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.
Archie Green, liner notes for "Sarah Ogan Gunning -- A Girl of Constant Sorrow," Folk Legacy (1965)/Topic (GB) (1967);
Ronald D. Cohen & Dave Samuelson, liner notes for "Songs for Political Action," Bear Family Records BCD 15720 JL, 1996 (second to last paragraph);
Anonymous, liner notes for "They'll Never Keep Us Down: Women's Coal Mining Songs," Rounder Records 4012, 1984 (second and last paragraph).
SARAH OGAN IS JIM GARLAND'S SISTER. Both are a son and a daughter of Aunt Molly Jackson1. And they came to Leadbelly's house to hear the south winds whistle to the east, and mix into all the high storms that carry the dust to the west. I heard a storm from the lower chains of islands, from Harlem, and from all over the map, all over the globe, and from all over New York.
I heard Sarah Ogan sing her songs about getting together and shaking hands, organizing around this whole world once, and twice. I heard her sing, "I'm going to write you a letter just as quick as times get better." But, "I've got to get organized, Baby Mine." Sarah had no guitar, and lots of times Jim did not play behind her. Leadbelly might not play for her first verse or so. I had to keep my guitar still so I could hear the words. In the whole crowded room of all tones and colors of faces and eyes, it was a high feeling when Sarah would set forward on the couch and sing in her natural voice and key with no music box to back her up.
I heard her voice, dry as my own, thin, high, and in her nose, with the old outdoors and down the mountain sound to it. Singing out to her skies had made her voice a thin one, but with that unknown gift of carrying up and out to the several directions. Singing to us as she had sung into the rifle fire of Sheriff Blair's deputies, Sarah Ogan got the house of people to keep so still that the cat licking his hair sounded like a broomstick rubbed against a washtub.
Sarah's case of TB was worse than Jim's. Hers was in a deeper and later stage, and she sang and her eyes said as much as her song. She told us how the deputy caught her in the dark of night stealing a sack of coal off of the mine dump. He pulled his pistol and said that he would shoot her if he caught her there stealing coal again. Sarah said, Oil your pistol up good, Mister Deputy, I'll be right back here on this dump tomorrow night carrying home a sack to keep my kids from freezing.
I heard Sarah, and I watched every move she made.... And then I said, yes, Sarah, you are fighting the people I hate, the sicknesses that we all hate, the causers and the carriers of the worst of all wordly [sic] illnesses, this profit system to feed the monopoly machine that is choking every solitary one of us, so that we can't sing, can't dance, can't meet, can't talk, can't argue and make our own plans, can't lead the human life....
Woody Guthrie, "LEADBELLY is a hard name," American Folksong, New York, NY, 1961 (reprint of 1947 edition), pp. 11-12.
She's a housewife and more than a housewife. A mother and more than a mother. She's worked and slaved and fought to save the children of her own home, and to keep her own house, and she was so full of the Union Spirit that she found time to get out in the wind and rain and the hail of bullets from the deputies guns, and make up her own songs and sing them to give nerve and backbone to the starving men that slaved in the coal mines.... (Her songs) are deadlier and stronger than rifle bullets and have cut a wider swath than a machine gun could.
Sara loved her husband. He's dead from hard work in the mines. She loved her baby that died. She loves the two she's still got, and she hates the system that wrecked her family. Hates the set-up that robbed her kids' mouths. Hates the guns of war that aim at her sons and daughters. Hates all of these big Crooks and Greedy Rich Folks, reason is because she Loves what she Loves, and she'll fight to protect her Home.
(The big rich guys) claim they own all of this stuff. Sara says they don't. Sara says it belongs equal and alike to all of us. I say Sara is right. It damn shore don't belong to no one special feller, nor no few special families. It belongs equal and alike to all of us. Me, and you. Us.
WOODY GUTHRIE, exact source unknown, quoted by Barbara Dane in liner notes for "I Hate the Capitalist System," PAREDON P-1014, 1973.
1Aunt Molly Jackson was Sarah Ogan Gunning's and Jim Garland's half-sister.