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Review: Si Kahn, Courage

Si Kahn
[Strictly Country (2010)]

Infused by the political commitment of his rabbi father and the musical vision of his classical pianist mother, Si Kahn has balanced both for nearly a half-century. The author of the recently published Creative Community Organizing: A Guide for Rabble-Rousers, Activists and Quiet Lovers of Justice (San Francisco, Barrett-Koehler), he served as Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership until retiring, in May 2010, after 30 years. It’s as a singer-songwriter, though, that Kahn has really let his voice be heard. Building on the topical song legacy of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, he’s crafted his own legacy with his songs, including “Aragon Mill” and “Going Going Gone,” covered by more than 100 artists.

With his latest outing, Courage, Kahn again brings his pen (and baritone voice) to bear on a history lesson on the immigrants who came to America, dreaming of “streets lined with gold,” and found lives “built out of blocks of coal.” Kahn recalls the 123 women and 23 men who died during the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of March 1911 (“Washington Square”) and conveys the angst of an Italian immigrant woman, in 1910, whose dreams of the “Promised land” have long been crushed (“On This Old Farm”). He tells the heartbreaking tale of children held in detention centers, in Taylor, Texas, because their “parents were caught here without documents” (“Hutto”). He provides a voice for a reminiscing Irish immigrant (“Ireland Of My Dreams”) and offers a prayer for peace on the Emerald Isle (“Peace Will Rise”). He tells the gruesome tale of a soldier who repents for a life of hunting, whether for animals or for humans, by self-mutilation (“Hunter’) and sings sadly of 10 men preparing to be hung for union organizing (“Molly Maguire”).

Not all of the songs are so tear provoking. During “Otis Is Flying,” Kahn sings about the “existential angst of the Labrador Retriever,” ponders “what if our lives were measured in dog years,” and finds comfort in knowing that, despite it all, “the river flows on and the geese fly out.” Swiss-born, and North Carolina-based, multi-instrumentalist/producer Jens Kruger of bluegrass band, the Kruger Brothers, plays all the instruments, while country singer-turned-coal mining activist Kathy Mattea sings harmony on a half dozen tunes and provides liner notes.

—Craig Harris (Chicopee, MA)

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