Folk veteran combines art, activism
Bluegrass music and social activism are in for a beautiful collision course at The Carrboro ArtsCenter today at the hands of folk musicians Si Kahn and Michael Johnathon.
Kahn will be performing songs from his latest album, Aragon Mill: The Bluegrass Session, on which he collaborated with German bluegrass band the Looping Brothers, and Johnathon will be opening the show.
Having worked for more than 40 years as a professional musician, Kahn has had two No. 1 albums on the folk music charts, had his music translated into various languages and performed all over Europe and North America. Yet music is just his hobby — his primary job is as a civil rights and union organizer.
Kahn said the new album with the Looping Brothers addresses a cause close to home.
Aragon is a small town in Georgia. In the ’70s, a cotton mill in the town moved to a different country to find cheaper labor, and nearly 700 people in Aragon found themselves out of work. Kahn was asked by the textile workers’ union for help, but there wasn’t much that could be done. So he wrote a song that delivered the story of these workers — “Aragon Mill.”
“The people just came up and said how much this song meant to them because it reminded them of the dignity of their work, how it was like when the mill was running and how hard it was on people when it shut down,” Kahn said. “People are very emotionally moved when others care about their lives because they’re so used to being pushed into the trash pile.”
His views on music as a tool for activism resonate with Johnathon.
“Music can cause action. It can cause people to think and listen, and when you listen you fall in love with something,” Johnathon said. “We have to listen to earth, to life, and we have to listen to the audience and people because that’s where the music comes from.”
Johnathon said he moved to the Appalachian Mountains in his youth to learn about the area’s music and lifestyles. His experiences there moved him to write a song, “Appalachian Road,” that describes the mountaintop removal that is chipping away at the mountains.
“I was not interested in selling things. I wanted to move people’s hearts,” he said. “I sang about things that I thought was important. I sang about the earth, nature and people.”
Art Menius, executive director of The ArtsCenter, said he chose to invite Kahn and Johnathon not only because they were great musicians but also because of what they’ve done through music.
“These are people who have made a life through their art and activism instead of focusing on making a living,” Menius said. “I believe that’s a far better way to live rather than to wait for retirement.”
Kahn hopes the audience, especially students, will come and be reminded of someone who changed their lives.
“I hope they remember the sacrifices their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents made by working 14 to 16 hours a day for six or seven days per week,” Kahn said. “I hope they remember there are people out there that we need to look out for.”
Kahn and Johnathon both said the performance will be a joyful and lively occasion.
“I’m going to turn the little theater into a front porch where people will feel comfortable, share music, stories and life,” Johnathon said.
Thanks for reading.
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