Now forty hours plus my overtime Leaves a hundred twenty seven for me It's fifty a month for my '69 Ford And twenty for my color TV The rent's coming due and the doctor too Rubber checks won't stretch that far It's Champagne Velvet for the folks on the hill Blue Ribbon for the boys at the bar --From "Blue Ribbon for the Boys at the Bar," words and music by Si Kahn
In the tradition of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, folk singer-organizer Si Kahn has traveled the country, listening to workers' concerns and capturing their thoughts and feelings in song. Although he has recorded three well-received albums and gives several concerts each year--often as benefits for grassroots groups--he considers his music a sideline to his "real" work: organizing.
Today's economic and political climate, says Kahn, 38, is generating "a new movement among Americans to join hands and fight back." The organizing spirit once reserved for the coal mines of Harlan County and the textile mills of J.P. Stevens "is spreading," he claims, "through the neighborhoods of Middle America.
"In the '60s, organizing was something other people--hippies or blacks or Indians--did. But not good, upstanding, hard-working neighborhood people. Today we're seeing the democratization of organizing. Look at what happened after Three-Mile Island and Love Canal. Protests were led by what some people would term conservative middle-Americans."
Until recently, says Kahn, who has written a new guidebook for grassroots leaders, Organizing (McGraw-Hill, 387 pages, $7.95) "most Americans seemed to feel that--despite the faults in our system--things were generally getting better. But now, millions of people in this country are getting the economic underpinnings knocked out from under them. We're seeing a lot of anger, disillusionment and frustration from people who voted for this president and believed in his promises.
"Having your standard of living under attack is the kind of situation that prompts people to organize, to find the strength to stand up, join together and say what they think. When people feel that they have nowhere else to turn, they'll turn to each other."
This "steady increase in grassroots organizing," he says, is documented in books such as "The Backyard Revolution" by social analyst Harry C. Boyt. Many of the citizens' groups cropping up across the country, he says, "focus on a diversity of issues, with the broad concern being whether the average family unit will have a voice in what affects their lives."
Throughout America's history, he notes, "social change has come from organized groups creating pressure." But this country, he says, subscribes to two, seemingly opposing, views about organizing.
"On the one hand, society puts individual effort and achievement on a pedestal. So when something goes wrong--like getting laid off--the person tends to blame himself, keep it to himself and seek an individual solution. We tend to think that if we would just work a little harder, dress a little nicer or talk a little better, our problems would be solved."
On the other hand, he says, America "has a history of being a very cooperative society, with barn-raisings and town meetings. Generally speaking, whenever people perceive they are not going to get anywhere by themselves--like when working harder won't get them job security--they are willing to look at options like organizing."
But organizing, he admits, is not easy. "There's always a tremendous risk in challenging the status quo. Standing up for your rights is dangerous. But people are very courageous.
"I've seen people draw on tremendous depths of strength and spirit, against impossible odds, and succeed." Old fighter, you sure took it on the chin Where'd you ever get the strength to stand Never giving up to giving in You know I just want to shake your hand Because people like you Help people like me Go on, go on --From "People Like You"
Most of the events and people--like the "old fighter"--that have mattered most in Kahn's life, he says, "are in my songs.
"Folk music at its best, cuts through other layers to reach people's very direct emotions. That's also what organizing is about and why the two so often go together."
Encountering "instances of individual heroism" during his civil-rights work in the '60s--for which he interrupted his studies at Harvard--changed his life.
"I hadn't experienced that kind of extraordinary emotional intensity before. I watched people say things they clearly waited 30, 40, 50 years to say."
Inside most people, he says, "are wonderful visions of the possible. Very few people want just the extra 35 cents an hour. They have dreams of making this a better world."
The son of a rural Pennsylvania rabbi, Kahn moved to Maryland when he was 15 and was graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1961. After returning to Harvard to complete his degree in medieval history and literature, he set off to organize "average Americans" in factories, communities, coal mines, senior-citizens groups, farms.
His best-known organizing efforts were with the Brookside Mine strike, captured in the documentary "Harlan County, USA," and the J.P. Stevens campaign, fictionalized in the movie "Norma Rae." Today he coordinates the Grassroots Leadership Project, which provides training for about three dozen southern groups, and is a consultant to organizations such as Virginia Action, a state-wide coalition of more than 100 grassroots groups.
"It's always someone else's battle," he says, "and I'm helping. But in a broad sense I feel it is my battle, too. It's my world, where I live and where my children are growing up."
Kahn lives in North Carolina with his three children and feminist-philosopher partner ("as in life partner"). He concentrates his work in a dozen southern states to combat the occupational hazard of "losing your center because there are so many people and so many causes and so many places to be."
The most important issue of the '80s, he says, "is whose country is this, anyway? Does it belong to the corporations or the average human being? I think the currents are running with the ordinary people these days."