Si Kahn first learned of the power of song—perhaps like so many in the 60s—from his work in activism. In his book Creative Community Organizing: A guide for rabble rousers, activists, and quiet lovers of justice, he writes about his experience as a skinny, dewy kid from the north on the front lines of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. “At the beginning I was totally naive,” he says. “I went south to the southern civil rights movement because all the cool people were going south.” There was a lot to impress a person in those days looking for cool stuff, but what impressed Kahn most was the power of song to affect change.
“Singing together can help people prepare to act and take risks … It can change our hearts, and reinforce our willingness to act in the face of fear and danger.” He writes that many of the songs associated with the movement “reached us in a deep, personal way, even though they are in a sense a language we do not completely understand, a language that can only be translated by the heart.”
“The great political songs connect us across time. Who can stand swaying in a circle with arms linked, singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and not be taken back to the Movement and to the South, whether they were there in person or in spirit, whether they were even yet born?”
When he took up the guitar he sought to use song in the same way: to resolve people to action, to connect them, to reinforce a willingness to face their fears, and to touch them. And in the 40-plus years since then, he hasn’t done half bad. He’s pressed 16 albums and has written songs that would be recorded by artists ranging from Eddi Reader and Thomas Dolby to Hazel Dickens. (“Aragon Mill” is perhaps the most covered, and is available on iTunes in nearly 30 different versions.) He’s shared stages and CDs with Pete Seeger, he’s lectured on the politics of country music, taught organizing, and songwriting. He’s also now completing a musical that will premier in Boston next May.
It’s not bad for a career in music that he calls “hobby that got out of hand.” Throughout he continues to think of his music as a sideline to this true work, that of community organizing. After those early years cutting his teeth during the Civil Rights years he went on to found Grassroots Leadership in 1980 with the goal then to work to end social and economic oppression and to achieve justice and equality. Among other things, the organization was instrumental in bringing and end to immigrant family detention in the US, most notably the T. Don Hutto detention centre in Taylor, Texas. And when Kahn announced this year that he was retiring, it was his role at the helm of Grassroots Leadership that he was thinking of.
“Somebody once said to me, you know, if you had just been a musician, just been a songwriter, think of how many more songs you would have had time to write. And I say, yeah, but what would they have been about? In my songwriting, I’ve been documenting what these people were like, what their work was like, what their communities were like, what their lives were like. So, sure, if I hadn’t been an organizer I wouldn’t have had those stories. And probably if I hadn’t been a musician I wouldn’t have been as effective as an organizer.”
Arguably, some of his best songs are those that were initially written to document a person or an event, but also touched on more universal concepts and ideas. “Aragon Mill” is popular because of its sentiment, not for the light it sheds on a specific town at a specific time. The same is true of Kahn’s “What you do with what you’ve got”–it was written when an editor of Sing Out!couldn’t find enough good songs about disability to mark the International Year of Disabled Persons and. Kahn wrote one. In other’s hands, perhaps most notably those of Dick Gaughan’s, it becomes an indictment of us all, and given a setting that seems a world away from literal physical impairment.
Nevertheless, he says that “I’m fully aware that, if I’m remembered for anything, it may be for writing Rubber Blubber Whale.” Were it true (it won’t be) he says he wouldn’t mind. “As organizers we have to be entertainers,” he says. “I don’t want people to endure the struggle for injustice, I want them to enjoy it. I want music to lift people up. I want it to make them feel better,” even when faced with topics and issues that are at times impossibly bleak.
His last collection of songs, Courage, comes from the same place, and is the latest chapter in a project that spans his career as an organizer. The songs are about people, many of whom he knows through his community work. “It’s really a thank you to everyone from whom I learned who courage means.” In the book he writes about his grandfather, his father, community leaders, and people who have endured so much, yet have remained so hopeful. It’s perhaps a more produced offering than most of his others, and the songs benefit from a lush setting and instrumentation provided by banjo whiz Jens Kruger.
“There is a reason I start [the CD] with a song about a Labrador retriever who thinks he can fly,” he says. “Because one of the ways we can live this life richly is by attempting the impossible.” Given the richness of his life, of the risks he’s taken, that’s something he knows something about.