Quotes and Reviews
ONE COOL CAT: Singer/activist Si Kahn (the human, not the feline)
This week you can discover the most famous Charlottean that most people in Charlotte don't know about — and it won't even cost you much. Internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter Si Kahn will perform a rare Charlotte concert Friday, benefiting the Charlotte Folk Society.
When Si retired last year from a long, stellar career as a political activist and community organizer with the group Grassroots Leadership, he was already plenty busy in his "other" career as musician, composer, author, playwright, songwriter and folk singer.
In the year since he set aside his political activism, Kahn has been busy enough for three people, writing songs, collecting awards, and stretching his horizons with surprising forays into musical theater.
Although he's often been more of a rumor than a regular presence on the Charlotte music scene, Kahn has built a near-legendary reputation among fans all over the U.S. and also in Europe, where his records sell well and he regularly fills halls. He writes songs about many things, but he's most known for his music about workers and their families, such as "Aragon Mill," which, over the years, became a labor anthem. As a result of his dedication and steady output, Si became a folk music hero and an inspiration to young activists/musicians on both sides of the Atlantic.
The traveling demanded by his dual careers of organizing and musicmaking, either of which would be considered full-time by people with normal levels of stamina, is the main reason Si hasn't often performed in his adopted hometown of Charlotte. But that's the way of life Kahn chose, and it won him the respect of many, including folk icon Pete Seeger, the one person most associated with combining singing and political action. Seeger once told writer Frye Gaillard, "I'm a great admirer of Si Kahn. He's a solid thinker who is able to humanize the political — an absolutely extraordinary guy."
The guy has had an extraordinary year, too. In February, he received a rare "Triple Crown" award from the Folk Alliance (an international association representing the folk music community), honoring Kahn for having the No. 1 CD (Courage, his 14th album of original songs), the No. 1 song ("Peace Will Rise"), and for being the No. 1 folk artist of the year, based on stats compiled by folk DJs around the world. He was also named a "Southern Master" by Oxford American magazine.
Kahn has stayed busy, melding his musical and political sides for the musical theater stage, first as Writer-in-Residence at Heritage Music Theatre (HMT) in California, where, in October, he'll oversee the world premiere of his new musical, Joe Hill's Last Will, about iconic labor agitator, songwriter and martyr Joe Hill. Plans are also set for a new 2012 HMT production of Si's Some Sweet Day, a play based on the groundbreaking, racially mixed Southern Tenant Farmers Union of the 1930s.
The biggest project of the past year, though, was Silver Spoon, a musical comedy co-written with playwright Amy Merrill, which premiered in Cambridge, Mass., to terrific reviews. It's a late-'60s/early-'70s story of an across-class-lines romance in New York City and Brooklyn, in the days of the Cesar Chavez-led grape boycott. The Boston Herald wrote, "The sets are simple, the political landscape specific. Yet there is a large, classic, Broadway musical at the heart of Silver Spoon." Kahn and Merrill are looking for more backers for the musical, hoping to expand its reach, possibly in an Off-Broadway production.
Si will probably stick to his folk music repertoire during his Friday gig, since it is, after all, a benefit show for the Charlotte Folk Society, slated for 7:30 p.m. at the Great Aunt Stella Center (926 Elizabeth Ave.). Admission is free, but donations are "appreciated." For more information, see the Folk Society's website, www.folksociety.org.
CREATIVE COMMUNITY ORGANIZING - Si Kahn
A guide for rabble-rousers, activists, & quiet lovers of justice.
Even with the word ‘Creative’ in front of it, a book with “Community Organizing” as the title may well be suspected of coming with academic multi-syllabic words and sets of instructions.
Not this one! In the first place, it is a pleasure to read, full of stories, written in everyday English. Further, Si is not talking down to us or keeping himself separate. He’s sitting right here and we’re all in this together.
The creative way in which community organizing is presented is fascinating. The stories we are given are of real situations, we practically participate in figuring out what’s to be done and how to do it. We can’t wait to see what happened and appreciate what has been learned.
Woven within the illustrative stories of campaigns won— or lost—is Si’s autobiography, his family history (he’s the son of a Rabbi), and how his experiences taught him to be an effective, creative organizer. And you are quite painlessly learning right along with him.
You’re not going to be given rules: “In this situation do this”—one size definitely does not fit all; each demands its own solutions. Si and his fellow organizers are presented as people like ourselves. They are doing their jobs with passion and courage. There are episodes of danger and individual heroism but these are avoided as possible—never sought. As an extra added attraction, at the head of each chapter are the lyrics to one of Si’s songs. For tunes, we are shown on which of his 16 CDs each is recorded. In addition to his work as an organizer, Si Kahn is the author of a number of books including several for musical theatre. He’s a songwriter and a performing artist appearing across the United States, Canada and throughout Europe. He is also the official poet laureate of the North Carolina AFL-CIO and a member of the American Federation of Musicians Local 1000.
