For Si Kahn, being a folk singer-songwriter is simply a manifestation of a greater cause--more than 35 years of activism and organizing community groups. He is deeply involved in music as a vehicle to achieve progress in issues of civil rights, labor, voting rights, health care, welfare, the environment and peace.
Si Kahn will return to Tucson for a performance Oct. 26 at--where else?--the Unitarian Universalist Church. Although he has not performed an official concert in Tucson since 1982, Kahn recently was in town for the Grantmakers Without Borders conference at the Doubletree Hotel Oct. 12-16.
Compared at times to Woody Guthrie, Malvina Reynolds, Utah Phillips and Pete Seeger, Kahn has written and performed hundreds of songs about community, work, family and freedom, the most familiar being "Aragon Mill," "Gone, Gonna Rise Again" and "Wild Rose of the Mountain."
His tunes have been recorded by a wide variety of artists, including Laurie Lewis and Grant Street, June Tabor and the Oyster Band, Robin and Linda Williams, Patrick Street, the Dry Branch Fire Squad, Charles Sawtelle, Christy Moore, John McCutcheon, and Planxty.
Kahn saw the release of his first album, New Wood, in 1974, and it remains a seminal folk record. He has released almost a dozen more recordings since. His most recent, last year's Threads, is a song cycle about cotton mills and the people who work in them, picking up on the theme of his legendary "Aragon Mill," written some 30 years ago. He recorded Threads with Switzerland's top bluegrass band, The Krüger Brothers.
In addition to performing music, Kahn writes and lectures on the basics of organizing. He has written two basic organizing handbooks: How People Get Power and Organizing: A Guide for Grassroots Leaders.
Significant among Kahn's recent concerns is his opposition to for-profit private prisons. His lecture "Blood from Stone: Private Prisons and the Corruption of Justice" explores the abuses in private prisons and the international movement for their abolishment.
He is also the executive director of Grassroots Leadership of Charlotte, N.C., a multiracial collective of activists who facilitate civil rights, labor and community organizing throughout the southern United States. He founded the group in 1980.
Kahn began helping citizens combine their voices and efforts at grassroots levels in 1965 as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas. In the 1970s, he worked with the United Mine Workers of America during the Brookside coal-miners strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, an episode of American labor history that was the subject of Barbara Kopple's brilliant documentary film, Harlan County, USA.
No less than the Rev. Jesse Jackson has written, "Si Kahn's music embodies the thoughtful experiences of a seasoned organizer and communicates them in a way that engenders confidence."
It makes sense, then, that Kahn is the author of such lyrics as "Who's watchin' the man who's watchin' the man who's watchin' me?"