Sarah Ogan Gunning (1910–1983)

Updated: March 01, 2011

Traditional singer and songwriter.

The daughter of farmer, minister, and union activist Oliver Perry Garland and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Lucas, Sarah Elizabeth Garland was born on June 28, 1910, at a coal camp near Elys Branch in Knox County, Kentucky. At age fifteen, Sarah married coal miner Andrew Ogan, with whom she had four children.

In 1935 folklorist Mary Elizabeth Barnicle accompanied Sarah’s half-sister “Aunt Molly” Jackson to Kentucky, where Barnicle met Sarah. Not long afterward, Barnicle helped the Ogans relocate to New York City so that she and Andrew could receive treatment for tuberculosis. Times were little better on the Lower East Side, however, and Sarah lost both her husband and a child to the disease.

Bolstering her repertoire of traditional ballads, lyric songs, and hymns learned from her parents, Sarah began writing original songs while still in Kentucky. Her first, “Down on the Picket Line,” based on the hymn “Down in the Valley to Pray,” was inspired by a 1931 National Miners Union strike in Bell County, Kentucky. In response to the death of her husband and some of her children, she wrote “Girl of Constant Sorrow,” which was based on Emry Arthur’s “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow.” Additional songs such as “I Hate the Company Bosses” (originally titled “I Hate the Capitalist System”), “An Old Southern Town,” and “Dreadful Memories” reflected the hardships she experienced in depression-era Kentucky.

In 1941 Sarah married Joe Gunning and eventually settled in Detroit. Folklorist Archie Green located her there in 1963. She sang in public for the first time in twenty years at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and made subsequent appearances at such festivals as the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife and the University of Chicago Folk Festival. Shortly thereafter, Sarah recorded the album Girl of Constant Sorrow for the Folk-Legacy label. She died in Knoxville, Tennessee, on November 14, 1983, and was buried in Hart, Michigan.

Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"Sarah Ogan Gunning," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2014, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 19 Sep 2014 <http://www.www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=104>

APA Style

"Sarah Ogan Gunning." (2014) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved September 19, 2014, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=104

Cover of “Girl of Constant Sorrow” by Sarah Ogan Gunning