Sarah Ogan Gunning

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Sarah Ogan GunningSarah Ogan Gunning mastered one of this country’s genuine original art forms, and she infused it with a message of tough vitality as devastating and inspiring as her own life. Gunning was born into a singing family which included Aunt Molly Jackson and Jim Garland. Her mother passed on a large collection of ballads, hymns, love songs, and stories to her 15 children. Sarah’s father taught her spirituals and how to sing them. But the biggest influence on her life and her music may have come from the fact that both her father and her first husband worked as coal miners and were involved in the United Mine Workers of America.

Sarah Ogan Gunning’s repertoire included original songs, well-known mountain tunes to which she wrote original lyrics, and spirituals, all sung a cappella-style. “I am a Girl of Constant Sorrow” and “I Hate the Capitalist System” capture both the style and content that made her unique. In the 1930s and 40s she lived in New York City and sang with the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Burl Ives. Gunning lived in obscurity for a while, and then re-surfaced during the folk song popularization of the 1960s, when folklorist Archie Green encouraged her to record her first album. She began performing again, at venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and the Newport Folk Festival. She died in 1983 at a family songfest in Kentucky.