While most 69-year-olds are relaxing into retirement, internationally known folksinger-songwriter, community organizer and activist Si Kahn is as busy as ever.
He left his home in Charlotte two weeks ago and joined German bluegrass band the Looping Brothers, who back him on his latest album, “Aragon Mill: The Bluegrass Sessions,” in Raleigh for a 2 1/2-week trek.
“Recording with a German band is part of my lifelong journey to come to terms with the Holocaust and to pay a debt to my father,” Kahn explains over coffee near the Dilworth condo he and his wife moved into when an architect suggested the home they’d shared since 1978 near Euclid and Tremont Avenues be torn down and rebuilt.
Kahn met the Looping Brothers’ guitarist and banjo player Matthias Malcher while performing in the Netherlands. When Malcher invited Kahn to play the Looping Brothers’ festival in Germany, Kahn politely declined.
“At that time in my life, coming from a family that had a substantial number of people murdered in the Holocaust, I was refusing to set foot in Germany. I would sit with my parents as a kid looking at family photographs and say, ‘Who’s that?’ They’d say, ‘That’s your great-grandmother.’ Where is she? They’d say, ‘We don’t know. The letters stopped coming around 1942.’ They never said what happened. I didn’t tell (Malcher that). I said, ‘Thank you so much for the invitation.’ I figured, well, that’s never going to happen,” Kahn recalls.
But his father – a rabbi, who has since died – set him straight. “He said, ‘You know you’re dead wrong about that. You have no right to do that. That was not this guy you’re talking about.’”
Kahn was taken aback.
“He said, ‘Look, German or anybody else – you have the right to ask where they stand on any issue. How they feel about Jews, about people of color, how they feel about anything. You have no right to hold them accountable for what their grandparents did. He said, ‘This is obviously an emotional issue for you and unless you confront the reality, you’ll never be able to get past it.’”
The German bluegrass band and the American folksinger eventually forged a friendship, which resulted in the new album. The album and single for “Aragon Mill” charted at No. 1 for September on the International Folk Alliance chart, which tracks airplay. Si Kahn and the Looping Brothers were also rated No. 1 artist.
On the album the band turns 15 of Kahn’s folk compositions into bluegrass tunes. They perform together at the Charlotte Folk Society’s Gathering Friday at Great Aunt Stella Center. The collaboration is just one of Kahn’s many projects.
On the Harvard graduate’s to-do list before his 70th birthday in April is recording the original cast album for “Precious Memories” – a musical performed by friend and Reel World String Band founder Sue Massek about unsung Kentucky singer-songwriter Sarah Ogan Gunning. Kahn composed the music.
He’ll also complete a hip-hop album with his son Gabe, a San Francisco-based hip-hop producer. And in March he and his wife, Elizabeth Minnich, will attend the Iditarod in Alaska, where Kahn heads up Musicians United to Protect Bristol Bay, an organization devoted to publicizing the campaign to stop the world’s largest open pit mine from being built next to the headwaters of rivers where salmon spawn in the world’s biggest salmon fishery. He devoted his other 2013 album, “Bristol Bay,” to the cause.
“The main partner in the mine pulled out last week. It’s not over, but… ” he says, wearing a black Bristol Bay T-shirt.
Kahn grew up in State College, Pa., and became a self-described fanatic about traditional music at age 15 when he discovered the Library of Congress’ field recordings of unaccompanied singers and gutbucket blues.
“I don’t think I knew it was a living tradition,” Kahn says. In the 1960s during the civil rights movement, he was an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which led to a career working with unions. “I was raised by very religious parents who believed in righting wrongs and a responsibility to other people – to stand by people who were being pushed around. It’s a great teaching, not good career counseling.”
Time spent with coal miners, textile workers, prisoners, African-Americans and struggling working-class families colored Kahn’s lyrics when he began writing songs and releasing albums in the early 1970s. His biggest hit, “Aragon Mill” – about the mill town in Georgia where he and the Looping Brothers conclude their tour – appeared on his 1974 debut. The song struck a chord and has been covered so often many assume it’s a traditional tune.
Most critics assume Kahn’s biggest musical influences are protest music forefathers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. He cites Irish poet William Butler Yeats. He remembers taking a test to figure out what career path he should take when he graduated from high school in 1961.
“I had two spikes – corporate executive and poet,” he says. “As a songwriter I view myself as a poet in the troubadour tradition.”
Throughout his career Kahn continued to play music as a side gig to his day job as a community and labor organizer. He retired in 2010. Today his albums are distributed internationally on Netherlands-based Strictly Country Records and his records continue to receive airplay among traditional music DJs almost 40 years into his career.
He has a loyal audience in Europe, where he and Looping Brothers toured this year. His relationship with the German band began after he accepted a second invitation to play a festival in Germany.
“It was a big step for him,” says fiddler/mandolin player Ulrich “Ulli” Sieker, co-founder of the Looping Brothers. “The people that live in Germany now – our generation and our children – we had nothing to do with that except it’s our history. With our German background we also have some (guilt) about our history and being aware about what has happened. This project is another step to get everything together. Working with Si … makes us real proud.”
Both acts credit each other with coming up with the idea for the album. Kahn chose “Aragon Mill,” “Wild Rose of the Mountain,” and “Gone Gonna Rise Again,” which have been played as bluegrass songs. He left the rest up to the Looping Brothers.
While Sieker recognizes the age difference between his band mates and Kahn, he finds they have much in common.
“I love music. Why wouldn’t anyone who has the privilege and good health – why would you not want to do it? Why would anyone not want to do an album with a German bluegrass band and tour Germany, the Netherlands and North Carolina?” says Kahn when asked what continues to motivate him to keep touring, writing and protesting. “Why wouldn’t I keep doing it?”
He compares his energy to that of his young Siberian Husky – a breed described as “extremely smart, unbelievably stubborn and easily bored.”
He says, laughing: “That’s all of us.”
This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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