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'Believe them and follow them': Folk musician Si Kahn on 50 Years of rabble-rousing music activism

Si Kahn.JPG
Photo courtesy of the artist.
Civil rights activist and folk musician Si Kahn performs on stage.

“Democracy is not something that happens only at election time, and it’s not something that happens just with one event. It’s an ongoing, grassroots building process.”

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, Charlotte musician Si Kahn understood the power of resilience. For the past 55 years, Kahn has dedicated his life's work to civil rights activism, chronicling the ebb and flow of progress through world-renowned labor anthems like "Aragon Mill" and "Go to Work on Monday." Over the course of 19 records, several books and a FolkVote initiative, Kahn has tapped into a passion for shared history and righteous humanity.

"Part of what I learned working with the Southern civil rights movement was the power of song. People singing together is an empowering act. It helps you overcome fear, it helps you discover a sense of common purpose. Those songs gave shape and heart and momentum to the civil rights movement."
– Si Kahn, civil rights activist and folk musician

Interview Highlights:

On his family inspiring his work with social activism:

I love thinking of my upbringing because it reminds me of my mom and dad, who are long gone, sadly. I think of them every day of my life, and I still miss them.

They clearly set me on this path. They were humane people. My mom was a very fine artist who worked in oils and aquatints. Pop was a rabbi, and he was the Hillel rabbi (for Penn State). He loved working with students. Both of them loved justice — not in the abstract, but in a very real sense.

My favorite story is this: there was a point in the history of Big Ten football when the previously segregated, all-white football teams began to recruit African American players. It’s a complex story, because I’m not convinced they wanted to integrate, but speaking for Penn State, they did not want to lose to Michigan State. So a town which had been virtually all white (State College, Pennsylvania, where Penn State is located) suddenly had African Americans coming to live there on campus.

We had two barber shops, each with two seats. And the barbers said, “We’re not prejudiced, but we don’t know how to cut that kind of hair. Therefore, we will not cut it.” Pop went to the other ministers and clergy and organized a picket line for the barber shops. Mom found a neighbor who could drive her to Tyrone, which was a paper mill town about 30 miles away but a full hour going across the Pennsylvania mountains, walked into a Black barber shop, explained the situation to the barber and said, “If you will come to Penn State every two weeks, I’ll set up a chair in my kitchen, and you can cut the hair for these football players.”

I love this story because there are many ways to live a life that is committed to social justice. And social justice, to me, is treating everybody the way you want to be treated. It’s nothing radical. It’s just common sense and good manners. So I believe Mom and Pop were right in what they did, but they were complimentary. That was the presence at my house.

On beginning his social activism career in 1965 in Arkansas as a volunteer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the student wing of the Southern civil rights movement:

It’s ironic to look back at 1965 from the perspective of 2020. It’s really a case of how much has changed and how much has not changed with the killings of African American men and women by police and right-wing nationalists. It definitely brings me back emotionally to the stark racism and the dominance of the Klan and rural areas of the South that I found in 1965.

I worked in Forrest City, Arkansas, named after the Confederate Cavalry leader Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave owner, slave traitor and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. I lived in an abandoned funeral home along with many other civil rights leaders and workers. We fixed it up. At night, African American veterans of World War II and Korean War would sleep on the roof with rifles; we were nonviolent, but they were determined not to let us get hurt.

Despite the fear, despite the anxiety, it was an exhilarating time. That’s really when I discovered what I want to do in this life and what I was meant to do in this life. I loved being with people when they discovered their voices, when they began to overcome fear, when they realized they could stand up together and that by doing so, they could make change. It’s a beautiful thing to watch and contribute to.

Part of what I learned working with the Southern civil rights movement was the power of song. People singing together is an empowering act. It helps you overcome fear, it helps you discover a sense of common purpose. Those songs gave shape and heart and momentum to the civil rights movement.

On the story behind “Aragon Mill,” Si Kahn’s 1975 song that has become a labor protest anthem:

In 1972, I was working for the United Mine Workers of America in Harlan County, Kentucky. I was living in North Georgia and commuting to Eastern Kentucky, and I got a call from the Southern Director of the Textile Workers Union saying, “We just got news that a mill in Aragon, Georgia, has just closed. We don’t have anybody we can send there. Would you mind going over for a couple of days until we get somebody else there.”

So I went to Aragon, Georgia. And I did what organizers do in a situation like that. You don’t come with answers and say, “Here’s what you need to do.” You say, “What just happened? Why did you think it happened? What are your feelings about it? Do you think there’s anything that could be done? Would you be willing to help?” Those are the kinds of questions you ask people because I believe that in any community, for any issue that is of importance, the people know the answer to what needs to be done, but they don’t know it individually. It’s like a puzzle. Everybody has a piece, and the organizer helps them put it together and figure out what to do.

Many moments stood out for me. I was sitting on the porch directly opposite the mill and the weave room where the looms are. That’s the loudest part of a mill. In a mill town, you could always tell the weavers because they are all hard of hearing. And this one fellow, he hadn’t been a weaver, but he had lived opposite the weave room, and he said, “You know at night, you couldn’t even have a decent conversation with your own spouse on the front porch of your house. To tell you the truth, I used to cuss this mill and wish it would stop for one night. ... Now that they really shut down the mill, it’s so quiet, I can’t even sleep anymore.” Driving home to North Georgia (about two hours from where I lived), I stopped to get a cheeseburger and wrote down his story on a napkin. I took the words he said and put them almost word-for-word into this song. And that became “Aragon Mill.”

If you scratch the surface of Charlotte, the history of the mills is right behind it. And now, there’s hardly a mill left in the South.

On how to find light in seemingly the darkest of times:

That’s the key question. But I think there’s a fairly simple answer: Watch the young people. They are hopeful. They are determined. They are working for a very different world from the one I grew up in.

Of course there’s anger. Of course there’s rage. Of course there’s a lack of faith in the ability of this country to deliver on its promises. But the young people of Charlotte, of North Carolina, of the United States, of the world, are leading the fight. They are the hope of the future, and we need to support them, believe them and follow them.

Music featured in this #WFAEAmplifier chat:

Si Kahn - "Brookside Strike"
Si Kahn - "Freedom is a Constant Song"
Si Kahn - "Mervin Barr"
Si Kahn - "Aragon Mill"
Si Kahn - "Sunrise"
Si Kahn - "Gone Gonna Rise Again"

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Joni Deutsch was the manager for on-demand content and audience engagement, at WFAE, where also hosted the Amplified podcast and helped produce such podcasts as FAQ City, SouthBound, Inside Politics, Work It and the Apple Podcast chart-topping series She Says. Joni also led WFAE's and Charlotte's first podcast festival.