As seen in Relish: Concert, project showcase unrecorded works of Charlotte folk singer, activist Si Kahn
By Eddie Huffman Special to the Journal
Woody Guthrie’s daughter recruited singers to record his unheard songs decades after his death.
Si Kahn, another folk singer and political activist, decided not to wait that long.
“I thought, ‘I wonder if can get some of the artists I think are extraordinary to do albums of my unrecorded songs,’” Kahn, 74, said from his home in Charlotte.
The first artist he approached, Joe Jencks, 46, welcomed a chance to introduce more of Kahn’s songs to the world. The two of them will perform together Friday, Dec. 7, at Muddy Creek Music Hall in a concert presented by the Fiddle and Bow Society.
The album that resulted from the pairing is called “The Forgotten: Recovered Treasures from the Pen of Si Kahn.” Jencks, an Illinois native based in Chicago, recorded the album in Toronto and released it earlier this year.
Elizabeth Szekeres wrote about “The Forgotten” for the website Roots Music Canada: “On this lovely album of great American songs sung by one of America’s best male voices, we have a plethora of fantastic Canuck musicians … These great songs are forgotten no more.”
The album title refers both to the previously unheard songs and to the people Kahn wrote about: millworkers, refugees, miners, victims of gun violence. Several of the songs are union stories and anthems, reflecting the work Kahn has done for unions on behalf of textile workers, musicians and other tradespeople. “ I Have Seen Freedom Being Born” recounts Kahn’s history with the civil rights movement, while “Why Are the Guns Still Firing” shows his reaction to the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, S.C.
“There was quite a diversity of styles of songs,” Jencks said from a tour stop in Seattle. “The ones that really grabbed me were the ones that were these narrative pieces that gave the listener some insight into the lives of people that they didn’t have before listening to the song. And that was really the focus of what I chose.”
Jencks released his debut album in 1995. He was a member of the trio Brother Sun earlier this decade, releasing three albums with that group. One of the songs he wrote and recorded with Brother Sun, “Lady of the Harbor,” was the No. 1 single on the Folk DJ chart in 2013 and has become a latter-day folk standard. Jencks’s most recent solo album featuring his own material, “Poets, Philosophers, Workers and Wanderers,” came out in 2017.
He got to know the producer of “The Forgotten,” Ken Whiteley, when both men worked on the executive board of Local 1000, a branch of the American Federation of Musicians that represents touring performers. Whiteley has a state-of-the-art home studio in Toronto. (Parents may recognize his name as the longtime producer and band leader for Raffi, the children’s singer.)
A group of Canadian musicians backed Jencks on “The Forgotten,” including Frank Evans on banjo and John Showman on violin. Jencks sang lead and harmony vocals and played guitar and bouzouki. Whiteley contributed mandolin, piano, organ, vibraphone, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, accordion and vocals.
“That’s part of the joy of working with Ken,” Whiteley said. “If you say, ‘I need a little accordion here,’ he can sprinkle some on without having to go out and find an accordion player. If you’re putting a stew together and you want to sprinkle a little bit of this or a little bit of that on, Ken is diverse enough as a musician that he can just say, ‘Well here, let’s do this.’”
Jencks originally planned to record only a song or two of the more than 70 demo recordings Kahn shared with him. But the more he listened, the more his interest grew.
“Si did me a real solid, because he handed me a whole batch of stuff that I could sift through and weave through,” Jencks said. “I could build a narrative that I wanted to build out of his work, which is people living their lives and doing their work. There is an activist undercurrent to what’s there, but it’s not in the sense of telling others how they should behave, what they should do. It’s simply in the process of bearing witness to lives that have been lived.”
The album was created with minimal input from Kahn beyond supplying the songs. He trusted Jencks to make good decisions, though Jencks did get Kahn’s permission to make some small changes to the music and lyrics on some songs.
The two men listened to the finished product while driving around in Jencks’s car, an experience Jencks described as “one of the more joyful moments of my life as an artist.”
“We had to stop at the end of every song, because he was gobsmacked,” Jencks said. “We’d talk about the arrangements; I’d talk about the stories. He’d tell me more stories about the reason why he wrote the song, who he wrote it for — stuff that he had not shared with me earlier.”
Kahn has not released an album under his own name since 2013. That was the year his 18th record, “Bristol Bay,” came out. In the era of digital streaming, he has found it nearly impossible to recoup the cost of creating an album.
“I realized about four or five years ago that I can’t financially afford to make CDs,” he said. “If I want to lose that much money, I can just write you a check.”
Don’t assume Kahn hasn’t been busy, though. He has retired from full-time union work, but he has a long list of music projects in the works. One is a musical, “Mother Jones in Heaven,” about Mary G. Harris Jones, the Irish-American teacher and dressmaker who fought against child labor and cofounded the Industrial Workers of the World. It will open Jan. 10 at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center in Cornelius, N.C., for a two-week run.
Kahn also plans to release a series of news albums in 2019 to mark his 75th birthday. Current plans include:
A cast album for “Mother Jones in Heaven.”
“Cackalacky: A Tribute to the Great North State,” an album collaboration with Americana veteran Jim Lauderdale, a graduate of the UNC School of the Arts.
An album by traditional artists Saro Lynch-Thomason and Sam Gleaves showcasing Kahn’s songs about women.
“The Far Si,” a collection of Si’s funny, whimsical songs.
A second album of Kahn’s songs by the Looping Brothers, a German bluegrass band that released an earlier collection of Kahn songs in 2013 called “Aragon Mill: The Bluegrass Sessions.”
The tour that will bring Kahn and Jencks to Muddy Creek this weekend represents a rare extended stretch of shows for Kahn. They have played about 25 shows together to date, he said.
“The musical bed is there,” Kahn said. “It is rich, is is creative, and you just lay down and enjoy singing and playing.”