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  • “What Music Does”Si Kahn, In His Own Words

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Si Kahn, Charlotte, North Carolina, June 2018. Photo by Brendan Greaves.

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Guest editor Brendan Greaves sat down with Si Kahn in Charlotte, North Carolina, to discuss his long career as a musician and community organizer, and the art of translating one medium to the next.

I’m walking down the hall in the Library of Congress, wondering what I’m going to do, and I see a sign that says, “Archive of Folk Music.” I went in the really raggedy-ass office and said, “You guys got any Joan Baez?” And they said, “That’s not actually what we do. We’re the archive for folk music.”

“Like Joan Baez?”

“Well, yes and no.”

“All right, so what do you do?”

“Well, we have teams of field recorders, we send them out with tape recorders to every ethnic and language community in the United States, we record their traditional music and then it comes back here.”

I remember this so clearly because it really was a turning point for me. They had listening booths, they had record changers, and they had those Bakelite headphones with one hole that they obviously got from the set for some submarine movie where it’s like, “Captain, we’re taking on water! The sub is sinking! Send out a mayday!”

These are the days where some record albums were still translucent red plastic. They gave me a 12-inch LP, which was a southern sampler. It starts with some geezer tuning his fiddle. This is how the album starts! Then it goes into Pete Steele playing “Coal Creek March” on the banjo, it’s got Samantha Bumgarner doing the “House Carpenter,” which I still sing. It’s got Sin-Killer Griffin preaching at Angola penitentiary and singing “Wasn’t that a Mighty Storm.” It’s a beautiful album.

I take it home and I’m clearly excited, right? And my folks are, “Wow, you’re really excited. Did something good happen today?” My folks were very cool. They were very supportive. And I went, “Yeah, I discovered this wonderful new music.” And they’re like, “Well, let’s hear it.”

I still remember the look of pain on their faces. They were horrified. Horrified.

They said, “That’s very nice, dear, we’re so glad you found something you like.”

And I was hooked. I was completely hooked, and I have been ever since. I still, late at night, go back and listen to original versions of stuff from the ’30s. I don’t know that I would say I have a wide knowledge, because compared to who? But I have a great love for it.

To my parents’ horror, I decided to hitchhike through the country looking for musicians after I graduated from high school. I had these two friends, one of them had a Ford taxi cab that was our transportation. So the three of us set off together [End Page 102] to see the world in the summer of ’61. And we’re heading for Ashland, Kentucky, where there’s a festival owned by Jean Bell Thomas, “The Traipsin’ Woman.” But the cab threw a rod before we got there and they went home. I continued alone with a guitar in a plastic bag.

That was the first festival I ever went to, and I was already in love with the music. I had a small collection, probably a couple dozen LPs. You could buy these albums for a buck ninety-nine, and I always worked and so I had disposable cash. I probably had an allowance, so I’d save up, buy a couple of them.

I don’t know if I heard any of this music live in high school. I think probably the first time I heard this kind of music live was J. P. and Annadeene Fraley. They were playing at the festival. I struck up a conversation and they said to a half dozen of us, “Why don’t you guys come home with us?”

So we followed them home. The guy I was driving with was...