Si Kahn's Home Truths

Home is where the hurt is on Si Kahn's second album. The Southern, mostly mill-working families of Home are torn up by economics: they have to leave home to work, usually in Northern cities.

Kahn, Pennsylvania-born (and a rabbi's son), moved in the other direction. He came South as a civil rights worker in 1965 and never left. He's been an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, was involved in the J.P. Stevens campaign and the Brookside Mine strikes, and has just completed a do-it-yourself organizing guide for McGraw-Hill. His first album, New Wood, came out on a bluegrass label, June Appal, and Home on the Chicago folk label, Flying Fish. As, hmm, politically conscious music (Kahn wants to call it "music of change," but I don't), both albums are remarkable for their clarity, tact, knowledgeability, and the fact that they neither condescend to nor romanticize their subjects.

The music sounds homemade--Kahn on guitar, plus fiddle, bass, banjo, mandolin, dulcimer, and harmonica. The lyrics are consistent with the directness and care of spoken language in the rural South. And Kahn's family-man voice and offhand delivery make it seem as natural as it really is for a millworker to come up with this home truth: "I wish that they would write it down/The way someone that knows their work/Can have their labor bought and sold/Like cotton by the pound./It's just too hard to choose between/A job at home for lousy pay/And making real good money/In some Northern factory town."

Other subjects come up, but most of the songs concern that dilemma. We see a husband who gets in trouble up North, a wife who won't be waiting, a steadfast spouse (genders unclear) who won't even crack a joke till the one who went off comes back, a couple who leave the mountains to stick together in a bleakly unfamiliar mill town, and another who risk, for all their uncertain future, planting the "Seeds of Children." A man who stayed home gets laid off at Christmas time: he's pictured wandering outside his house in the cold, brooding: "There's no use to wait for an answer/When you ain't found the question, my friend/But there's no time like now to start asking/And there's no time like home to begin." Views through windows--looking out at mountains, factory towns, passing trains--make a recurring inside/outside motif, and outside it's always winter, when that close inside circle of home is drawn tightest. But what is home?

On an album whose title is at least loosely conceptual (there's no song called "Home," but the word keeps popping up) and whose contents show conscious if not deliberate thematic consistency, they question does lurk. We get the dislocation songs, but what of the rest? "Slip Away" is an idealized memory of the past, "Goodbye Joe" (in which Kahn masters John Prine's singing guffaw) a wife's gleeful revenge for her husband's flagrant delictoes. The Appalachian-style a cappella "Motherless Child" remembers death, "Goodbye Monday Blues" mentions cotton-mill health hazards, "Union in my Soul" honors the J.P. Stevens dispute, and "Queen of the Cowboy Café" is about one great fuck. If this is in any sense a concept album, its artistic intricacy--and political usefulness--lie in the fact that the concept is a question: what do these 14 songs have in common and what does that have to do with home?

Kahn says he spent so much of the '70s in small Southern towns that he never heard the phrase "the personal is political" till a year or two ago, but his underlying artistic subject is certainly their intersection. For the American working class, the sheer absence of food and shelter isn't likely to be a problem; their cost in personal terms is. The conditions at hand are social, economic, and historical, but the way they hit home is as private as it gets. While these stories of separation and union are organized by a political intelligence, they're also flushed with the heat of remembered and anticipated sex, in so many words or so much vocal timbre. Few love songs, let alone political songs, express the sexuality of everyday life with such sweetness and ease.

Kahn told me, when I phone-interviewed him at his Charlotte, North Carolina home, "You do two things as an organizer. You listen and you talk, hopefully in that order." Those of us whose critical subject is the intersection of the political and the artistic appreciate what the good working organizer have in common: observation. I hold that political insight always has artistic potential, and the political idea of home that emerges here has a functional but elusive grace: home's where you are or aren't, it's what you keep or lose, your sore point or yours strong point. But whatever it is or isn't, there's no place like it for beginning political work, because it's what people know.

Village Voice, Nov. 4, 1980