SI KAHN is the William Carlos Williams of American folk music. His new album, "Unfinished Portraits," captures the lives and dreams of everyday people with an easygoing poetic stance that is engaging and immediate.
Though Kahn is best known for his working- class sketches and anthems (a full-time organizer, he's been active in the civil rights movement and union struggles in the South for almost 20 years), he's also a moving chronicler of intensely personal encounters. "Cold Frosty Mornin' " and "Let Me Down Easy and Slow" confirm that parting and reuniting can be sweet sorrows, and that love is a circle to be bent but seldom broken.
On such songs as "Mama You've Been Gone So Long," "I Love You Just the Way You Are" and "Forever," Kahn celebrates family, friendship and tradition, as well as the pull and power of cultural memory. Kahn, always clear about his position between "those in constant power and those in constant pain," invests "What You Do With What You've Got" with an almanac-full of common-sense inspiration, including "It's not how much you're born with, it's what you choose to bear."
The activist Kahn is also at work on the new album, with caustic commentary on "The Victim Gets the Blame," the immigrant ironies of "When the Land and They Were Young" and "Children of Poland." On "Take Me Back to New York City," he does a hilarious spin on the old-timey, back-to-the-hills sentiment, while "Send Me Back to Georgia" is an eloquent anti-militarist ballad. The best song, oddly, is a haunting a cappella funeral hymn, "Memorial," sung in the shaped-note tradition, affirming the positive intertwining of lives and dreams central to Kahn's vision.
Throughout, he is aided and abetted by the Red Clay Ramblers, Claudia Schmidt and John McCutcheon. SI KAHN -- "Unfinished Portraits" (Flying Fish 312); appearing Saturday at 8 p.m., Hoover Auditorium, Commerce Department Building.