Bob Libal :
Si Kahn : 44 years of music and social justice

Activist, musician, and executive director of Grassroots Leadership:  four decades in the struggle.

Si Kahn

Si Kahn. Photo by Robert Corwin / Photo Arts.

By Bob Libal | The Rag Blog | July 28, 2009

I read in the paper, I watched on the show
They said that it happened a long time ago
The years had gone by, I just didn’t know
Working for freedom now
The songs that we sang still ring in my ears
The hope and the glory, the pain and the fears
I just can’t believe it’s been 45 years
Working for freedom now
— Si Kahn, “Working for Freedom Now”

Acclaimed organizer, author, musician, and the executive director of Grassroots Leadership, the Southern-based social justice organization where I work, Si Kahn will be retiring next year after 30 years at the helm of the organization and more than 44 years in the Southern freedom movement.

The following is from Si’s retirement announcement:

May 1st, 2010 marks almost 45 years to the day since I came South to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the visionary student wing of the Southern Civil Rights Movement. That was the first step on a road that has led me as a civil rights, labor and community organizer and musician through the coal camps, cotton mill villages and prison towns of the South and Southwest.

That road has taken me inside such powerful times as the Brookside strike in Harlan County, Kentucky; the brown lung movement and J.P. Stevens campaign in the Carolinas; and the critical work of abolishing all for-profit private prisons, jails and detention centers, and putting an end to immigrant family detention, on which Grassroots Leadership has focused for the past 10 years.

The songs I’ve written grew out of the organizing I’ve done. The people I’ve met and worked with, their words and songs, their stories and jokes, have been the stuff out of which the songs of the last 45 years have been woven.

These people, the poor and working people of the South, Appalachia and the Southwest, have been a source of continuing inspiration to me, in my music and in my organizing. Their lives and dreams have given me strength and belief.

I hope that my songs will help people find in themselves the strength they need to keep on keeping on. But I also know music is not enough to change the world. It takes organizing, people working together to reach the goals they set for themselves.

Most recently, Grassroots Leadership has taken on a national Campaign to End Immigrant Family Detention, the policy made infamous at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas. Hutto is a former medium-security prison operated by private prison corporation Corrections Corporation of America. Since opening in 2006, the facility has held immigrant children and their families from more than 40 countries and drawn international condemnation.

Si’s latest song, called T. Don Hutto, can be heard at It’s the latest in a long line of songs of family, community, work and freedom such as “Aragon Mill,” “Gone,” “Gonna Rise Again” and “Wild Rose of the Mountain” that have been recorded by over 100 artists. Si has released 15 albums of his original songs, plus a collection of traditional labor, civil rights and women’s songs with Pete Seeger and Jane Sapp.

Si Kahn to Perform in Austin

Si Kahn will be in Austin on Monday, August 3rd, performing an evening of music benefiting Grassroots Leadership’s Campaign to End Immigrant Family Detention at MonkeyWrench Books, 110 E. North Loop, 78751. Email or call (512) 971-0487 for more details. A $7-$10 suggested donation will be collected at the door, though no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

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2 Responses to Bob Libal :
Si Kahn : 44 years of music and social justice

  1. Anonymous says:

    One simple thing for those with an open mind:

    Notice how the writer uses the term “Immigrant Family Detention”. Can you guess what’s missing? The key word ILLEGAL! Is it wrong to have borders? Is it wrong to enforce the borders? If someone knowingly breaks the law, should they not pay the price?

    The ‘family detention’ has the good intention of keeping family units together instead of splitting them up. I’ve been to Hutto and the living conditions are superior to most those experienced on the ‘outside’ by the residents.

    I do agree we should end these facilities. We should just load these individuals who knowingly and willingly broke the law, into school buses, take them to the border and be done with it. I’m tired of paying for their healthcare, welfare benefits, education of their children and their incarceration when they are caught.

    Immigrant crime has skyrocketed with several rapes and murders in the Austin area in just the past few weeks. Think these are peaceful folks? Look at the Mexican drug cartels and their thousands of victims for a clue.

  2. Charles Roth says:

    So much for an “open mind”.

    Crimes committed by white male citizens of the USA, statistically speaking, are significantly larger and more frequently than ‘illegal’ immigrants. Shall we load them on buses, too?

    Many ‘detainees’ (cue Pete Seeger) have applied for asylum, LEGALLY according to our own laws.

    In the words of H. L. Mencken: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple… and wrong”.

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