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Mon Feb 12 08:26:42 MST 2001
The New York Times, February 11, 2001, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
Words and Music for a Revolution
By PETER DUFFY
AGNES CUNNINGHAM and the late Gordon Friesen were living in a small
apartment on the 11th floor of the Frederick Douglass housing project on
West 104th Street when they founded Broadside, a "topical" song magazine,
It was a modest affair. The married couple, political radicals who had
survived the witch hunts of the 1930's and the blacklists of the 1950's,
wanted to publish songs that addressed the important issues of the day.
They had little money, no telephone, an old Underwood typewriter and a
hand-cranked mimeograph machine once owned by the American Labor Party.
"Sis wrote to me and said, 'Do you think that Gordon and I could do this?'
" remembered Pete Seeger, a close friend of the couple, using Ms.
Cunningham's nickname. "I said, 'I bet you could, but it would be a lot of
For the next 26 years, until its demise in 1988, the tiny journal, with a
circulation that never topped four figures, became one of the world's most
influential folk music publications. Unknown young singers like Phil Ochs,
Tom Paxton, Janis Ian and Bob Dylan sat in the couple's living room and
sang their latest compositions into an old reel-to-reel tape machine.
Ms. Cunningham would transcribe the songs, printing the best. Mr. Friesen
and others would write political commentary, while the couple's daughters,
Aggie and Jane, provided illustrations. Early issues were smuggled out of
the housing project -- where it was illegal to operate a business -- in a
Mr. Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" was published in May 1962 on the front
page of the sixth issue, soon after he wrote it and before it was ever
recorded. Mr. Ochs's antiwar anthem, "I Ain't Marching Anymore," Ms. Ian's
hit about an interracial relationship, "Society's Child," and Malvina
Reynolds's blast at suburban conformity, "Little Boxes," all made their
debuts in Broadside.
"We favored singers who were simple and didn't have all the fluff," said
Ms. Cunningham, now 91, in her soft Oklahoma twang. "Poetry set to music
has to be mulled over. I think the more sharply and simply it's written,
In September, the old magazine received a bit of recognition. Eighty-nine
of Broadside's sharpest songs were released on a five-CD set issued by
"The Best of Broadside 1962-1988": Anthems of the American Underground From
the Pages of Broadside Magazine" is an activist newspaper set to music. It
features works about major events, like the Vietnam War, and
harder-to-remember ones, like the refusal of the United States government
to readmit an American journalist after he had visited Castro's Cuba.
The collection has been nominated for two Grammy awards, best historical
album and best liner notes. The awards ceremony will be held on Feb. 21 in
And last year, the University of Massachusetts published the founding
couple's joint autobiography, "Red Dust and Broadsides," detailing their
journey from the plains of Oklahoma, where both were born in 1909, to the
Upper West Side.
As a young woman, Ms. Cunningham was a union organizer and a
singer-songwriter in the Red Dust Players, a troupe that entertained and
proselytized rural audiences. Mr. Friesen worked as a journalist and
novelist. Then members of the Communist Party ("We didn't go around
carrying cards," Ms. Cunningham said), they fled to New York in the early
1940's, fearing the local backlash against political radicals.
Ms. Cunningham met up with Woody Guthrie and Mr. Seeger and joined their
legendary group, the Almanac Singers. "Every song Woody wrote was a
masterpiece," she said. Later, during the McCarthy era, Mr. Friesen found
that his political associations kept him out of journalism, and the family
lived in poverty for years.
But their political idealism never dimmed. They started Broadside without
knowing how they would keep it going.
"It was kind of a scruffy place," remembered Mr. Paxton, who would visit
with Mr. Dylan and Mr. Ochs. "Guys of that age don't pay a lot of attention
to their surroundings. We don't have memories of what kinds of curtains
there were. What we do remember is there was a very warm welcome. We were
provided a ready audience and support."
Two years after the magazine's founding, Ms. Cunningham and Mr. Friesen,
who died in 1996, were doing well enough to move out of the projects and
into an apartment on West 98th Street, where she still lives. Her apartment
door is easy to spot: it's the one decorated with bumper stickers for
Amnesty International and Habitat for Humanity.
The new apartment allowed for a larger office and space for in-house
hootenannies. By day, the typewriter clacked and the piano played. "There
was a lot of laughter," Mr. Paxton said. "It was sometimes very difficult
to get people to shut up so you could sing a serious song." At night,
itinerant singers turned the office into a crash pad. Eric Andersen wound
up staying for a few months, and the Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, a
civil rights songwriter, moved in for a few years.
PEOPLE would drop by every two minutes," said Ms. Ian, who published her
first song in Broadside at age 12. "Sis and Gordon would be on the phone
asking club owners to book you. Without them, nobody had a voice. For a
young singer, it was everything you dream about."
"They were like the kind of parents you never had," Mr. Andersen said.
"They were nonjudgmental. I would come in at all hours of the night and
Gordon would be waiting up. He would ask me what was going on out on the
street. Anything went."
By the end of the 1960's, the popularity of folk music had declined, and
some singers drifted away from the magazine.
But others remained close. Before his suicide in 1976, a bedraggled Mr.
Ochs, with leaves still clinging to his clothing, would seek refuge in the
apartment after nights spent sleeping in Central Park.
The magazine published in fits and starts until the late 1980's, still true
to its ideals and still struggling to pay the printer. Now, although her
step has slowed, Ms. Cunningham remains as spirited and opinionated as
ever. She cringes at the mention of a George W. Bush administration. If
Broadside were still publishing, she would be busy soliciting songs that
dissected his weaknesses. "I have always felt that socialism was the
answer, and I still do," she said.
She even finds "Blowin' in the Wind," probably the most famous song to make
its first appearance in Broadside, not quite to her taste. After all, it's
heavy on the poetic imagery and light on overt political content.
Her favorite from the magazine's pages is "Cops of the World," Mr. Ochs's
pull-no-punches condemnation of American imperialism. "That's a radical
song," she said proudly.
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