Creative Team Building and Leadership Resources - In our Elements

A Song and a Si for the Weary

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

This week’s Free Ride* muses on the songs of human rights activist and songwriter Si Kahn, who turns 67 today. He’s one of the few performers covered here on the Free Ride blog that I’ve had the opportunity to cross paths with on several occasions. Over twenty-five years ago, when Si Kahn was beginning work on his Grassroots Leadership community organizing project in Charlotte, I was in Louisville, serving on the board of the Southern Empowerment Project and cutting my own community organizing teeth with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. We had Si Kahn come up and do a benefit concert for our (ultimately successful!) campaign to defeat a strip-mining amendment on the state’s ballot. One of the highlights of my life was an after-concert gathering in a friend’s home, when I got to sit around with my guitar and swap songs with Si Kahn. His Aragon Mill, voicing the plight of unemployed mill workers whose factories have shut down, has long been a favorite (click here for a great cover by Hazel Dickens). Gone, Gonna Rise Again is another one I’ve covered many times through the years (click here for a great cover by Dick Gaughan).

Si Kahn has not only contributed songs to the repertoire of community activists, he has been an active organizer himself in many social causes, including prison reform, environmental justice, labor, and peacemaking. For the Free Ride theme, I am choosing a song that speaks to the plight of immigrants seeking refuge in our country. Lady of the Harbor begins with an autobiographical verse, as Si Kahn tells the story of his own family’s journey to the land of the free. It goes on to illustrate the inconsistent experience various groups have had in attempting their own journeys.

My grandpa was a scholar
back in the old country
but he fled from Lithuania in 1893
with knowledge his companion
and liberty his hope
he sailed up to the lady of the harbor

Imagine then how beautiful
that torchlight must have seemed
to a frightened Jewish immigrant
caught up in freedom’s dream
but the land had room for many
and he studied while he worked
by the lamplight of the lady of the harbor

Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore
send them the homeless, tempest tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door

In 1937 with war on every hand,
a band of Jewish refugees
sought shelter in this land
with nazis close behind them
they sailed their leaky boat
towards the safety of the lady of the harbor

But every door was closed to them
no port would take them in
til sick at heart they sailed back home
to Germany again
where their dreams were turned to ashes
and their bodies turned to smoke
that drifted past the lady of the harbor

So if these silent lips could speak
what reasons would they say
why some are welcomed freely
but others turned away
now as the terror rises
a fleeing world awaits
an answer from the lady of the harbor

For all along the borders
a nightmare comes again
as homeless, stakeless refugees
seek shelter in this land
will the lamp be raised to welcome them
or turn them back once more
only silence from the lady of the harbor

May we not only continue listening for the lady of the harbor to give an answer to the question of our country’s inconsistent response to those seeking a foothold on liberty’s shore, but let us work as tirelessly as Si Kahn in helping to shape that answer in a welcoming and affirming way for the next generation of tired and huddled masses yearning to breathe free.


*Free Ride is a Saturday blog from Stan Dotson that takes a different artist or song each week and muses on lyrics of freedom. You can click on the live links in the post to hear the music referenced in the blog. If you have a favorite “freedom” song (it could be any song that has the word free or freedom in it), feel free to suggest it in the comment box below. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.


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