Agnes "Sis" Cunningham

Broadside Ballads, Vol. 9: Sundown

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Agnes "Sis" Cunningham is a former member of the Almanac Singers from the 1940s and the co-founder and co-editor of the topical folk song magazine Broadside, begun in the 1960s. Sundown is her long-gestating debut solo album, and it reflects her previous experience well. Cunningham sings in an untutored voice with a rural accent, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, recalling the sound of Aunt Molly Jackson and Peggy Seeger, and her songs are strongly reminiscent of another Almanac, Woody Guthrie. Like Guthrie, she sings of poor sharecroppers and tenant farmers in Oklahoma in the 1930s, facing the Dust Bowl and forced to migrate to California, but taken advantage of by the wealthy and powerful. She sings in favor of the rise of unions and government regulations to bring relief to the poor, notably in "No More Store Bought Teeth." These are all subjects that date back many decades, and the songs in some cases were written back then, too. Toward the end of the album, Cunningham brings things more up to date, for instance devoting one song, "Send Word to the Pilot," to a 1970s incident in which Cuban sugar experts were not allowed to attend a convention in the U.S. because of the American boycott of Cuba. She makes specific reference to her primary influences by devoting a song, "But If I Ask Them," to Aunt Molly Jackson, who, she says, was victimized by people recording her songs without arranging for her to be paid, and covering Guthrie's "Great Dust Storm," which, following what has come earlier, sounds like a song Cunningham herself could have written. Sundown casts her as, in effect, a female Woody Guthrie, even if it comes along more than 30 years after Guthrie was singing similar material.