Archie Green on Sarah Ogan Gunning | Folkstreams

Archie Green on Sarah Ogan Gunning

Archie Green on Sarah Ogan Gunning

In the half-decade 1929-1932, a band of northern labor organizers-radical and intellectual-met a number of rural, conservative folksingers in the Southern Highlands. From this setting came a group of topical songs using old melodies to set off intensely stark and militant texts. In a sense, Piedmont mill villages and Cumberland mine camps became meeting grounds for the ideologies of Andrew Jackson and Karl Marx, Abraham Lincoln and Mikhail Bakunin. Few of the mill hands or coal miners were able to synthesize traditional and modern values into lasting literature, but some managed to compose folk-like songs which fused timeworn melodies with strange, revolutionary lyrics. Prior to 1929 a body of Southern industrial songs had clustered around mine and mill. Such pieces were frequently mock-humorous or sardonic commentaries on hard times, but the "new" songs were overtly hard. Needless to say, with Roosevelt's New Deal the thrust of radicalism in labor was diverted and the main body of left, sectarian songs was forgotten. Almost none entered tradition. (However, a few have been retained by students and "revival" singers of folksongs.)

The radical pieces of the Great Depression are not insignificant because they failed to become folksongs. Today, as the nation focuses on poverty in Appalachia and civil rights in the Black Belt, a song which draws attention to the plight of poor or deprived people has utility. When such a song flows from the experience of a traditional folksinger and is delivered in authentic style, it becomes a poignant statement for the listener-even a potential guide to new values.

Some of the mountain broadside composers remained anonymous in the twenties and thirties. Others died before decent recordings were made of their work. Fortunately, in the present decade a few companies with superb equipment and high standards have recorded traditional performers. Hence, today we can hear laments and battle cries of the thirties sung in the sixties by their own composers.

The best of such living bards is Sarah Ogan Gunning, who complements her own journalistic numbers with a songbag of old ballads, love lyrics, comic ditties, and religious pieces. Sarah is important for her dual repertoire-traditional and topical. She adds to the largeness of this gift a magnificent mastery of Appalachian style. The contents of her personal songs stress hardship and sorrow. She does not separate such contents from her delivery, in which pathos and loneliness sound so natural. Yet Sarah's doleful messages denote neither narrowness of vision nor personal alienation. As she moves from "Dreadful Memories" to "The Hand of God on the Wall," one hears the wholeness in her life and perceives the bridges between her realms. Frequently, the tension generated by conflict between fundamental religious convictions, highly conservative personal training, and radical political creed is destructive to artistic statement. Seemingly, Sarah has diverted such tension into her songs and in the process has enhanced their emotional and esthetic worth.

The steps which carried Sarah Elizabeth Garland (born June 28, 1910) from an Elys Branch, Knox County, Kentucky, coal camp to the Fifth University of Chicago Folk Festival (1965) can be viewed in purely biographical terms, or as a parable on our mid-century urban search for pastoral truth and beauty. My personal interest in scholarship tells me to cleave to biographical facts; my affection for Sarah compels me to probe for the coal dust in the verdant coves of her childhood, and for the apparent paradoxes in her song lore.

At the time of Sarah's birth, southeastern Kentucky was still in transition from an economy of frontier farming to coal mining. Her father, Oliver Perry Garland, was a farmer-minister who turned to the mines while still a young man. He cast his lot with trade unionism as soon as the mountaineers began to organize; Sarah recalls union meetings at her home from earliest childhood. Actually, her father was affiliated with the Knights of Labor before the United Mine Workers of America came into the Cumberlands. After the death of Garland's first wife, he married Sarah Elizabeth Lucas in Little Goose Creek, Clay County. He fathered a large family (four children were born to Deborah Robinson Garland, and eleven to his second wife). All the youngsters shared the frequent moving from one raw camp to another. His children-unaware that industrial life was altering rural folkways-absorbed the stock of traditional lore normal to their culture. One of the daughters, the late Aunt Molly Jackson, made her mark as a folksinger and is still well known. (See Kentucky Folklore Record, October 1961, for her memorial.) One of his sons, Jim Garland, is also known as a folksinger (and can be heard on Newport Broadside, Vanguard 9144). Jim and Sarah are brother and sister, while Molly and Sarah are half-sisters. Naturally, their repertoires and styles overlap. My focus here is on Sarah because I feel her to be the best singer of the trio, and because she has been overshadowed by her better-known siblings.

