Protest singer Kahn is in tune with ‘the working man’

Si Kahn says his music career began as a hobby. He is also a union activist.

“My music is a hobby that got out of hand,” says singer/songwriter and union activist, Si Kahn, of his career. He has toured with Pete Seeger and Andy Irvine and his songs have been performed by many other artists, including Planxty, Dolores Keane, Eleanor Shanley and the Fureys. Kahn will play a fundraising concert, with Anne Feeney, at Cork’s Firkin Crane on July 31 as part of the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival. The festival, which takes place in Shandon from July 29 to August 1, celebrates the life of Mary Harris. A Cork woman born in 1837, Harris became known as ‘the most dangerous woman in America’ for championing the rights of workers and for fighting against injustice.

Kahn says Mother Jones “has always been a personal hero of mine.” He says he is “ecstatic” about playing in Cork at the festival. Among the musicals he has written is one called Mother Jones in Heaven. His most famous song is ‘Aragon Mill.’

While reviewers describe Kahn as following in the wake of his late friend, folk singer and activist, Pete Seeger, and the protest singer, Woody Guthrie, he says such a description “is too narrow a definition of what I draw from. It’s a compliment, but I am also in the footsteps of African-American singer, Lead Belly, and radicals like Joe Hill.”

Kahn says his main writing inspiration is Irish poet WB Yeats. “I think he is arguably the greatest poet in the English language. I would love to be able to write like him. His use of language is absolutely remarkable, so I carry Yeats with me and I know much of his work off by heart.”

Aged 70, Kahn has worked all of his adult life for the labour movement, as a union organiser, and with not-for-profit groups, organising direct action. He made his first record at the age of 30.

Surprisingly, Kahn is not critical of the seeming apolitical nature of much of contemporary music, as churned out on talent shows on TV. “I rarely watch things like American Idol. But, reading about it, I think people just love music and want to make a living out of it. Some of them want to be stars. Music and, indeed, all art, have always co-existed at multiple levels of society.

“Going back to 500 years ago, you had musicians who were employed by kings and queens and were expected to praise them in song.”

Kahn thinks “it’s great that there are musicians who reach the entire world. That’s an extraordinary thing. I think it’s completely fabulous that somebody can come out of nowhere and become a big star. I mean, how does someone like Enya, growing up in Gaelic-speaking Donegal, become a world-wide phenomenon?”

While Enya is best known for her innocuous ethereal music, New York singer Lady Gaga is “intensely political. She’s outspoken on feminist issues and gay and lesbian rights. She reaches millions of people worldwide through her songs,” Kahn says. “Then, there are some rightwing artists who are very successful. But that’s what democracy is all about. You have competing voices. There is a place for everybody.”

Kahn takes issue with singer/songwriters “who only do political songs. That is not what life is like. I am a political person, but there are lots of things I like to do for fun. I write about the whole of life; I write love songs, funny songs, as well as songs about sexual harassment. I don’t leave out the hard parts. To be a political artist is to refuse self-censorship,” says Kahn with conviction.

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