Now he’s retiring from the job of Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership, an organization he founded some 30 years ago—to do what? Not to worry! Among other things he has been commissioned to write a musical for the 2012 100-year observation of the great Lawrence, Mass., “Bread and Roses” strike. I’m confident that Si Kahn will continue working for that world of peace and justice toward which we strive.
You have to love a recording where the first song is a dog’s-eye view of the world. In “Otis Is Flying,” Otis the dog envisions flying to catch the geese passing overhead. Perhaps only Kahn could get away with the phrase: “the existential angst of the Labrador Retriever.” Not that Kahn has forsaken his political consciousness, since most of the remaining 15 songs on this CD in some way involve the plight of the common man, the politics that come between us and the nobleness that can raise us up. The songs visit cotton farmers, betrayed immigrants, building custodians, father-and-son hunting trips, truckers and the troubles from which the fragile peace of Northern Ireland has healed. The song that addresses that conflict, “Peace Will Rise,” asks why that model can’t be applied to bring peace elsewhere in the world. Jens Kruger, who produced the CD, plays all the instruments. While I enjoyed much of her backing, particularly on acoustic instruments, the album would have been better without Kruger’s synthesizer. Also, having a single person provide the entire accompaniment creates a somewhat sterile backdrop. Fortunately, Kathy Mattea adds her glorious voice to five of the tracks, which works very well with Kahn. She also contributed the album notes. Kahn’s writing and energy remain at the peak of his career. He addresses subjects overlooked by most writers, and he always defends the underdog. Maybe that is the metaphor of the opening song. — RWarr
Troubadour is retiring from Grassroots Leadership, but don't expect him to silence his songs or his activism.
He's been called "Democracy's troubadour," this folk-singing, rabble-rousing son of a rabbi from Charlotte who for decades has told the story of America's millworkers, coal miners and immigrants in original songs, books and musicals.
Along the way, Si Kahn has worked to give them a voice through Grassroots Leadership, the Charlotte-based organization that he founded 30 years ago and has since led - helping working men and women prod for a future beyond uncertainty.
Yet Kahn seems stuck in another time - his music woven with political strains like the songs of his friend Pete Seeger and hero Woody Guthrie.
His activism, too, is a throw-back, rooted in the Southern crusade for social justice and equal rights.
But there he is after all these years, about to turn 66 and still making music. And he and a staff of eight are still jabbing at the system, like Kahn has done in the Kentucky coal camps, Carolinas mill villages, and federal "prison towns" in Texas and New Mexico for the past 45 years.
On May 1, Kahn is retiring from Grassroots Leadership. On Friday, the Levine Museum of the New South will celebrate Grassroots' first 30 years and honor Kahn's work with a free program at the museum.
It has stirred Khan to reflect:
"My organizing and music has been about making the American Dream real for everyone. If you read the Constitution, it doesn't say some people should have rights and others shouldn't.
" ...I want opportunity for all. Right now, that's a long way's off. But after doing this for 45 years, I think it's time to hand over the reins to the people who are going to do it for the next 30 years."
Holocaust spawns thirst for justice
Nothing in Kahn's background led him to care so deeply about the South.
He was a "Yankee agitator" who as a Harvard student in the mid-1960s was drawn by the courage of those who led the civil rights struggles of Southern blacks.
He found his voice - musically and politically - not from the folkies of Cambridge, but at his parents' dinner table.
The early years were in State College, Pa., where his father, Rabbi Benjamin Kahn, was director of the B'nai B'rith Hillel at Penn State University. In 1959, the Kahns moved to the Washington, D.C., area after Rabbi Kahn was appointed international director of the Hillel foundation, and later executive vice president of B'nai B'rith International.
At the table, his parents, influenced by the Holocaust, urged their children to "do the right thing."
"Our family lost 20 to 30 people in the Holocaust," Kahn said. "... The lesson: 'This could happen to anybody.' It helped them identify with the plight of blacks.
"They raised me with a sense of racial justice."
Kahn learned to sing at the same dinner table. His mother, Rosalind, was a classical pianist and gave him the love of poetry. His "Pop," an accomplished cantor, often led the family in songful prayer.
"I was surrounded by music," Kahn said. "I grew up in the synagogue, a singing place. We sang around the table. I learned to rely on my voice."
On his bar mitzvah, his parents gave him a Kamico guitar.
And as a teenager in Washington, he found folk music and its story-telling functions in the vintage field recordings of the Library of Congress.
"I was hooked from then on," he said.
Birth of an activist
Kahn was a senior at Harvard in March 1965, when he watched on TV as Alabama state troopers and local police clubbed voting-rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma.
Outraged, he joined a protest in downtown Boston. "We were telling the federal government to do its job and protect its citizens," he said.
Kahn ended up in jail. In the next cell was Bob Zellner, a white Alabamian raising money for SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
Zellner persuaded Kahn to come to Forrest City, Ark., that summer to work for SNCC. He helped register voters to test the freshly passed Voting Rights Act of 1965.
There, he also discovered how music could motivate.
"I didn't know that singing together can help people prepare to act and take risks as one," he said.
After the summer he returned to Harvard and graduated in 1966.