Sarah's childhood was no harder than that of other turn-of-the-century coal-camp youngsters. The lack of personal amenities and formal education was compensated by family unity and affection, as well as a seemingly bottomless well of songs, stories, jokes, and games which came from parents and other close relatives. About 1925, Andrew Ogan (born April 28, 1905) from Clairborn County, Tennessee, came to work in the Fox Ridge Mine, Bell County, Kentucky. He soon fell in love with fifteen-year-old Sarah, and they eloped to Cumberland Gap, across the line, to be married. It was her first trip out-of-state. But before long, Ogan was back in Kentucky and Sarah exchanged the role of a miner's daughter for that of a miner's wife. Four children were born to the Ogans; two died in the depression years and two presently live in Michigan.

During 1931, Kentucky coal fields were at their nadir. Some miners responded to gloom and despair by joining the National Miners Union, a communist-led organization rival to the United Mine Workers. Sarah was active in neither union nor radical affairs, yet she absorbed the exciting new posture of protest from her husband Andrew and brother Jim. Eventually, most of the NMU stalwarts returned to the older union, particularly after John L. Lewis revitalized the UMW with the fabulous "Blue Eagle" organizational drive of 1933-34. But some NMU miners, isolated by extreme positions or exhausted by work-induced sickness and injury, journeyed away from their mountain coal fields. The Ogan family made such a trip to New York City about 1935, assisted by the deep kindness of folklorist Mary Elizabeth Barnicle. Slum life on the lower East Side was an inadequate substitute for southeastern Kentucky's poverty. Andrew Ogan's TB worsened, and when he knew that his sickness was fatal, he returned to Brush Creek, Knox County, Kentucky, where he died on August 15, 1938.

Sarah herself was frequently ill during this period but managed to survive New York's privation. On August 7, 1941, she married Joseph Gunning, a skilled metal polisher. During World War II the Gunnings traveled to the Pacific Coast for shipyard defense work at Vancouver, on the Columbia River. After the War they lived in Kentucky briefly, but in time they moved north to Detroit to seek industrial employment. Here they put down new roots in the auto city.

During Sarah's years in New York she had met many of the persons caught up by the folksong "revival": Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Huddie Ledbetter, Earl Robinson, Will Geer, Woody Guthrie. She learned a few songs ("Joe Hill," "Tom Joad," "Bourgeois Blues") from them, but, perhaps unconsciously, guarded the purity of her style and her repertoire. While physically removed from her mountain home, she retained hill ways, and, in part, worked out some of her sense of geographic separation and personal loss in song composition. By occasional singing before Professor Barnicle's New York University classes, Sarah began to learn that her songs were folksongs. She was precise and articulate about sources for material-family, church, or personal composition-and was modest in not asserting for her own compositions a greater significance than their intrinsic merit warranted.

Very fortunately, Alan Lomax recorded a dozen of Sarah Ogan's songs in 1937, and Professor Barnicle recorded a group of duets by Sarah Ogan and Jim Garland in 1938 for Library of Congress deposit. The Lomax discs were made in New York, and although the Library of Congress Check-List . . . (1942) places the Barnicle recordings in Pineville, Sarah told me that they were not made in Kentucky. This discographic confusion may be a simple error, but it seems to symbolize to Sarah a mystery surrounding her field recordings. She is uncertain whether they were originally made with her permission. No one ever presented her with a set of dubs, and she never benefited directly from the project. Indeed, she was quite surprised to find that singers in the sixties were learning her songs from Library of Congress tapes.

As early as June 12, 1940, Woody Guthrie had penned an affectionate portrait of his friend Sarah for the New York Daily Worker. In 1947 he expanded this sketch for his informal American Folksong (Moe Ashe: Disc Company; reprinted Oak Publications, 1963). Guthrie liked Sarah's militancy as she recounted a meeting with a coal-camp sheriff. The Oklahoma singer also responded to "her natural voice . . . dry as (his) own thin, high . . . with the old outdoors and down the mountain sound to it." Apparently, Sarah made no formal impact on the academic folklore fraternity beyond her friendship with Professor Barnicle. However, in November, 1940, the popular collection A Treasury of American Song was published. It was compiled by New York Times music critic Olin Downes and composer Elie Siegmeister. In their mountain section, "Cripple Creek to Old Smoky," the editors cited four balladeers who were putting new exciting subjects into song: Bascom Lunsford, Jim Garland, Aunt Molly Jackson, and Sarie Ogan. Thirteen years passed before Sarah's name reappeared in a hard-cover book. Her composition "I am a Girl of Constant Sorrow" was printed in John Greenway's American Folksongs of Protest (1953); previously it had appeared in the People's Song Bulletin (April, 1946). The song has also been recorded in the sixties by Peggy Seeger, Tossi Aaron, and Barbara Dane. Needless to say, Sarah was not compensated for its utilization.

