Links on the Chain," his sharp lyrical skill, but even more his bright, bell-like, inquisitive tone, rings with urgency about the need for a passionate, meaningful protest movement on the left.

Yet despite the many treats on the Broadside set--and there are many more, including artists whose songs are good, but whose names are not as well known--it is Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen who emerge as the guiding spirits of this collection.

"When I started talking to all of the artists," co-producer Jeff Place explains of the development of the Broadside box set, "they were all really enthusiastic about this story--Broadside, the apartment (where they often had musical gatherings), Sis and Gordon, and what it meant to them."

"They were the pater and mater familias," says Tom Paxton. "They were so supportive, not just supportive but encouraging. They helped bring the songs out of us."

So it is perhaps most important that a number of Sis Cunningham's own songs grace The Best of Broadside, including her tribute to fellow female protest singer Aunt Molly Jackson. This song contains what may be the best testimonial to the lasting legacy of this small, ephemeral magazine and its embattled, marginal progressive politics:

Have you ever written a folk song? I have, I have.

Have you ever lived something and wrote it true? I have, I have.

Have you seen hell and wrote it through? I have, I have.

But it seems I've stayed around too long,

All they remember is my song,

And no one thought to wonder whose,

Here it was for them to use.

With the Grammy-nominated Best of Broadside entombing the magazine's story in a spiral-bound book filled with copious notes, photos, reprints and discographical information, perhaps we will not forget Broadside so quickly. But we would do well to remind ourselves that the righteous political spirit of Broadside magazine has faded. A pretty song by Elaine White, who now works in the data-processing field, closes the collection with the hope that "The Time Will Come."

It hasn't yet. EndBlock

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