But an organizer was born.
"Arkansas was a very powerful four months that shaped my organizing," he said. "We witnessed people who suddenly understood why their lives were the way they were and decided, 'I'm not going to live this way anymore' and they stood up.
"I discovered what I was meant to do - help people learn how to work as one to change this world for the better."
Sinking roots in Charlotte
Over the next 45 years, that work led him to Kentucky, where he helped striking coal miners win better wages and safety standards. In the Carolinas he helped textile workers unionize the J.P. Stevens mills, and helped brown lung victims fight for compensation and to clean up the cotton dust that caused their debilitating byssinosis.
He moved to Charlotte in 1978 with his wife, Elizabeth Minnich, to continue organizing workers in the J.P. Stevens campaign. Two years later, he started Grassroots Leadership to offer support and training to causes in the South and ultimately the Southwest.
In towns like Taylor, Texas, the organization has led a national campaign to abolish for-profit prisons and to end immigrant family detention, where children are held with their undocumented parents.
All the while, he has used his music to rally forces and soften the resistance. He cut his first album in 1974 at age 30 and hit the road at 35 to perform - proceeds going not to him but to Grassroots Leadership.
Many of Kahn's songs, such as "Aragon Mill" and "Gone Gonna Rise Again," have been recorded or performed by other balladeers.
One is Pete Seeger, the folksinger/activist Kahn recorded a CD with in 1986. Initially, Seeger was "fascinated with this man whose father was a rabbi" trying to help change the South.
Soon he came to appreciate the political nature of his songwriting.
"Si has used his music to get a crowd interested in his message," Seeger, now 90, said in a phone interview. "Music can reach people who might not be reachable.
"Si has done it very well."
Not the retiring kind
For months, Kahn's been on something of a farewell tour, performing around the country to thank Grassroots' supporters and introduce his successor, Donna Red Wing of Evergreen, Colo.
Then he'll be ready to sit a spell and see what's next.
Yet few are confident that he'll just sit for long.
"He'll always continue to press against the local grain," said James Andrews, executive director of the N.C. AFL-CIO who has known Kahn since the 1970s. "That's just Si. He deeply believes in grass-roots organizers to take on issues themselves.
"If there's a community that feels an injustice is being done, he'll have something to say about it."
By David Perlmutt
Posted: Thursday, Apr. 08, 2010
American singer/songwriter and activist Si Kahn has worked for over 40 years as a civil rights, labor and community organizer in the Southern United States. Among the many songs of his canon, “Aragon Mill” “Gone, Gonna Rise Again” and “Wild Rose of the Mountain” have become standards in American folk music. On his latest album, he collaborates with Linde Nijland and Annemarike Coenders, two Dutch singers known as Ygdrassil , who added their beautiful clear harmonies to his journeyman-like voice. As usual there is a feast of songs (24 in total) that celebrate the human spirit, criticize the government and corporate America and sing of the necessity of political awareness and action. Highlights include the celebratory title track, the wryly ironic “First Time at War”, the lovely tribute to immigrant workers “When the Land and They Were Young” and his fine “To Hear Doc Watson Play.” Ygdrasil also gets a powerful solo turn on its rendition of “Motherless Child.” Kahn’s own delivery is so firmly rooted in the American folk song tradition of the 50’s and 60’s, it sometimes seems a bit dated, but his lyrics and so darn good, you can’t but help fall in love with his songs.
By Lahri Bond
Si Kahn has long been an inspirational figure, as folksinger, songwriter, and particularly as an activist and organizer whose music frequently reflects his life work in the labor and social justice movements. Most of the selections on this 24 song set featuring Si solo with harmony singers Annemarieke Coenders and Linde Nijland of the Dutch group Ygdrassil are excellent re-recordings of classics like “Go to Work on Monday” and “I Have Seen Freedom” from his extensive catalogue making this CD an excellent introduction to his work for novices and providing new inspiration to those of us who have been listening for decades.
Almost two decades ago, folk singers Pete Seeger and Si Kahn leant their voices to a classic cycle of protest songs from the civil rights era and beyond, “Carry It On.”
This week Kahn, one of the epic figures in contemporary American folk music and activism, is living the title of that CD in Madison, where he is carrying on the struggle for social and economic justice that has consumed most of his 60 years.
Kahn is focusing much of his energy while in Madison on his opposition to capital punishment and what has become known as the prison-industrial complex. A longtime battler against for-profit prisons and the schemes of corporations to “employ” inmates at jobs that used to be performed by public workers and unionized employees of private sector firms, Kahn has done much to help explain why prison reform is a moral, social and economic issue…
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us that, while the arc of history is long, it bends toward justice. Madisonians are indeed lucky that Si Kahn – who has done more to bend that arc than most – is doing some of the work with us this week.
