About Si Kahn
Si Kahn has a long and impressive career as a performer, prolific songwriter, activist and organizer, author, playwright. CLICK THE BOXES BELOW TO READ ALL ABOUT IT
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. –Dave Higgs, Bluegrass News
It’s A Dog’s Life includes ten previously unrecorded Kahn compositions and features his vocals on three of the thirteen tracks. Those include “Government on Horseback,” the first single, where Kahn revives an unrecorded song from 1981.
“When a human says, ‘It’s a dog’s life,’ they mean that their life is pretty rough, according to Kahn. “But when a dog says ‘It’s a dog’s life,’ and adds examples of how great it is to be a dog, that’s a different matter. I suspect this distinction will be lost on many if not most people.”
Si’s 18th CD Bristol Bay was released on June 15th, 2013, produced by Jens Kruger of the Kruger Brothers, who recently won the $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music. It was the #1 CD for July on the international Folk DJ List, based on weekly playlists submitted by nearly 200 DJs around the world, the fourth of Si’s CDs to win that honor. Si himself was named the #1 Artist, with the most airplay for the month. He is donating all income from the Bristol Bay CD, including his artist and songwriter royalties, to support the work of Musicians United To Protect Bristol Bay.
Si’s 17th CD Aragon Mill: The Bluegrass Sessions, was recorded in Lengerich, Germany with the German bluegrass band The Looping Brothers. It was released in Europe on May Day 2013 and on Labor Day in North America by the Dutch music company Strictly Country Records. The CD won an international Folk DJ List Triple Crown in September, 2013: It was named the #1 CD for the month, Si and the Looping Brothers were recognized as the #1 Artists, and the title track “Aragon Mill” was listed as the #1 Song.
The CD features 15 of Si’s original songs, arranged by the Looping Brothers in bluegrass style. Si and the Looping Brothers toured Germany and the Netherlands in May 2013, including an official showcase at the European World of Bluegrass (EWOB), and the southern United States in late September/early October of that same year, including five official showcases at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Si’s 16th CD Courage, his tribute to the quiet heroism of everyday people, was released on May Day 2010 and was recognized by the Folk DJ List #1 CD for 2010. Si himself was listed as the #1 Artist for the year, with more airplay for the year on international English language folk radio than either Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan.
Three songs from Courage were in the Folk DJ List Top 10 for the year: “Peace Will Rise” (#1) about the “troubles” in Northern Ireland; “Otis Is Flying” (#3) about a Labrador retriever who yearns to fly, a metaphor for all of us who believe in the possibility of a better and more just world; and “Playing the Old Songs (#10) about a long haul driving Vietnam veteran from West Virginia searching for peace of mind.
At the annual Folk Alliance International conference in February 2011, Si was publicly honored with a special Triple Crown Award for being the #1 Artist, and having the #1 CD and #1 Song for 2010. His acceptance remarks focused on the public responsibility of artists.
Si’s songs of family, community, love, work and freedom have been recorded and performed by hundreds of artists around the world, including:
- United States: Kathy Mattea, Peggy Seeger, Hazel Dickens, John McCutcheon, the original Red Clay Ramblers, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, Robin and Linda Williams, Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum, the Dry Branch Fire Squad, Charles Sawtelle, Rosalie Sorrels.
- Ireland: Patrick Street (Ireland/US), Planxty, Eleanor Shanley, Dolores Keane, The Fureys, Dublin City Ramblers
- Scotland: Dick Gaughan, Alec Campbell, Brian McNeill, Eddi Reader
- Other countries: Margaret Christl (Canada/Scotland), Renaud (France), 4 Yn Y Bar (Wales), the Looping Brothers (Germany), An Rinn (Germany), the Otto Groote Group (Germany), Egbert Meyers (Netherlands), June Tabor and the Oyster Band, (England)
His songs have been translated into at least half a dozen languages, including French, Welsh, Hebrew, Swedish, Drents (a Dutch dialect) and Plattdeutsch (“Low German”). Such songs as Aragon Mill (aka Belfast Mill, Oregon Mill, Weave and Spin, Douglas Mills), Gone Gonna Rise Again, Go To Work On Monday, and Rubber Blubber Whale have become part of the oral tradition, and are sung in folk clubs and living rooms, at demonstrations and on picket lines around the world.
