Times like ours call for songs of reflection, songs that express bone-deep weariness and soul-scorching anger, songs that plumb the depths of heart-wrenching loss, songs the celebrate small victories, and songs that protest the relentless insidiousness of enduring injustice. Who better to write these songs than Si Kahn, who’s been writing them for over 50 years, and whose tireless work as a civil rights, union, and community organizer provides the vivid images and words for his songs. Saro Lynch-Thomason and Sam Gleaves pay tribute to Kahn’s songwriting, as well as to his deep commitment to overturning social inequity, by delivering stunning versions of 13 of Kahn’s songs, some never before released, that, as the album’s tagline indicates “celebrate women’s lives and struggles.”
Lynch-Thomason’s crystalline vocals float over Gleaves’ jaunty banjo on the humorous, tongue-in-cheek “I Caught the Sheriff,” the story of midwife Aunt Molly Jackson who “delivers half the people in this town/miners and milkmaid, bankers and bums/I caught them every one”; she even catches the sheriff as he slips naked into this world. Lynch-Thomason’s mournful intonation evokes a mother’s heart-broken pleas in “Ten Thousand Miles,” the mother’s lament for her son who’s being transported to a “prison built by lies” in south Georgia for “the crime of being hungry, for the crime of being poor, the crime of wanting something more, for the crime of being angry.” Soft guitar strums open “Aliens,” creating a sparse but fiercely tender atmosphere that urges reflection on self and others. It’s the perfect anthem for our times, pointing out that, “Each lonely immigrant is someone’s native daughter,” and asking “when you say immigrants are not like others/what are you saying about your own grandmother?” “Conductor,” a tribute to Harriet Tubman, who wrote that she was the “conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years,” chugs along on Gleaves’ rhythmic banjo rolls, while the haunting “Red Haired Becky” is a riposte to “Pretty Polly,” an Appalachian murder ballad that turns the table. The shuffling country rounder “Truck Driving Woman” rides along the tracks of Liam Purcell’s pulsing mandolin and lead runs; the song responds to all those others about truck driving men and celebrates the women who roll down the road in the cabs of their semis. The quiet beauty of “1920,” written by Kahn, Lynch-Thomason, and Gleaves, shaped by haunting violin runs weaving around and under mournful guitar notes, celebrates the women of the past 100 years who endured beatings, torture, and jail as they fought for the right to vote. In the chorus the singer, grateful for the sacrifices and work of these women, acknowledges that “So much has changed/so much remains.”
I Have Known Women is the album for our times. It’s fierce tenderness, passionate commitment, tenacious devotion to honoring women, and subtle beauty create a songbook that could easily carried to streets and meetings where the songs could be sung fervently to inspire change and hope for now and for the future.