The Capital Times
November 30, 2005
Our live "Folkstage" artist was Si Kahn. Si has so many wonderful attributes it's hard to list all of them. In addition to being a singer-songwriter, he's a labor and political organizer and activist and a true philosopher. Si has also developed a terrific sense of humor which works to drive home the political and social messages in his carefully crafted songs. He is so wonderfully human in performance and it's obvious he deeply means what he says and what he sings.
host of “The Midnight Special” WFMT
At age 60, progressive singer-songwriter Si Kahn soldiers onward through conservative times
Activist, singer-songwriter, organizer and author Si Kahn has been called one of the nation’s “voices of conscience.” Unlike some performers who sing politically or socially aware songs about society’s ills, Kahn performs such tunes then wades into the field, with or without guitar, to become personally involved. His Friday night FOOTMAD show, for example, is a stopover that includes the release of a report on West Virginia that his Grassroots Leadership group has co-sponsored as part of a movement against for-profit private prisons.
Now 60, Kahn has released more than a dozen CDs in a 35-year career, which has included stints with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the United Mine Workers and countless union and grass-roots organizing campaigns. Among his publications are “How People Get Power: Organizing Oppressed Communities for Action” and “How to Research Your Congressional Representatives.” His songs such as “Aragon Mill,” “Gone, Gonna Rise Again” and “Wild Rose of the Mountain” have been recorded by more than 100 artists, including Robin and Linda Williams, June Tabor, Laurie Lewis, Planxty and others. He was interviewed via e-mail by gazz editor Douglas Imbrogno.
Q: As a longtime activist and politically progressive singer-songwriter, what were your thoughts on Inauguration Day for George W. Bush, Part 2?
A: I was happy to be driving down to Columbia, South Carolina, for an evening organizing meeting about stopping the state from privatizing prison health- care services. I’m not saying I don’t care what happens at the presidential level, because I do, and it does make a difference. But the work I do every day — that goes on no matter who the president is. That’s right down there at the grass roots, where real people organize to try to make their lives, workplaces and communities turn out for the better.
As it happened, my muffler hanger broke about a mile from the house. So, I ended up in the standing-room-only section at Steve Earle’s concert here in my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. That was a good place to be, too, with a lot of people who care about good music and progressive politics. It was a fine way to end Inauguration Day.
Q: Your current release is titled “We’re Still Here” on the Dutch label Strictly Country Records. What’s the story behind that title and song?
A: Here’s how the title song starts:
Evening hangs like smoke on this milltown that I love/My thoughts they roll and tumble through the years/And my heart drifts through the haze back to Youngstown’s better days/The mills have gone away but we’re still here.
The song is about what happened in Youngstown, Ohio, when the steel mills shut down for the last time. But it’s also the story of West Virginia, of North Carolina, of all the places where working people have had their lives turned upside down by corporations that decided they could make steel, mine coal, produce chemicals, spin and weave cloth cheaper somewhere else.
You’d never know it to watch TV or the movies, but there are still one heck of a lot of working people in this country: good folks, women and men, working hard at a job or wishing hard that they had one, trying to build a home and a family, whatever that family looks like. People like that built this country, and now they’ve been tossed away and forgotten. But they’re still here and they deserve to be remembered and respected. That’s what this CD is about.
Q: You are active in many causes, such as one to abolish for-profit private prisons. How’d you become involved and do you bring your music into it?
A: Look at what’s happening in states like West Virginia and in North Carolina, where I live. Education is our only hope for the future. That’s where public funds need to be going, from needs-based grants for college students to early childhood programs. But we’re spending those desperately needed funds to build more and more prisons. We’re bankrupting our present and mortgaging our future. How could you not care and want to get involved, politically and musically?
In fact, the Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit University, the West Virginia Council of Churches and Grassroots Leadership, the organization I work for, are co-releasing a special report that looks at the relationship between funding for education and incarceration in West Virginia. That’s my second Charleston performance, after the concert I’m doing for FOOTMAD. The report release is on Feb. 15, at noon in the Governor’s Conference Room at the state Capitol. Free admission, too. I won’t be singing, but I will be speaking from the heart.
After that, we’re going to head out across the state for a series of press conferences and meetings. Musically, I explore what’s happening today with for-profit private prisons on my next CD, “Blood From Stones,” out in September.
Q: Can you name some younger players taking up your mantle of music mixed with activism or do you worry you’re a dying breed?
A: We live in a time when we’re lucky enough to have the music of the entire world available to us. Far more of that music is politically conscious and progressive than most people realize, in all styles, and all around the world. An awful lot of it is coming from young artists: in folk, bluegrass, hip-hop, country, rock, blues, you name it. Our musical and political future is in good hands
But in music, just like in organizing, sometimes you have to listen hard to hear what people are saying. Neither musicians nor political activists should hit you over the head with their point of view. Our job is to slide by you, circle back, ask the hard question, refuse easy answers, shake you up, make you think.
It’s like democracy. If we’re serious about democracy, the important thing is not to tell people what they should think, but to insist that they do think — for themselves and with others. That’s how we create harmony, in music and in politics.
Q: What’s on your iPod? Do you even have an iPod?
A: I try to go through life with my ears unplugged. I’m always listening for the spare parts out of which I can stick a song together: the raggedy rhythm of speech, two words falling in love, a strange rhyme, the bare bones of a story. I’ve gotten a lot of my best lines and songs that way.