Si has performed at concerts and festivals in Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Northern Ireland, Canada and the U.S. He has toured with Pete Seeger, Andy Irvine, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer and John McCutcheon, and has shared festival and workshop stages with artists ranging from Ani DiFranco to the Fairfield Four. His musical body of work includes 16 albums of original songs; a CD of original songs for children, Good Times and Bedtimes; and a collection of traditional labor and civil rights songs recorded with Pete Seeger and Jane Sapp.
One of Si’s favorite musical experiences was being asked by publisher Harper-Collins to set to music and record the classic children’s books Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon. He has composed original music and lyrics for half a dozen films and videos, including the labor videos The Turning Point, We’re Not Leaving, Shout Youngstown and One Voice, and the PBS documentary, Hazardous Wastes: The Search for a Solution.
Si is a member of the organizing committee for Local 1000 of the American Federation of Musicians, AFL-CIO; a past trustee of the Labor Heritage Foundation; a lifetime member of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA); a lifetime member of the Folk Alliance; and the official poet laureate of the North Carolina AFL-CIO by unanimous vote of the convention in 1986.
Si Kahn has worked for almost 50 years as a professional civil rights, labor and community organizer and musician. He began his organizing career in 1965 in Arkansas with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, more popularly known as SNCC, the student wing of the Southern Civil Rights Movement. During the War on Poverty, he served first as a VISTA Volunteer and later as Deputy Director of an eight-county community action agency in rural Georgia, where he also coached the first racially integrated Little League team in that part of the state.
In the 1970s, he worked with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) during the Brookside Strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, and was an Area Director of the J.P. Stevens Campaign for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU). These historic labor struggles are portrayed in the movies Harlan County U.S.A. and Norma Rae.
In 1980, Si founded Grassroots Leadership, a national Southern-based progressive organization committed to community, civil rights and labor organizing. He served as its Executive Director for 30 years, stepping down on May Day 2010.
For the past 15 years, Grassroots Leadership has worked to oppose privatization and to defend the public sector. This work currently includes a campaign to abolish all for-profit private prisons, jails and detention centers, including immigrant detention centers, as a step towards helping create a prison and criminal justice system that is at least to some extent just and humane.
In August 2009, shortly before Si’s retirement, Grassroots Leadership won a major national victory in its Campaign to End Immigrant Family Detention, when the Federal government removed 150 children from the notorious for-profit private T. Don Hutto “family residential center” in Taylor, Texas, where children as young as infants were imprisoned together with their parents. The New York Times wrote, “The decision to stop sending families there—and to set aside plans for three new family detention centers—is the Obama administration’s clearest departure from its predecessor’s immigration enforcement policies.”
Si is one of three co-founders of Musicians United To Protect Bristol Bay. Since 2010 he has been actively involved as a passionate volunteer in the international campaign to stop the proposed Pebble Mine and to protect permanently the people, jobs, communities, Native languages, cultures, traditions, and wild sockeye salmon of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, one of the great remaining wild places in the world (www.MusiciansUnited.info).
Presentations & Residencies
RECENT KEYNOTES AND PRESENTATIONS
International Country Music Conference (May 28th, 2014): ICMC is an annual academic conference dedicated to the scholarly study of country music. Si’s keynote was titled “Country Music, the Folk Revival and Social Justice.”
Arts Day North Carolina (May 20th, 2014: Si was one of the main speakers for this annual conference sponsored by ARTS North Carolina, a statewide organization that advocates for public arts funding.
Trinity Episcopal Middle School “Freedom Fete” (January 24th, 2014): At this annual event held in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Si spoke on the topic “Justice, Justice Shalt Thou Pursue.”
Appalachian Studies Association 35th Annual Conference (March 23rd, 2012): Si’s keynote topic for this conference, held at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pennsylvania, focused on the historic relationship between social justice organizing and culture in the Appalachian region.
Southeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference (October 14th, 2010): Presented at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas, Si’s keynote, like all of his speeches, combined unaccompanied song with poetic rhetoric, and focused on music and resistance in both the Deep South and Appalachia.
Main Stage West Artist in Residence (current): Si is in his fourth year as the Artist in Residence at this theatre company in Sebastopol, California. During that time, Main Stage West has produced four of his musicals: Silver Spoon, Joe Hill’s Last Will, Precious Memories and Mother Jones in Heaven. A new musical that looks at U.S. history from the grassroots up is currently in development, with the initial production planned for 2016.
Alaska Folk Festival Guest Artist (April 2013): Si was the official Guest Artist for the 37th annual Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau. In addition to two main stage concerts during the week-long event, he presented a series of workshops focused on the work of Musicians United To Protect Bristol Bay.
University of Kentucky Appalachian Center Artist in Residence (October-November 2012): Si was honored with a special two-week residency at the University of Kentucky’s main campus in Lexington. As a part of that residency, he did talks, workshops, training sessions, concerts and conversations all over Eastern and Central Kentucky, including a concert at the International Global Mountain Regions Conference organized and hosted by the Appalachian Center.
People’s Music Network Artist in Residence (2011-2012): In 2011, this national organization of progressive musicians announced that it was creating an annual Artist in Residence position, and asked Si to be the first person to hold that post. He participated in the organization’s June 2012 national meeting in High Falls, New York in that capacity.
John Hay Whitney Foundation Fellow: As a result of his 1974 fellowship study The Forest Service and Appalachia, published by the Foundation, Si was invited to testify before the U.S. Senate in hearings that resulted in substantially increased federal payments in lieu of taxes to hundreds of poor Appalachian mountain counties from Alabama to New York.
Ford Foundation Leadership Development Program Fellow: In the late 1960s, while working with a community action agency in rural Georgia, Si was selected to participate in a year-long program for emerging social justice leaders.
Si’s most recent book is Creative Community Organizing: A Guide for Rabble-Rousers, Activists and Quiet Lovers of Justice (Berrett-Koehler, 2010). The book features forewords by Angela Davis and Jim Hightower. Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman wrote about the book:
Democracy is not a gift bestowed by the powerful on the rest of us. If we want democracy now, we have to be willing to fight for it – and we need to know how. Si Kahn’s passionate new book, based on a lifetime of organizing for justice, offers hope for all of us who will not compromise the dream of democracy.
Si’s most recent book prior to Creative Community Organizing is The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy (Berrett-Koehler, 2006), co-authored with public/feminist philosopher Elizabeth Minnich, his long time partner and spouse. Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor of The Nation, wrote of this book:
Inspiring to read, this book will be of great value to organizers, activists and citizens of conscience . . . Nothing less than our democracy is at stake when extremists want to roll back our hard-earned rights. It offers a spirited blueprint for all citizens who care about renewing America’s best and most generous traditions.
Si is the author of two widely used organizing handbooks, How People Get Power and Organizing: A Guide for Grassroots Leaders, which together have sold over 80,000 copies. Both were published by McGraw-Hill, and later reissued by the National Association of Social Workers Press (NASW Press).
He is the author of the Si Kahn Songbook (Hal Leonard, Publishing, 1989), as well as of articles in such magazines and journals as The Nation, Liberal Education, Alternet, New York University Law Journal, The Journal of Community Practice, Social Policy, The Journal of Appalachian Studies, Southern Exposure, New South, South Today, Southern Patriot, Mountain Life and Work, People’s Appalachia, Old Time Music Magazine and Horizons, the magazine for Presbyterian women. He wrote the section on community organizing for the 19th edition of the Encyclopedia of Social Work, published by the National Association of Social Workers Press.
He is the author of Si Kahn Songbook (Hal Leonard, Publishing, 1989), as well as of articles in such magazines and journals as The Nation, Liberal Education, Alternet, New York University Law Journal, The Journal of Community Practice, Social Policy, Southern Exposure, New South, South Today, Southern Patriot, Mountain Life and Work, People’s Appalachia, Old Time Music Magazine and Horizons, the magazine for Presbyterian women. He wrote the section on community organizing for the 19th edition of the Encyclopedia of Social Work, published by the National Association of Social Workers Press.
