Wednesday, January 14, 2004

A Special Love

I just received an e-mail from a Norwegian man who has a web site dedicated to my friend, the late folksinger, martial artist, political troublemaker and former analyst for the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee Rolf Cahn.

Alf Storrud wanted to know what happened to my old web site, where for years I had posted the article I wrote in 1994 about Rolf's life and final days. (He died the day after the story was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican.)

So I told Alf he has my permission to republish my story on his site, (which offers CDs of Rolf's music, which has been out of print for years.)

I'll also repost the story here.

Damn, I miss Rolf!

Originally Published July 31, 1994

Rolf Cahn-- folk music guru, martial arts teacher, author, social activist and beloved Santa Fe character--has, in the words of an ex-wife, "called in his troops."

Cahn, whose 70th birthday is next month, was diagnosed two months ago with liver cancer.

Since that terrible discovery, Cahn has played lots of music, including a public performance with his oldest son at Jackalope Pottery earlier this month.

He also completed a novel, The Immigrant, which, according to friends, is a tale of the ancient general Hannibal reincarnated and living in modern-day Santa Fe.

But shortly after completing The Immigrant, Cahn became bedridden at his home.

His three sons - Jesse, 45, Michael, 27, and Andrew, 24 - and other friends have been taking care of his needs: getting him water, juice and pain medication, helping him sit up, massaging his skin.

To those outside of the family, the sons refer to their father as ``Rolf.'' When talking to him or about him among themselves, they affectionately call him "Pop."

A Special Love
was the title song of a self-released Rolf Cahn tape in the early 1980s. It also could describe the feeling at the Cahn household in recent weeks.

Dozens of friends have come by during the past weeks to give their love to Rolf. Cree McCree, one of Cahn's former wives, flew in from New York to spend a week with him.

Eve Muir, whose late husband John Muir was one of Cahn's best friends, comes by the house frequently, bringing Cahn bottles of water.

Cahn's skin now has a yellow hue. Always wiry, he seems to have lost weight. Although those who know him will always remember how Cahn loved to talk, argue, rant and sing, it seems painful for him to talk now. The words are scarce.

Cahn is asleep much of the time, but when he wakes up to find a familiar face in his room, his eyes light up and he flashes a smile.

On Friday he smiled at a longtime acquaintance and pointed at him. "I like you," he said in a raspy voice.

"I like you too, Rolf," the friend said, holding back tears.

The phone at Cahn's home has rung frequently in recent days. His sons say he has received calls from Romania, England and Germany.

The letters have been pouring in. Eric Von Schmidt, an old Cambridge folkie who recorded an album with Cahn in the early '60s recently wrote, calling Cahn, "The born teacher. The guy with the best licks and the prettiest chicks ... You were the Cambridge/Berkeley connection before it existed."

Cahn was born into a Jewish family in Germany in 1924. In 1937, during Hitler's reign, Cahn's family fled, immigrating to the United States. The Cahns ended up in Detroit, where, Rolf always told friends and interested reporters, he learned how to box in self-defense.

Cahn enlisted in the Army during World War II and found himself in the Office of Strategic Services - the precursor to the CIA - parachuting behind enemy lines and blowing up bridges.

"I killed people," Cahn said in a 1982 interview. "No matter what euphemism you want to use, I just killed people."

Before his action in the European Theater, the OSS sent Cahn to study the Chinese language in Berkeley, said Jesse Cahn, who came from California to help his father. "That's military intelligence for you," he said. "Here's a young kid who speaks German and they send him off to learn Chinese."

However, it was during these studies that he met a Chinese k'ang jo fu aster, which began Rolf Cahn's lifelong study of martial arts, Jesse Cahn said.

Cahn himself wrote about the meeting in his 1974 book Self Defense for Gentle People. After his time in the service, Cahn returned to Detroit where he enrolled in Wayne State University.

There he became involved in labor organizing, left-wing politics and, not coincidentally, folk music. He learned guitar - both folk and flamenco - and in 1948 campaigned for Henry Wallace, a former vice president who was the Progressive Party's presidential candidate in 1948.

"Even then, hundreds of little Woody Guthries were running around,'' Cahn once said. "That early, and it was beginning to be a pain in the ass to listen to your fifteenth Woody Guthrie that week."

He moved to northern California and started the San Francisco Folk Music Club in the early 1950s.

In 1959, following the drowning death of a son, he moved to Cambridge, Mass., where the folk music movement was hatching. This is where the likes of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Jim Kweskin and Maria Muldaur got their start.

Jesse Cahn remembers Odetta - the folk singer best known for her rendition of Woodie Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty" - as his babysitter during those years.

This era is documented in the book Baby Let Me Follow Me Down by Von Schmidt and Jim Rooney. Cahn is quoted extensively and praised reverently in the book.

"Until Rolf came, there weren't any teachers of folk or blues guitar styles around Cambridge," the authors wrote. "Eminence, rabbi, guru, whatever, Rolf could be intense and volatile or tender and charming. Like most good teachers, he was always searching and learning himself."

But when the Cambridge scene started getting commercialized and too "white bread," Cahn split, going first to Spain to study flamenco, then to New Mexico, where he first was a logger, then an analyst for the Legislative Finance Committee in Santa Fe.

He taught martial arts at night but soon learned that his folk music credentials meant little in a town known for being hard on musicians.

"The musician in Santa Fe will get his comeuppance," he said in 1982. "You'll be happy to play for tips while a bunch of rich Texans eat."

In 1971, tragedy again struck Cahn, who was living on the city's east side.

According to accounts of friends and newspaper stories at the time, masked intruders broke into the front part of his house, where his former wife and children were residing. Cahn, who was living in the back part of the house, opened fire, killing one of the burglars.

Cahn himself was shot in the arm and a bullet grazed his head.

Soon after that, Cahn left New Mexico, moving once again to California, where he worked for a Head Start program.

He returned with his two youngest sons in the late 1970s. He taught k'ang jo fu, eventually opening The Cahn School of Movement.

Occasionally he played music, trying every so often to get a scene going here, but usually ending up in frustration.

"I refuse to play while people eat, because to me music is prayer," he said in 1982.

Although in the early days he was best known for interpreting folk songs and blues, Cahn in the 1980s released two tapes of his own songs A Special Love and Midnight Sun.

His family and Eve Muir are working on releasing a tape of recently recorded songs called Fall Rain.

Cahn also remained active in social causes. He spoke at a City Council meeting against police brutality last year after the police shooting of Francisco "Pancho" Ortega.

About a year ago, his sons say, Rolf Cahn's energy level began to drop. He also began having stomach problems. But nobody thought much about it until he was diagnosed with liver cancer.

Andrew Cahn said there was never an issue about his father spending his last days in a hospital. Everyone knew it would be better for Pop to stay at home.

"It's work," Michael Cahn said. "But he spent plenty of years taking care of us. For anyone to back off because they're too busy, I just can't believe that."

Rolf Cahn is asleep again by the time his visitor leaves. Although the old, chatty guru is almost silent now, one of his songs sticks in the visitor's head.

"You'll need that special love I put on you. "

The voice is strong, and the accent thick - as if Hank Williams had been born in Prussia.

The words were initially addressed to an erstwhile wife or girlfriend, but now they seem universal.

Those who know Rolf Cahn always will remember that special love.


  Sunday, April 21, 2024 KSFR, Santa Fe, NM, 101.1 FM  Webcasting! 10 p.m. to midnight Sundays Mountain Time Host: Steve Terrell E...