I didn’t make up “Now the looms have all gone/It’s so quiet I can’t sleep” from my song “Aragon Mill.” A cotton mill worker in Aragon, Georgia, said it to me back in 1972 after the mill there closed and threw him out of work. There’s a lot of music in everyday life, if you’re listening for it.
I do know some people who have iPods, and they all seem to be pretty nice folks.
Q: OK, if you don’t have an iPod, what are some performers’ CDs you’ve listened to recently? What style of music is a guilty pleasure?
A: Well, it’s not the sort of thing you tell just anybody, and I hope you’ll keep this to yourself. But, since you asked, I really do like West Virginia fiddlers. I was just listening to John Johnson’s CD “Strange Creek Fiddling” a couple of weeks ago. Then there’s Franklin George, French Carpenter, Edden Hammons, Clark Kessinger, Joe Dobbs (even if he was raised in Mississippi), Senator Robert C. Byrd. If everyone in the U.S. Congress spent more time playing old-time string band music, this country and the world would be a lot better off.
Q: Bush backers obviously don’t have this problem, but what’s your advice to perturbed liberals for what to do these next four years?
A: In any kind of political organizing, from union campaigns to electoral politics, there’s never a guarantee of winning. The only guarantee is that, if we don’t organize, we lose every time. The most important thing is to continue building a strong, diverse grass-roots movement in support of our principles and values. That’s what conservatives have been doing for years, and that’s part of the reason they’ve been successful.
In West Virginia and elsewhere, conservatives won a lot of votes by shifting the debate to social issues, particularly gay marriage and reproductive choice. They couldn’t run on economic issues, because in that area they’re robbing the store and handing everything over lock, stock and barrel to the multinational corporations.
Economically, what most people want is pretty simple: a steady job with decent wages and good benefits; an education for their children; a home of their own; insurance for health care and prescription drugs; feeling safe at home and in the world; and income and security in old age. If we keep our eyes on that prize, we can get there.
Q: What’s a favorite quote that inspires you in your work?
A: Some years ago, I was at a community-labor conference where the closing speaker was Addie Wyatt, vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. At that time, she was the highest-ranking African-American woman in the U.S. trade union movement. As union folks do, she ended her speech with the great labor anthem “Solidarity Forever.” But she didn’t sing it, she spoke it. As I listened, I realized that, as many times as I’d sung and led that song, I’d never fully heard what it was saying. Here’s what it said to me then and what it says to me, and hopefully to all of us, now:
In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold/Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand fold/We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old/For the Union makes us strong.
January 27, 2005
Abstract of article by Dave Higgs, Bluegrass Now, read the entire article in June's issue of Bluegrass Now! (subscription required)
"Sometimes," says Si Kahn with a smile, "I think my job in life is to make people cry. I believe people go through this world saying, `Why am I here, what difference do I make, what's my life about, is anybody going to remember me, does anybody care?´ And I'm telling the, `Yeah, people are going to remember you. What you do makes a difference. Whatever it is, you do it in a good spirit and with care and concern for other people and you're going to be all right.´"
Si Kahn has devoted his life to the betterment of humankind. He's tirelessly worked for over 35 years as a civil rights, labor and community organizer and has written some of acoustic music's most memorable songs about real life, tender love, breaking hearts, hard truths and tough questions. Everyone - from the Dry Branch Fire Squad, Charles Sawtelle and the Gordons to John McCutcheon, Robin & Linda Williams and Dick Gaughan - has covered his songs. A friend of Si's, an Episcopal priest named Lynn Honeycutt, described his art perfectly when she said, "Si writes the liturgy for all of us who are no longer sure exactly what we believe." In a world rife with many talented songwriters, Si Kahn stands alone. And his deeply thoughtful, elegantly simple, sometimes majestic, often achingly moving and always hard-hitting songs have stood, and will continue to stand, the test of time.
