This week you can discover the most famous Charlottean that most people in Charlotte don't know about — and it won't even cost you much. Internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter Si Kahn will perform a rare Charlotte concert Friday, benefiting the Charlotte Folk Society.
When Si retired last year from a long, stellar career as a political activist and community organizer with the group Grassroots Leadership, he was already plenty busy in his "other" career as musician, composer, author, playwright, songwriter and folk singer.
In the year since he set aside his political activism, Kahn has been busy enough for three people, writing songs, collecting awards, and stretching his horizons with surprising forays into musical theater.
Although he's often been more of a rumor than a regular presence on the Charlotte music scene, Kahn has built a near-legendary reputation among fans all over the U.S. and also in Europe, where his records sell well and he regularly fills halls. He writes songs about many things, but he's most known for his music about workers and their families, such as "Aragon Mill," which, over the years, became a labor anthem. As a result of his dedication and steady output, Si became a folk music hero and an inspiration to young activists/musicians on both sides of the Atlantic.
The traveling demanded by his dual careers of organizing and musicmaking, either of which would be considered full-time by people with normal levels of stamina, is the main reason Si hasn't often performed in his adopted hometown of Charlotte. But that's the way of life Kahn chose, and it won him the respect of many, including folk icon Pete Seeger, the one person most associated with combining singing and political action. Seeger once told writer Frye Gaillard, "I'm a great admirer of Si Kahn. He's a solid thinker who is able to humanize the political — an absolutely extraordinary guy."
The guy has had an extraordinary year, too. In February, he received a rare "Triple Crown" award from the Folk Alliance (an international association representing the folk music community), honoring Kahn for having the No. 1 CD (Courage, his 14th album of original songs), the No. 1 song ("Peace Will Rise"), and for being the No. 1 folk artist of the year, based on stats compiled by folk DJs around the world. He was also named a "Southern Master" by Oxford American magazine.
Kahn has stayed busy, melding his musical and political sides for the musical theater stage, first as Writer-in-Residence at Heritage Music Theatre (HMT) in California, where, in October, he'll oversee the world premiere of his new musical, Joe Hill's Last Will, about iconic labor agitator, songwriter and martyr Joe Hill. Plans are also set for a new 2012 HMT production of Si's Some Sweet Day, a play based on the groundbreaking, racially mixed Southern Tenant Farmers Union of the 1930s.
The biggest project of the past year, though, was Silver Spoon, a musical comedy co-written with playwright Amy Merrill, which premiered in Cambridge, Mass., to terrific reviews. It's a late-'60s/early-'70s story of an across-class-lines romance in New York City and Brooklyn, in the days of the Cesar Chavez-led grape boycott. The Boston Herald wrote, "The sets are simple, the political landscape specific. Yet there is a large, classic, Broadway musical at the heart of Silver Spoon." Kahn and Merrill are looking for more backers for the musical, hoping to expand its reach, possibly in an Off-Broadway production.
Si will probably stick to his folk music repertoire during his Friday gig, since it is, after all, a benefit show for the Charlotte Folk Society, slated for 7:30 p.m. at the Great Aunt Stella Center (926 Elizabeth Ave.). Admission is free, but donations are "appreciated." For more information, see the Folk Society's website, www.folksociety.org.