Recognition and Awards
Borderline Folk Club Tribute To Si Kahn (August 26th, 2012): As part of this tribute, held at the Borderline Folk Club’s annual picnic in New City NY, eighteen artists each performed one of Si’s original songs. Si did a set of his songs and led a workshop titled “The Influence of Immigration on the Organized Labor Movement and How It Inspired the Folk Music That Grew Out Of It.”
Charlotte Folk Society Folk Heritage Award (August 13th, 2011): The inscription reads, “To Si Kahn: Singer and song-maker, grassroots organizer, giving voice to the voiceless, claiming dignity, justice and hope, carrying on from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Thank you for bringing fresh inspiration to the tradition of singing for a better world.”
Folk Alliance International Special Triple Crown Award (February 16th, 2011): At its opening plenary session, Folk Alliance International (the association representing the folk music community worldwide) presented Si with a special “Triple Crown Award” honoring him for having had the #1 CD (Courage) and the #1 song (“Peace Will Rise”) for 2010, as well as for being the #1 folk artist for the year, based on statistics compiled by the Folk DJ List for airplay by DJs around the world.
Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Risk Taker Award (December 8th, 2010): This award was presented by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice at their annual meeting in New York City. As a congregational rabbi in Buenos Aires during the years of the Argentine military regime of 1976-1982, Rabbi Meyer became a strong critic of the military government and its violations of human rights. He worked to save the lives of hundreds of people that were being persecuted by the regime and he visited prisoners in jails, among them the renowned journalist Jacobo Timerman, who dedicated his book, Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number to the rabbi, who “brought solace to Jewish, Christian and atheist prisoners.”
21st Century Democrats Solidarity Forever Award (June 10th, 2010): Previous honorees include the late Senator Paul Wellstone, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congressman John Lewis, Senator Al Franken, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Governor Howard Dean, and filmmaker Michael Moore.
Distinguished Senior Fellow, Demos: A Center for Ideas and Action: Si was appointed to this honorary position shortly after his retirement from Grassroots Leadership in May 2010, and held it through the end of 2013. During this period, he focused on further developing strategies and tactics for combining cultural work with social justice organizing.
The Oxford American Magazine Southern Master: In its annual “Southern Music” issue in December 2009, Si was named a “Southern Master” and profiled by the magazine.
Other Awards and Recognitions: A public television broadcast of Si’s musical Some Sweet Day won the Award for Cable Excellence (ACE) in 1982. The video We’re Not Leaving, produced by the United Steel Workers of America (USWA), for which he wrote and recorded the title song and soundtrack, won the Silver Screen Award at the U.S. Industrial Film Festival in 1985. Six children’s CDs by John McCutcheon, for which Si co-wrote the majority of the songs with John, have been Grammy finalists.
Si’s Acceptance Speech at Folk Alliance in 2011
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Si’s album Courage, produced by the amazing Jens Kruger of the Kruger Brothers, with liner notes by the the extraordinary Kathy Mattea. With great help from Kari Estrin, Si’s long time music career strategist and radio promoter, not only was the CD #1 for the year on The Folk Chart, Si’s song “Peace Will Rise” about The Troubles in Northern Ireland was the #1 song, and Si himself was the #1 artist.
At its annual conference in February 2011, Folk Alliance International presented Si with a special Triple Crown/Hat Trick/Trifecta award honoring this achievement. In his acceptance remarks, Si talked about the public responsibility of artists. Here’s what he said:
SI KAHN’S ACCEPTANCE SPEECH:
THE PUBLIC RESPONSIBILITY OF ARTISTS
I want to thank all of you, my sisters and brothers in this caring community we call folk music: for your songs, your persistence, your creativity, your heart—and for your passionate belief that folk music matters, that it can lift the human spirit, that through the music we create and pass on we can inspire ourselves and others to make this a better and more just world.
We who are artists enjoy remarkable access to the public: through the airwaves, which belong to all of us; through our recordings, which through the good work of our wonderful folk DJs are carried to the public on those airwaves and on the internet; through our concerts, events to which the public is invited.
