Written by Si Kahn, and performed by Sue Massek, this one woman musical is about the life of labor organizer and musician, Sarah Ogan Gunning.
Sue is one of the founders of the award-winning Kentucky feminist-labor Reel World String Band, which celebrates its 37th anniversary this year, with all the original members still in the band.
Sue Massek learned banjo from old timers in West Virginia and Kentucky after she hitchhiked from the Flint Hills of her native Kansas. In her song Sally’s Song (The Coast is Clear).
Sue describes the stories she heard first-hand from women in Clay County, Kentucky and she adopts the style of Blanched Coldiron, banjo player living in Crittenden and a contemporary of Lily May Ledford (Coon Creek Girls), both of whom have been Sue’s friends and mentors.
Here is an interview with Sue Massek, Master Folk Musician.
At the time of Sarah’s birth (June 28, 1910), 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.
The Garlands were known as a singing people. Besides the father and mother, there were fifteen children including Sarah, Molly (Aunt Molly Jackson) and Jim — all of whom would later be known for their songs.
About 1925, Andrew Ogan (born April 28, 1905) from Claiborn 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.
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 husband Andrew and brother Jim.
Eventually, most of the NMU stalwarts returned to the older union, particularly after John L. Lewis revitalised the UMW with the fabulous “Blue Eagle” organizational drive of 1933-4. 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. 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 defence 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…. 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 his sketch for his informal American Folksong….
She appeared with Jim Garland at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, and as a soloist sang at the 1965 University of Chicago Festival and recorded for Folk Legacy. After the Gunnings moved to Hart, Michigan, in the mid-’60s, Sarah continued recording and traveling to folk festivals. Her health failed soon after her husband died in June 1976. She primarily limited her singing to her local church….
Sarah died on October 14, 1983 while singing at a family gathering at her home in Hart, Michigan.