Although Sarah was on the periphery of one phase of the pre-Pearl Harbor folksong boom (she had participated at the Kentucky Exhibit during the New York World's Fair, 1939, and also sang at some of the earliest left-oriented hootenannies in the city), she missed out on its post-War development because of her move to Detroit. Here she was isolated and almost forgotten by the New York-based People's Songs partisans. She continued to sing at church (Liberty Missionary Baptist) but put away ballads and lyric songs for quiet household sessions. In a sense she was "lost" and had to be "rediscovered." There is irony in this formulation, for all Sarah needed was a chance to get before a decent tape recorder or an appreciative audience to prove the worth of her unique songs and stylistic command. I count myself fortunate to have helped her across a recent threshold.

My interest in Sarah was precipitated by my visits to her sister, Aunt Molly Jackson, in Sacramento, California, 1957-59. I was never certain that I could breach Molly's castle of self-aggrandisement and Munchausian rhetoric. To reach the "real" Aunt Molly and in order to gain perspective on her life, I felt that I had to talk to her brother Jim and sister Sarah. Curiously, Molly never talked to me about her "baby sister." In retrospect, I do not believe that Molly could concede a second folksinger of importance in the family. Of course, Sarah's field recordings told me otherwise. It was not until October 8, 1963, that I first visited Sarah in Detroit. By that time, her husband had left factory work and had become a caretaker in a low-income apartment house. The Gunnings shared a basement unit that recalled for me the stage sets for social dramas of the thirties. Steam pipes notwithstanding, it was in this below-ground dwelling that Sarah opened for me her treasury of folksong. Cecil Sharp was never more richly rewarded in a Sussex cottage or Blue Ridge cabin-in-the-laurels.

Two Wayne State faculty friends, Ellen Stekert and Oscar Paskal, accompanied me on some of my Detroit visits to Sarah. All three of us joined forces to record her on January 2-3, 1964, and March 3, 1964. The selections for her first Folk-Legacy LP were taped in the studios of two educational radio stations: WDET (Wayne) and the United Auto Workers' Solidarity House. A quarter-century had elapsed between Sarah's Library of Congress field recordings and her Detroit sessions. Now, with new friends, she felt encouraged to resume "public" singing before Professor Stekert's Wayne classes and at a Detroit Conference on Poverty (March 11, 1964), where she shared the platform with Walter Reuther and Michael Harrington. She was invited to the Newport Festival in the summer of 1964 but had only a limited opportunity to "open up" in the face of the great number of participants.

The highlight of Sarah's "second career" came in January, 1965, when she appeared at the University of Chicago Folk Festival-a relatively unhurried event. Here she had two half-hour sessions to herself during evening concerts and a panel shared with composer-singer Earl Robinson. For each evening she alternated topical items, traditional ballads, old-time religious folksongs, and humorous tales. Normally, the sophisticated student audience reserves its applause for technical dexterity. It was heart-warming (for Sarah) and unexpected (by Festival veterans) to hear the audience break in with spontaneous applause during Sarah's unaccompanied polemical songs.

Each new listener to Sarah-whether in college hall or on LP disc-will have to sort out her particular appeal. Contrary to her album's title song, I do not feel that her life is only constant sorrow. Like other folksingers, her repertoire encompasses a variety of emotions: anger at needless poverty and exploitation, affirmation of self-help as a way of life, pleasure in love, solace in religion, peace in death. Sarah's prodigious talent has permitted her to fuse disparate radical elements with traditional forms to create a handful of significant songs beyond the legacy of well-known material left to her by her family.

Our choices while hearing or meeting Sarah Ogan Gunning are many: we can hear her as an excellent exponent of mountain style, we can seek out her rare song variants for comparative purposes, we can be moved by the beauty of her ballads, we can turn her message into bellows to fan the flames of social action. To the extent that we are able to perceive all these facets, we gain some of her wholeness and integrity for ourselves.