PHOEBE REES – Bring In The Light: Si Kahn’s Songs Of Courage And Resistance (Strictly Country Records SCR-91)

Bring In The LightFor those who need bringing up to speed, Si Kahn is an American singer-songwriter, civil rights activist and founder of Grassroots Leadership while Rees is a multi-instrumentalist (primarily fiddler) and singer from Oswestry. Bring In The Light, her first full-length album, was recorded in the Netherlands with Dutch musicians on double bass, banjo, and guitar, arising from her recording of ‘Mississippi Summer’ on her Roe Deer EP having so impressed Kahn he invited her to make a whole album of his songs to celebrate his eightieth birthday.

Chiming with Rees’s enthusiasm for Appalachian music, it opens with her fiddle and banjo arrangement of ‘High On A Mountain With Ola Belle Reed’, itself a tribute to banjo virtuoso Reed’s ‘High On A Mountain’, the last two lines of each verse quoting its first line. A recent song, fingerpicked with a traditional folk feel, ‘In Afghanistan’ is a tribute to Fawad Andarabi, a folk singer murdered by the Taliban in 2021, co-written with Ukrainian-American musician Daria Marmaluk-Hajioannou, that pretty much what life is like under their rule (“truth has no place/With gunmen always on patrol/Joy is afraid to show her face… no one is safe, no one secure”).

Originally released on Kahn’s 1982 album ‘Doing My Job’, Rees gets behind the piano for a four-minute take on ‘Detroit December’, a song about getting laid off from the factory at Christmas, returning to sawing fiddle for a five-minute ‘When The War Is Done’ from 2004’s ‘We’re Still Here’, a lurching slow march about the fate of those who return from combat, many disabled or traumatised, as well as the wider fall-out for those on the home front. Named for the oldest worldwide movement to stand against sexual violence, again with an Appalachian banjo setting, ‘Take Back The Night’ (from where the album title comes) was written as an anthem to reclaim the freedom for women to walk the streets at night or simply be in their own homes without being in fear for their lives. Another lengthy piano number, ‘Peace Will Rise’ was recorded by Kahn on his ‘Courage’ album, a call to nonviolence in the face of being subject to violence sung from a Northern Irish perspective in the wake of the 1988 Good Friday Agreement and the hope that “If those who prayed for violence/And shed their children’s blood/Can work for peace that lasts beyond all time/Then enemies in other lands/May someday staunch the flood/Of war that breaks all hearts, both yours and mine”. Not to be confused with ‘Moonshine Man’ from his debut album, the jaunty banjo, fiddle and guitar ‘Moonshine Moon’, a tale of two young moonshiners meeting to make love not whiskey, doesn’t appear to have never appeared on one of Kahn’s own albums, likewise ‘The Didin Didin’, the tale of three young women who go out pub crawling though Dublin until dawn, carousing and singing the likes of ‘Kathleen Mavourneen’ and ‘The Star Of The County Down’ as the Guinness flows, the song enfolded within two traditional tunes, ‘Michael Coleman’s Jig’ and ‘Winnie Hayes’. Again unrecorded by Kahn, accompanied just by acoustic guitar, ‘Belle La Follette’ celebrates the otherwise uncommemorated first woman to graduate from law school in Wisconsin, an organiser for women’s right to vote, peace and racial justice who, in 1915 helped found the Woman’s Peace Party, which later became the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the song interpolating a snippet of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

The chorus referencing George Orwell’s book, arranged for piano as opposed to the original fiddle, ‘Wigan Pier’, from ‘We’re Still Here’ laments the passing of the coal industry, ‘Coxey’s Army’ a reference to a 1894 march to Washington DC by unemployed workers to demand the government create a programme of public works jobs, the song incorporating the tune to ‘The Dark-Eyed Sailor’. Also on an industrial theme, the wistful piano ballad ‘Molly In The Mill’ recalls when cotton was king, but more particularly how thousands of the young women who worked in the mills contracted the often fatal Brown Lung disease.

The song that set the project in motion, originally from 1982’s ‘Doing My Job’, the mood set by deep and dark fiddle, ‘Mississippi Summer’ relates to the Southern Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and of an old African American woman who resists by refusing to pick cotton. Sung unaccompanied, the penultimate ‘Freedom Is A Constant Song’ dates from 2020 and again this seems to be the only recorded version, Kahn reflecting on his fifty years as an activist, the album ending with a piano arrangement (Kahn sang it a cappella) of ‘People Like You’ from 1979’s Home, a tribute to union members he worked with in Washington DC lobbying for legislation to protect them from being forced to work in unsafe conditions, an anthem of solidarity as “people like you help people like me go on”.

Bringing together songs from Kahn’s back catalogue along with those he’s never recorded, it’s not only a terrific salute to his music and work but an auspicious album debut by an artist destined to make her own mark on the folk world.

Mike Davies

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