Agnes "Sis" Cunningham was born in Watonga, Blaine County, Oklahoma, on February 19, 1909, to William and Ada Boyce Cunningham. She grew up on a small farm that had been homesteaded by her parents around the turn of the twentieth century. Agnes's father was a socialist and follower of Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party leader in 1901. Agnes Cunningham studied music at Weatherford Teachers College (now Southwestern Oklahoma State University) in Weatherford, Oklahoma, in 1929. After graduation she taught music in the public school system. In 1932 she sought training in socialist doctrine at Commonwealth Labor College, a radical labor school in Mena, Arkansas. There she began writing labor songs and learned the elements of social theater. She also trained in union methods, organizing techniques, labor journalism, and labor-farmer union developments. After finishing her course work, she returned to Oklahoma, where she recruited for the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union.
In the 1930s Agnes helped organize the Red Dust Players, an agitprop theater group, whose members presented short plays promoting political agitation and propaganda. The Red Dust Players performed at union meetings throughout the Oklahoma countryside to educate farm workers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers on ways in which the union could better their lives.
In 1941 Agnes married Gordon Friesen, a free-lance writer. They moved to New York City, where Agnes became involved with the Almanac Singers, whose membership included Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Lee Hayes. The Friesens soon moved to Detroit, and Agnes became an active worker for the Communist Party in the 1940s. By the 1950s Cunningham returned to New York and worked with folk groups and published Broadsides, a magazine promoting young songwriters. The Friesens came under investigation by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee but were never called to testify. At the end of the twentieth century Agnes Cunningham resided in New York.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Agnes "Sis" Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, Red Dust and Broadsides (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999). Madeline B. Rose, "Sis Cunningham: Songs of Hard Times," Ms. Magazine 2 (March 1974). Suzanne H. Schrems, "Radicalism and Song," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 62 (Summer 1984).
Suzanne H. Schrems
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