Growing up near rural Pennsylvania coal mining country, Si never set out to be a musician. However, he loved music from the start and played as a parking lot picker for 20 years before he recorded his first album, the seminal folk recording, New Wood, in 1974. "I had this old Chevy that my Uncle Charlie gave to me," he reminiscences with a look of longing on his face. "I took out the back seat, cut out the steel frame and put a mattress in it. I'd go to every bluegrass festival and old time fiddlers convention I could find and stay up all night and pick, if they'd let me. That's all I ever wanted to do."... (read the entire article in June's issue of Blugrass)
Si Kahn wears his heart on his sleeve. That heart is with the working person, the poor and downtrodden, his sleeve is 100% union spun and woven cotton. What is curious is that Kahn went to Switzerland to produce this concept CD of songs involving picking, spinning and weaving cotton in America. Most of the baker’s dozen songs involve cotton work in some way, and those songs are some of Kahn;s most melodic and best-written material. He grabs you from the opening with “High Cotton,” a perking number with banjo by Jens Krüger that dreams of bidding adieu to working in cotton fields. The songs progress from there to the different stages of cotton production, in the South and the North. While all the songs deal with a degree of pain, “In the Spinning Mill” is the most chilling as it tells the tale of a young millworker who rejects the sexual advances of the boss and suffers severely for it. Kahn, and producer Jens Krüger give each song a unique sound and ambience, so although the topic may be consistent, the acoustic music continuously entertains the ear. Kahn coauthored “Wings of Gold” with John McCutcheon, his friend and occasional performing partner. After the bitterly ironic “Blue Jeans for You, Brown Lung for Me,” Kahn leaves the fields and mills to sing two gems, “We Go On,” and “Dancing in the Kitchen,” that philosophize about life and love in Kahn’s classic style. Kahn has never sounded better or been blessed with such complimentary musical settings, while at the same time enunciating his message so urgently and clearly. This CD may be as difficult to find as an American-made shirt woven in a union textile mill, but like the latter, it’s worth the search. (Threads is available from www.celtictrader.com by calling 800-822-2420 )
I just heard "High Cotton" on the new Prime Cuts compilation and almost didn't make it into work this morning. This is a superbly written number - a creatively arranged masterpiece that I found (as I find with most of your tunes) that I can't stop playing. (In fact, it was "Gone Gonna Rise Again" that got me inspired to do begin songwriting on my own many years ago). If you have any extra copies of "Threads" laying around, I'd love a copy of the entire project for airplay on my program here in Nashville and our other syndicated outlets.
Thanks again for enriching our lives with so many fabulous,
thoughtful and meaningful tunes.
Over There: Si Kahn, Threads
Si Kahn's most enduring tune - his "Blowin' In The Wind," if you will - is "Aragon Mill," the best song every written about a dying factory town. It has entered the folk tradition so thoroughly that it is often credited on record and onstage as a traditional number (sometimes called "Belfast Mill" or "Weave and Spin"), although Kahn wrote it in 1972. His new album, "Threads," is a song-cycle about cotton mills and the folks who work in them - a series of variations on the theme of "Aragon Mill" - and this return to his most familiar subject yields his best crop of songs in years.
Typical of the album is "Down On The Merrimack River." The verses are filled with sharp storytelling details about a 17-year old farm girl who followed the river down from New Hampshire to the mills of Lowell, Masschusetts, in 1846. But the chorus boasts a simple, sing-along melody and catch-phrase in the best tradition of the Carter Family. Kahn uses this approach again and again, whether singing about a restless Arkansas sharecropper on "High Cotton," a lecherous West Virginia mill owner on "In The Spinning Mill," or the Korea veterans drinking beers down at the "Moose Lodge." The vivid specifics of the verses are always balanced by the rousing universality of the chorus.
Kahn doesn't own the world's most handsome voice, but he works well within his limitations, and Switzerland's top bluegrass band, the Krüger Brothers, provide strong, tasteful support. Just as Wallace Stevens wrote some of the best American poems of the last century in his spare time while working a full-time job as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut, Kahn wrote some of the finest political folk songs of the 1970s and '80s in his spare time while working a full-time job as a community organizer in Charlotte, North Carolina. This part-time approach may have lowered his profile, but it has not curtailed the quality of his art.
It was standing room only in the U.S. Capitol as the Public Safety and Justice Campaign (PSJC) took the federal government to task for trying to bail out the ailing for-profit private prison industry. Nearly 60 Congressional staff members along with members of the press jammed the meeting room to hear a panel of experts document the failure of the private prison corporations and to demand that the Federal government stop using public dollars to rescue them from bankruptcy.
The tone was set by Si Kahn, Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership and Director of the Public Safety and Justice Campaign. "For-profit private prisons are an experiment thats failed," Kahn said. "The states know this. Even conservative states are taking back private prisons and refusing to build new ones. Only the federal government continues to bail out this dying industry. The power of this industry, with its campaign contributions and lobbyists, prevents the federal government from establishing policies that are fair to those who are incarcerated in prisons and to those who work in them." Kahn concluded by saying, "Its time to take action!"
Kahn is clearly right. Three years after the PSJC launched its coalitional campaign to abolish for-profit private prisons, the fight is being won at the state level, where organized pressure from local coalitions of unions representing correctional employees, criminal justice advocates, organizations representing prisoners and their families, faith leaders and students have put the private prison industry on the defensive. But the federal bailout threatens to undo the gains made at the state level.
According to Judy Greene, a nationally recognized criminal justice analyst, "By last year, not a single state was soliciting new private prison contracts. Many existing contracts were rolled back or even rescinded. The companies stock prices went through the floor. Here was one experiment in the privatization of public services that might have limped to a well-deserved close. But instead, the federal government seems to be rushing to the industrys rescue."
