Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Si Kahn

  • New Wood [June Appal, 1975] B+
  • Home [Flying Fish, 1979] A-
  • Doing My Job [Flying Fish, 1982] B+
  • Unfinished Portraits [Flying Fish, 1984] B

Consumer Guide Reviews:

New Wood [June Appal, 1975]
I was put off at first by the indifference to sales claimed in the booklet that accompanies this. Such smug anticommercialism usually betrays mixed motives in a purportedly political artist, and I associated this smugness with Kahn's willfully austere Appalachian music. But the songs soon shone through, correctives every one (despite an occasional baldness of instructional intent) to the romanticizations of Southern pastoral individualism that are currently so profitable. Kahn is an aficionado of poor-white virtues, but not at the expense of his vivid understanding of the labor, sadness, frustration, and small-mindedness that go along with them. B+

Home [Flying Fish, 1979]
This Carolina-based union organizer--who dedicates his second album to his father, Rabbi Benjamin M. Kahn--is the most gifted songwriter to come out of the folkie tradition since John Prine. His overview is political and his songs personal, their overriding theme the emotional dislocations of working far form home. No doubt part of his secret is that he lives among folk rather than folkies, but his understated colloquial precision is sheer talent. Some will consider the all-acoustic music thin (it's often solo or duet, twice a cappella) and the voice quavery. I find that both evoke the mountain music of the '20s in a way that makes me long for home myself, and I'm from Queens. A-

Doing My Job [Flying Fish, 1982]
Not one of these fifteen skillful pieces of work is narrowly ideological, and several sound like exceptionally useful organizing tools--the three funny ones plus "Detroit December" ("Eight hours a day to draw my pay/And overtime to see me through") and "Go to Work on Monday" (with Old King Brown Lung). But Home's subtlety, originality, and sheer conceptual elegance are missed--only "Five Days a Week" and "Doing My Job" do more than the job. B+

Unfinished Portraits [Flying Fish, 1984]
At his best, Kahn writes like the gifted local organizer he still is sometimes; his political commitment is bound up in the incidents that precede issues. But his modest folkie renown seems to have cut him off from his sources in much the way that superstardom starves pop genius at the root. With one exception (El Salvador as seen by a farmboy-turned-soldier), the best songs here are the most personal: two for the new love of his life, one for a gay coworker. The political stuff is often generalized, conceived to serve an idea, and while he gets away with it sometimes (an antiharassment song that kicks off from the turn-of-the-century "It's the Same the Whole World Over"--smart), he does seem to think that "It's not how large your share is/But how much you can share" is an inspirational couplet. B