Si Kahns path to fighting injustice across America began in State College.
Kahn grew up as a college town kid, the son of a Penn State rabbi, before he became a prominent labor, civil rights and community organizer and an acclaimed folk musician for almost 50 years.
This weekend, Kahn returns to his hometown for the first time in more than a decade for Woody at 100: Woodys Legacy to Working Men and Women, a Penn State conference honoring the centennial birthday of iconic folk singer Woody Guthrie.
Friday night at the State Theatre, Kahn will perform in a Guthrie tribute concert, joining a lineup that includes Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame.
For Kahn, 68, helping celebrate his hero will take him back to a formative upbringing as well as his old downtown stomping grounds.
My emotional roots are really in State College, he said, speaking from Charlotte, N.C., his home since 1978. Thats where I grew up. Thats where Im from.
His father, Rabbi Benjamin M. Kahn, directed the university Bnai Brith Hillel. Having lost relatives to the Holocaust, he and his wife, Rosalind Kahn, raised their son with a very strong sense of social conscience and social justice.
Rabbi Kahn, the Hillel foundation international director after moving his family to Bethesda, Md., in 1959, once picketed State College barbershops that refused to cut black students hair.
They both believed you stand on the side of justice, on the side of good, on the side of right, Si Kahn said. Thats very strong in me.
As a Harvard senior in 1965, he watched broadcasts of Alabama state troopers clubbing civil rights marchers. He took part in a Boston protest, wound up jailed briefly and ended up being recruited for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the student wing of the Southern Civil Rights Movement.
With SNCC, he helped registered black voters in Forrest City, Ark. His parents feared for his safety, but he not only survived, he found a calling.
I think what happened to me I view this as the greatest of good luck when I finally got to the South, I thought, Oh my God, this is what I was meant to do, he said.
His work brought him to striking Kentucky coal miners and unionizing textile workers in the Carolinas. The films Harlan County U.S.A and Norma Rae immortalized the labor struggles.
Later, he founded Grassroots Leadership, a progressive organization that has campaigned against for-profit prisons and the detention of entire immigrant families.
His activism has fueled his music storytelling that has drawn admiring comparisons to Guthrie. The closing of a Georgia mill inspired his best-known song, Aragon Mill.
If anybody embodies Woody, he does, said Guthrie conference organizer Jerry Zolten. He doesnt just write songs, he lives the life.
Noted author Studs Terkel: Si Kahn fuses life with song.
Kahn and his wife, Elizabeth Minnich, are expecting their third grandchild, but hes not slowing down. The music born from Jewish prayer songs, rockabilly on the radio, Library of Congress recordings and Southern blues and bluegrass jams continues today.
His latest album, Bristol Bay, chronicles opposition to the worlds largest open pit mine in Alaska.
Guthrie would take one struggle and write about that, and I do that, Kahn said.
He doesnt play road dates much any more, but he made an exception to see old friends.
If it werent for State College, I probably wouldnt have left home, he said. But its State College.
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews