Monday, June 9, 2008

The Red Dust Players and Agnes "Sis " Cunningham

Today few Americans think of music or theatre in terms of spreading propaganda, especially propaganda that espoused a political ideology. In the economic hard times of the 1930s, when many people questioned the merits of the Capitalist system, music and theatre were important tools in educating poor farmers and workers to a different economic system, one where all people shared equally in the profits of their labor. In the rural areas of Oklahoma, where dry conditions and a lack of financial resources caused extreme poverty, organizers for the Socialist Party found a warm reception among the people. The plight of tenants and sharecroppers became a focal point for socialists who were organizing in the South. Socialist began organizing through for Southern Tenant Farmers Unions in Oklahoma in 1934. Oklahomans, who had socialist sympathies and were interested in helping small farmers and sharecroppers, put their energies into organizing the STFU in their state. Some of the most effective organizers traveled with a theatre troupe called the Red Dust Players. Agnes “Sis” Cunningham was one the founders of the Red Dust Players, and later, when in New York City, helped organized the Almanac Singers, and the Weavers. Cunningham’s experience in writing songs for the labor movement in Oklahoma eventually influenced a whole generation of budding folk singers.

Almanac Singers

Cunningham’s experience in writing songs for the labor movement in Oklahoma eventually influenced a whole generation of budding folk singers.

Agnes Cunningham

Agnes Cunningham was born in Watonga, Oklahoma, in 1909, where she grew up on a small farm. In the early 1930s, the bank foreclosed on her parent’s farm, which left a definite impact of the Cunningham family. The struggles of farmers against high interest rates, high land values, low agricultural prices, and unforgiving climatic conditions culminated in bitterness and resentment toward a system of government that seemingly showed little understanding of their condition. It was out of this struggle that Agnes’ family, like many farmers, turned to socialism as a solution to their problems. Cunningham’s father was a follower of Eugene Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party, which was organized in 1901.

As a young adult, Agnes Cunningham was concerned foremost with the plight of the migrant workers, whose ranks were filled with poor farmers and sharecroppers. She worked to bring attention to a problem and to offer hope to a class of people in need of assistance.

Cunningham obtained her training as a songwriter at Weatherford Teachers College in 1929. In 1932, she enrolled in Commonwealth Labor College, a radical labor school in Mena, Arkansas. The curriculum at the Labor College was far to the left on the political spectrum, courses in American history were replaced by courses in Russian history and Marxism was taught instead of capitalism. The College also trained students to work in the southern labor movement by training them in union methods, labor history, farm labor economic, labor drama and public speaking. It was at Commonwealth College that Cunningham began writing labor songs and learned the elements of social theatre.

Students at Commonwealth Labor College

Social theatre, like the folksong of protest, expressed the attitudes of the times and the people. In the early part of the twentieth century, new playwrights emerged whose work became known as the theatre of the left, a form of expression influenced by the Soviet Theatre. The plays were known as agitprop theatre, short plays written for the purpose of political agitation and propaganda.

STFU Meeting

The Red Dust Players incorporated all the elements of social theatre in their plays.
With her brother, William Cunningham, Agnes wrote the songs that accompanied agitprop plays, which were performed before farmers in rural Oklahoma. The Red Dust Players consisted of people from diverse backgrounds. Doris, the director, was in her twenties, a housewife, and married to a young college professor. Doris also had experience with left wing theatre in New York City. The writer for the group, Dan Garrison, was experienced at writing plays and novels. The other members were either housewives or just concerned people who found the Red Dust Players a support groups that might be able to help sharecroppers and farm laborers. The people who made up the Red Dust Players carried full time jobs during the day, and in the evenings and weekends devoted time to traveling the Oklahoma countryside wherever there was a union meeting set up for them. Agnes wrote such memorable songs as “Raggedy Raggedy Are We,” “Mister Congressman,” and “My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away.”

The Red Dust Players hardly had a start in Oklahoma before they were caught up in what has been referred to as the “Oklahoma Witch Hunt”. The political atmosphere in Oklahoma in the late 1930s and early 1940 was one of polarization and conflict. The war in Europe and the threat to the United State caused many people to fear communism. In Oklahoma, the communist doctrine of Russia and all that it represented was alien to the democratic principles that most Oklahomans believed. The organizations and the people with socialist and communist doctrines, who tried to unionize in Oklahoma, because prime targets for those people who opposed the communist movement in America. The “witch hunt’ effected that Red Dust Players. When they returned to Oklahoma City after playing in the country, they found their homes broken into—letters and papers strewn about, housebold stuff in shambles and books missing. Members of the troupe believed that they were targeted for arrest; they left Oklahoma never to return.

In 1941, Agnes married Gordon Friesen and moved to New York City where they continued their radical activities and became involved with the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bess Lomax, Millard Lampell and Lee Hayes.

Sis Cunningham and husband Gordon Friesen

In the 1950s, Agnes and her husband started a folk publication called Broadsides, which helped promote young songwriters and performers like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs.

Agnes Cunningham died in New York City in 2004 at the age of 95. She continued to protest the ills of capitalism up to the time of her death. In 1994, on hearing that I had written an article about the Red Dust Players, she sent me her latest song, “Wall Street Suite” an indictment against those who made their fortune in the stock market. She signed the music, “ In Solidarity, Sis Cunningham.” Well, I’m not a fellow traveler, but it is an interesting history of those who had a great influence in promoting music as a way to communicate—folksongs truly are the “people’s music.

You can listen some of Cunningham’s songs on her Folkways album, Sundown

Besides such songs as Woody’s Guthrie’s, “Great Dust Storm”, and “Jay Gould’s Daughter”, there is “My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away”, written by Sis and brother Bill for the Red Dust Players. I don’t know whether Cunningham lived long enough to hear “My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away” on Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, “We Shall Overcome.” I think Agnes Cunningham would have been very pleased that this simple, almost forgotten musical composition would find the light of day for a new generation of folk listeners.

Click on the tornado to here My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away.


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