Si Kahn’s performance at the Ashe Arts Council’s “Black Squirrel Winter Chili Fundraiser” Saturday lived up to its billing: an intimate evening with a nationally-known singer-songwriter and storyteller which thwarted the pernicious powers of the black squirrels in their legions, if only for one evening.
The event was a fundraiser for the Art’s Council’s school and community arts programming, featuring a chili dinner — six kinds of chili — and a cakewalk ahead of Kahn’s solo performance.
Singing and accompanying himself on his well-travelled 1964 Guild guitar, Kahn brings a quiet, unmannered sincerity to his craft, self-described as “musical journalism.” Performing his better-know songs like Go To Work On Monday, Gone Gonna Rise Again, and Aragon Mill, his singing is deliberative and focused, belying the fact that he has performed them thousands of time over the years.
His lyrical turns of phrase range from the arresting — “40 years of cuttin’ gears makes Christmas seem untrue to me” —to the amusing — “the existential angst of a Labrador retriever will last ‘til suppertime.”
Between songs, Kahn segues with stories and jokes, some of which set up the next song, some of which go off on dog-legged tangents — the listener drawn to follow in either case. “I’m Jewish,” he says, “So the stories don’t stop.”
Kahn has worn a few hats. A Harvard graduate, he worked as a community and union organizer for over 45 years, during which time he also released 16 records, published four books, and raised three children.
Privately, he describes himself as a “kindly old retired gentleman living on a modest fixed income.” The “retired” label is misleading, however, as he still writes and performs and remains involved in organizing efforts, such as the protests of the Pebble Mine exploration project on Bristol Bay, where Alaskan fishermen and indigenous peoples oppose the building of a copper mine mine next to the world’s largest wild salmon habitat.
In truth, Kahn is a Renaissance man, a poet warrior, a mensch. And he loves Ashe County. Just ask him; he’ll tell you.
His 2010 book, “Creative Community Organizing: A Guide for Rabble-rousers, Activists and Quiet Lover of Justice,” is a patchwork of social history, autobiography, revealed wisdom and object lessons in the prime directive of community organizing: “to unite the divided and divide the united.”
Kahn sat for an interview with the Jefferson Post at the Ashe Arts Center this week, and held forth on traditional music and the current state of unionism in America:
JP: Would you say the folk music scene has gotten more eclectic in the years since the folk explosion of the 60s? There must just be die-hard players and die-hard listeners.”
Kahn: Actually, there’s a youth revival. If you come to a concert I do, it’s always a small crowd and it’s a place for an AARP recruiter to really do well. But here’s what’s magic: I will be going on Feb. 20 to Folk Alliance International, which is a trade association for the folk community. There will be 14 and 15 year old kids — singer-songwriters, Celtic bands, edge-of-punk — that will be playing traditional music just the way they play it down here. That comes in under the radar unless you’re a part of that world. But one of the things that’s always a struggle is between the traditionalists and, let’s say, the futurists.
JP: Yeah, because the vanguard is always at risk of being either too derivative or too divergent.
Kahn: But what’s interesting is it doesn’t all break down generationally. Some of them are hardcore folks, played with Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, but they’re pushing the edges. Bela Fleck was a hardcore bluegrass player. Some of the older crowd are among the ones diverging. Then you find 20-year-olds who, note for note, want to play it the way Tommy Jerrall did.
JP: But if you know that canon, the guys that play note for note may master technicals of that stuff, but the soulful underpinnings are often not there. Not that that’s bad, they’re phenomenal.
Kahn: There’s always a continuum between the mechanical reproducers and the canon interpreters. And then there’s the ones where you think, “I hadn’t heard that in the song before.” This is one of my experiences as a songwriter. I’ll hear another band or performer do one of my songs and I’m thinking, “man, I didn’t know that was in there.” There are many many cases where their interpretation of my song is far better than my own. They had the distance.
JP: Bob Dylan got that a lot, I bet.
Kahn: (laughs) Well, you get to keep the royalties.
JP: You were a union organizer in Harlan County, Ky., and in the Carolina cotton mills. What happened to unionism in America?
Kahn: It goes back to the Powell Memorandum in 1973. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce were really worried about the fact that there was so much anti-business feeling. Elite schools like Harvard, Princeton and Yale, their graduates, even from the business schools, started to be anti-business. It was the whole 60s thing. They commissioned a guy named Lewis Powell to write a strategic memorandum about how they could destroy that. Go to the Powell Memorandum; everything the corporate sector has done is in it. It’s more than a manifesto, it’s a business model. I would say what happened to unions was unmitigated union-busting—an amazingly sophisticated, well-funded anti-union educational program so the average worker doesn’t think unions are in their interest.
Si Kahn will be performing at the Ashe Art’s Center again on Oct. 12.