Because we as artists have this access, and because we are people living in the world, we have a profound responsibility to the public as well as to ourselves to stand for something, to do our best, to be political in the broad sense of the word.
In this sense, to be political as an artist means to lift up a vision of a better and more just world.
But being “political” isn’t about being “politically correct,” or about taking particular stands. It should never be about having our art subsumed by the political.
Rather, through our work, the political is made into art. Particular issues may come and go. But the art we create, individually and together, will persist, and will continue to move people, both into action and into a deeper place of consciousness and hope.
Having said that, I know that some of you here tonight worry that, if the music you create and perform is seen as “political,” it won’t get the hearing you want it to have, in person or on the air.
But all artists are political, whether we mean to be or not. If in your art you are silent about the challenging issues of our time, you have by your silence taken a political stand.
This CD Courage is an intensely political album—and it is the Folk Alliance #1 CD for 2010.
In writing these songs, I’ve tried to imagine a kinder, more humane world, where there is love, care, community, laughter, and even Labrador retrievers who yearn to fly.
But Courage also hits hard against the abuse of women, against the violence done to poor and working people, against the imprisonment of immigrant children, against the corporate takeover of family farms. It’s pro-union, anti-war, pro-feminist, anti-privatization. It is a call to stand up, to speak out, to resist unjust authority, to fight for democracy.
Courage is in fact a radical album, squarely in the tradition that has given beauty and power to folk music around the world. So many of the artists who have shaped and shared that tradition have come from the left (and in this honor roll I will only name those who are no longer among us): Leadbelly, Aunt Molly Jackson, Victor Jara, Phil Ochs, Big Bill Broonzy, Woodie Guthrie, Paul Robeson, A.L. Lloyd, Dominic Behan, Mercedes Sosa, Joe Hill, Fela, Utah Philips, Josh White, Florence Reese, Nimrod Workman, Odetta, Ewan MacColl, Joe Heaney, Stan Rogers, Hamish Henderson, Sarah Ogan Gunning, Lee Hays, John Handcox.
This radical, righteous tradition has shaped, and will continue to shape, our lives and work as folk musicians.
These are the roots from which the music we share tonight grows and renews itself, the new wood that springs from the roots underground.
Let us always remain squarely rooted in that tradition.
Let us always raise our voices, not only in song, but in truth.
Copyright 2011 by Joe Hill Music (ASCAP). All rights reserved.
Si was the initial organizer and founding national chair of the Jewish Fund for Justice – now Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice — a national Jewish foundation that supports local community organizing projects dealing with the root causes of poverty. He is a past board member of the Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Peace Studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.
Si served in the U.S. Army Reserves during the Vietnam era (1965-1971). As a member of the 317th Military History Detachment, he co-wrote the official U.S. Army histories of Fort McPherson, Georgia and Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and of the XVIII Airborne Corps in World War II. In 1970, in recognition of his community organizing work with poor people in North Georgia and other areas of the South, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recognized him with one of six “Georgia Soldier of the Year” awards.
Si Kahn received his A.B. degree magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1965. He left school twice during his Harvard career: once to write and translate poetry in Spain, a second time to work with SNCC during the Southern Civil Rights Movement. His senior thesis on the 12th century Provencal troubadour (that is, folksinger) William IX of Aquitaine won the Susan Anthony Potter Prize in Comparative Literature.
Thirty years later, in 1995, Si received his Ph.D. in American Studies with a specialization in Cultural Studies from The Graduate College for Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences of The Union Institute. His doctoral project Habits of Resistance: Cultural Work and Community Organizing is published by University Microfilms. In 1999 the University of New England awarded him an honorary Doctor of Health Services degree.
Elizabeth Minnich and Si Kahn have three adult children, Simon, Jesse and Gabe, and three grandchildren, Anson, Zach and Benjamin, the latter named after Si’s father, Rabbi Benjamin Kahn, who was the Hillel rabbi at Penn State during the great football years. Gabe carries on the family musical tradition as a hip-hop music producer. He and Si will release their first joint CD in 2015.