This theme was echoed by Phil Glover, a correctional officer by trade and President of the AFGE Council of Prison Locals. Glover told the Congressional staffers, "I can only express my outrage over the situation, which is the federal government bailout of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and other private correctional companies. When CCA stock was at an all time low of 18 cents per share, when CCAs Youngstown facility was being closed, when a CCA prison in Texas was on the verge of declaring an emergency with the state by not being able to make payroll, the Federal Bureau of Prisons signed a multi-year contract with CCA to house illegal aliens at California City, California. The cost of this contract is excessive and federal employees could have handled these inmates in a more cost-effective manner. Instead, they chose to bail out a company that was and probably still is on the verge of disaster."
Speaker after speaker explained the crisis the private prison industry faced before the federal government decided to lend them a helping hand. According to Joshua Miller, a labor economist with AFSCME, "The daily pressures that these companies face to satisfy Wall Street causes them to cut corners, pay employees low wages, deliberately under-staff facilities, under-train employees and hire unqualified staff. In an inherently dangerous environment like a prison, these business practices are a recipe for disaster and often lead to fatal consequences."
Miller continued, "There is growing evidence that privatized corrections does not work, does not save money and is bad public policy. Private prison operators and their proponents have no incentive to reduce overcrowding, no incentive to consider alternatives to incarceration and no incentive to deal with the broader questions of criminal justice. Cost-cutting becomes the primary objective, often at the expense of public safety, the quality of life in the community, the humane treatment of inmates and the well-being of prison employees."
So why, given these facts, does the federal government insist on trying to bail out the for-profit private industry? Vincent Schiraldi, President of the Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice and its policy arm, the Justice Policy Institute, argued that, "While state legislative leaders are actively grappling with growing prison populations and costs and relooking at some of the more draconian policies passed during the 1980s and 1990s, the federal system has lagged behind in enacting or considering sentencing and other reforms, and is massively increasing the FBOPs budget and prison populations almost on automatic pilot."
Schiraldi pointed out that "from June 2000 to June 2001, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the cumulative prison population of the 50 states and the District of Columbia grew by 0.4%. During the same period, the population of the FBOP increased by 7.2%. That means that the federal prison system grew at 18 times the rate of state prison systems. In the last six months of 2001, more inmates were added to the federal prison system (7,372) than to all 50 states combined (7,048).
Both Schiraldi and Julie Stewart, President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), argued the federal government should follow the lead of the states in moving towards "rational sentencing systems" that can reduce prison populations. According to Schiraldi, "The FBOP has the highest percentage of non-violent offenders of any prison system in the country. Over 70% of federal prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. According to the Bureaus own security classification system, more than half of all federal inmates are classified as minimum or low security risks."
Furthermore, Schiraldi said, "Separate public opinion polls
conducted by Parade Magazine and ABC News released in February and March, respectively,
found that three quarters of Americans favored sentencing non-violent offenders
to alternatives to incarceration like probation and drug treatment
rather than prison." Reducing the number of federal prisoners would take away the FBOPs excuse for supporting the for-profit private prison industry and would help prevent them from pouring millions of public dollars into bailing these corporations out.
Making a strong case against against for-profit private prisons, Stewart said, "Im always for a free market solution. But theres something wrong about making a profit from someones misery."
Another critical step is federal legislation, stated Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio), cosponsor of the Public Safety Act (H.R. 1764, S. 842). This bill would end the privatization of prison facilities by: (1) prohibiting the incarceration of federal inmates in private prisons; and (2) denying federal prison grants to states and municipalities that contract with private prison companies. Rep. Strickland, who worked in a prison before his election to Congress, stated that he is "deeply troubled by what I see as a direct conflict of interest in the privatization of prisons. Many of these private companies are paid on a per diem basis, meaning they make a bigger profit the longer inmates sit in their prisons. A common way for them to compensate their employees is to give stock shares in the company. This means that the private employees stand to make a profit when they are making quasi-judicial decisions about things like the length of an inmates sentence."
Rep. Strickland concluded by saying, "The bottom line is that the private sector has no business running our prisons. This is one of the most basic government responsibilities. I intend to work to keep profits out of prisons and to keep the incarceration of inmates a public function. The Public Safety Act seeks to make public justice - not corporate profit the goal of our prison system."
AFGE and AFSCME representatives Phil Glover and Joshua Miller closed the proceedings with pleas for public accountability. Said Glover, "Keeping communities safe and operating safe, secure prisons is a government function. In an environment where law enforcement functions such as airline security are being brought back to the federal government, we should not consider placing convicted felons in private prison operators hands. It is a bad idea. Hopefully, this Congress will look at the facts surrounding this industry and decide to discontinue its subsidized operation."
Miller concluded, "In many ways, private prisons are run like private airport security. Much of the recent move to federalize airport security was the result of the shabby operations of Argenbright Security. A lesser-known fact is that Argenbright Security is a unit of British-owned Securicor, which operates private prisons. Wackenhut Security, the parent company of Wackenhut Corrections, also provides airport security. If Congress believes that airport security screening is too critical a public service to be contracted out to companies that specialize in low pay and high turnover, then it logically follows that incarcerating criminals protecting public safety is also a fundamental and solely governmental responsibility.
"Incarcerating criminals taking away an individuals freedom is one of governments most basic responsibilities. Its crucial that this responsibility stay in the hands of sworn officers that are accountable to the public. In short, and quite clearly, the private sector is in this for the money. By their nature, private prison companies are more interested in doing well than in doing good. Corrections is the administration of justice. As such, it should not be contracted out to the highest bidder."
Corrections and Criminal Justice Coalition's Spring 2002 Newsletter article
"Not since Wallace Stevens scribbled poetry in the hours after his insurance job has a hobbyist/artist created a body of work as impressive as Si Kahn's"
- Geoffrey Himes, Washington Post
"The residency was really a fine experience for all the participants . .The concert, lecture, class and workshop were all exciting and memorable. All the pieces fit and made an extraordinary experience . . .I admire the consistency and balance you have. You actually do what you say. I loved seeing the wholeness emerge."
- Barbara N. Peters
Coordinator of Human Diversity Programming
"Si Kahn fuses life with song"
- Studs Terkel
"As student leaders, we can appreciate the help you provided to this campus in terms of organization, cooperation and "power." We have different insights of what it means to be leaders, thanks to you . . . Your leadership and belief and dedication to your activities is inspiring."
- Kevin Clement and Eric Moore
The University of Minnesota, Morris
"Many of Si Kahn's brilliant insights became the foundation for my work. I especially appreciated Si's emphasis on building leadership and his faith and confidence in people."
- Paul David Wellstone, U. S. Senator from Minnesota
Been A Long Time Reviews
"Given his upbringing at the edge of the coal mines in rural Pennsylvania, it is no surprise that Si Kahn has turned his latest musical efforts toward the sound of bluegrass. Having already established himself as one of our very best songwriters-his songs are sung widely by professionals and porch singers alike-Si Kahn has created a sweet and lively collection of new songs on Been a Long Time, his latest release on Sliced Bread Records.
This musical collaboration with producer and banjo slinger Pete Wernick actually began in late 1997 and was recorded in the studios of the late and obviously loved Charles Sawtelle. In fact, the recording is dedicated to his memory. What turned out to be one of Sawtelle's last recordings is one that would have no doubt made him proud.
Joining Si on Been a Long Time are some of the finest musicians the bluegrass world has to offer. Along with Wernick's bluegrass banjo is Laurie Lewis singing and fiddling, Tom Rozum on harmony vocals and mandolin, Todd Phillips on bass and vocal harmony and Sawtelle himself on lead and rhythm guitar. Add these stellar players to Si Kahn's fine songwriting and you end up with a recording that satisfies on several levels.
Been a Long Time opens with "Going Down To The Old Home Place" which, at once, establishes the bluegrass sound and the thematic thread that runs through the rest of the recording. Bittersweet memories of home, family, struggle and hard work are familiar motifs in Si's larger catalog of songs, but given this musical setting, they've never sounded so sweet.
Other highlights include "Long Way To Harlan," a vocal duet with Laurie Lewis, "Just a Lie," which takes a hard look at the so called good old days and features some wonderful Dobro work from Sally Van Meter. With the simple and solid backing of clawhammer banjo by Mike Woods and a Laurie Lewis fiddle line, Lewis takes the vocal lead on "First Time Lover," a song that accomplishes what Si Kahn does best: pulls from the heart the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. Just as you finish wiping the tear away from that song, you're up and "Dancing With The Johnson Boys" on the very next cut. After a touching tribute to "Grandma," Been a Long Time leaves you with perhaps the most important thought on "Where The Song Never Ends." That thought, like the feeling behind most of Si Kahn's music, has everything to do with singing deep from the heart in a circle of friends."
- Matt Watroba, Sing Out!, Vol. 44, No. 4
"Si Kahn's "Been A Long Time" is the second great CD to come out of the late, great Charles Sawtelle's Rancho DeVille recording studio this year (the first being Charles' brilliant, glorious, posthumous CD on Acoustic Disc). Backed by a luminous band including Sawtelle on guitar, Laurie Lewis on fiddle and vocals, Pete Wernick on banjoy, Tom Rozum on mandolin and vocals, Todd Phillps on bass, and a few special guest artists, this is the first time singer and song-writer Si Kahn has been able to record a bluegress project, and it's a gem.
There's the great "Hear That Sound," where Lewis's fiddle seems to ring off the peaks of the mountains surrounding Sawtelle's Colorado mountainside studio, and the heartbreak of the Depression lament "Just A Lie," that could become a true bluegrass classic.
As producer Pete Wernick puts it. "One of the amazing things about Si's writing is how he can look at ordinary experiences with a view deep and interesting enough to want to savor." Few other contemporary bluegrass and folk song-writers warrant similar album; it's more folkgrass due to the material and Kahn's warm, eloquent voice. But, with the stellar backup band, not to mention the depth and soul expressed by every player here, this CD ought to please a very wide audience."
(Slaced Bread Records. P.O. Box 606, Blue Bell, PA 19422)
David J. McCarty
Bluegrass Unlimited, June 2001
Been A Long Time can be ordered from Sliced Bread Records: www.slicedbread.com.
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This page last updated: January 29, 2012