Larry Penn: Blue-Collar Troubadour
By Eddie Allen
Photo courtesy of Larry Penn-Cookie Man Music Co.
Photo courtesy of Larry Penn-Cookie Man Music Co.
Extending the pinky finger of his right hand as if holding a fragile wine glass, Larry Penn dangles a shiny new Gibson guitar by the upper reaches of its neck. His grip on a snifter of brandy in the other hand is much firmer. He lumbers across the floor pausing briefly at the edge of the platform stage to calculate the effort required to hoist himself. With dexterous aplomb that belies his age and girth he maneuvers through a crowded tangle of cords and microphone stands. Finding safe harbor for his drink on a window sill behind the stool at center stage, he then lifts the tree trunk that is his right leg by going tippy-toe on his left foot. Watching him settle onto the stool is unsettling. Like a jumbo jet touching down, he seems too big to be graceful.
A long moment of fumbling with the guitar’s strap is followed by nervous atonal plucking and strumming. He appears to be stalling, an impostor about to be found out. Right when you think he is ready to admit that he is, in fact, a bricklayer and not a concert performer at all, Penn’s meaty hands miraculously discover their calling, loosing an infectious melody that quickly draws the audience into an invisible grasp that won’t be released for a long time after the show is over.
The tiny listening room of
Café Carpe seats, perhaps, sixty people.
On this night before the Thanksgiving holiday it is not full, unusual
for Penn but an occupational hazard even the best in this business deal with
from time to time. While many performers
thrive on glamorous settings and large crowds, Penn requires neither. What this humble venue does afford is a superb
acoustic setting and an intimacy that he masterfully exploits. Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin
He draws a deep and noisy breath that seems to suck all the air from the room and leans back so far that for a moment he seems in danger of falling from his perch. A brief tension holds the crowd until; finally, the gentle giant spews forth. His rusty voice is as burly as the rest of him and startling at first, like a firecracker going off. It’s too big and hard to be pretty but there is comfort in its strength—a strength necessitated by the weight of his songs.
They go wild simply wild over me
I never hurt no one that I can see
But on me they’ve put a ban
And they stuck me in the can
They go wild simply wild over me
“Haywire Mack” McClintock’s, They Go Wild, Simply Wild Over Me is a song that once served to rouse the passions of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies. “I have sung the song a whole bunch, not only because it’s a sure crowd pleaser but because I can do it in my sleep,” he confesses to me later. “That’s important when you’re nervous on the first song.” But Penn’s professed performance anxiety is only part of the reason that the old Wobbly tune is so important to his repertoire.
Woody Guthrie is claimed to have said, “I don’t work. I sing about work.” Penn, a disciple of Guthrie’s, can claim only the second half of the alleged remark. He is a working man, a dedicated union man, and a scholar of labor history. More than anything else, Penn’s world view is framed in the context of working people. And while his many endeavors reflect a wide variety of interests and expertise, work and the people who do it is the prevailing theme of his art. “If I can get in with a bunch of working stiffs then I’m right in my element,” he says. “The bluer the collar the better.”
Last summer Penn arranged for me to shadow him during a performance in
Chicago. He picked me up at the Milwaukee Amtrak depot
and offered in-depth historical interpretation of architectural sites en route
to the working class neighborhood where he shares a modest, comfortable home
with Pat, his wife and the mother of their five grown children.
The kitchen is small and orderly. A bay window above the sink contains a working N scale electric train set complete with its own miniature landscape. There is a 1960s rotary dial wall mounted telephone. Pat sat with her back to the refrigerator from which she regularly offered up refreshments. At the opposite end of the table, Penn tolerated my probing into his life and work as he played his guitar.
Shortly after returning from two hitches in the army, including service with the American occupational forces in
Japan at the
end of World War II, Penn began a thirty-five year stint as a teamster. Describing his initiation into civilian truck
driving he says, “This guy took me out on what was called a student trip. They did this to see if you could drive or
not. At a warehouse with maybe fifty numbered doors
he says to me, ‘Back up to one of them doors.’ My choice of door ten was purely mental; my
arrival at door eight was smooth and in one pass. Then the guy says to me, ‘I can see that you
drove ‘em before.’”
Penn started out with over-the-road moving vans but later was able to work closer to his native
and a growing family by hauling loads of steel locally and around the state for
thirty-five years. Truck driving is hard
work. He is aggravated by romantic
images of the job put forth by Nashville
songwriters and Hollywood television producers. “They like to pass it off as one of the
glamour professions. Maybe you’d like to
hear a song written by a real live truck driver.” He plays and growls a mournful trucker’s
lament, Run. The lyrics conjure up the
smell of the cab of his Model 22 White Mustang in the predawn hours of an all-night
run. East Chicago
Thirty years of drivin’ I have chiseled on the log
Waiting for the shadows that are hidden in the fog
Thirty years of reekin’ from the oil and the sweat
Thirty years of reaching for another cigarette
Penn embraces the traditions of social and political activism in folk music and has committed much of his energy and his art to the cause of organized labor. He bristles at being pigeon-holed as an “activist singer” but his undying loyalty to the ideals of unionism and social justice guarantees he’ll be found at any picket line or labor rally, guitar in hand and booming voice at the ready. Penn once called in a favor from Pete Seeger, a loyal friend, who joined him at a rally in support of
Milwaukee’s Local P-40 in their struggle
against the union-busting corporate bosses of Patrick Cudahy Meat Packers.
Seeger had been raising money for the financially-strapped Sing Out Magazine with a concert tour in which he was delighting crowds with Penn’s “I’m A Little Cookie.” In what is arguably his most recognized and often-covered song, a broken cookie—rejected and packaged for discount sale by the baking company—is allegory for a child damaged by Down’s syndrome:
Now I’m not as round as I might be
But I’ll taste good just wait and see
And I can love back just twice as hard
As a regular cookie can.
Honesty is as important to Penn as loyalty. Of the company’s repeated demands for concessions from workers he responded, “I’d feel better if they took a gun and said, ‘Stick ‘em up! Your money or your life.’” In song, Penn articulates the plight of workers as well as any folksinger ever has, Woody Guthrie included. Penn pays homage to Guthrie—whom he likens to a patron saint—in his Prayer to Woody, a kind of open letter bringing the departed Oklahoman up to date:
Sing a dust bowl ballad
In a storm of foreign cars
while giving a gentle rib to one of Guthrie’s more recognizable protégés:
Now, some sing for the money,
But the people need a bard,
The times they may be changin’
But the travelin’s just as hard.
Penn’s Frozen in Time is as haunting as Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre, the song that it sequels. In it he revisits the brutal deaths of seventy-three children trampled and smothered in
in the chaos that resulted when
company thugs shouted “Fire!” in the stairwell of the Italian Hall. Children of striking miners were having a
Christmas party on the upper floor. The opening
verse alludes to the Christmas moon in Guthrie’s closing verse. Calumet, Michigan
The cold winter moon still rises to find
A trace of the old
Calumet Copper mine
And the place where the children were waiting inside
For a legend to freeze them in time
Despite the overall impact of labor—in the personal and collective sense—on Penn’s body of work, he attributes his musical genesis to an intrigue with an old recording of Huddie Ledbetter, the legendary bluesman better known as Leadbelly. With a $17 guitar and an instruction book of chords he was on his way. He started making up silly songs. “You know,” he says, “dirty songs about my friends—just for laughs.”
Work as a serious folksinger began about the same time he and Pat became involved in the struggle for civil rights in the l960s. The Penns had befriended Father James Groppi when he first came to their parish as a curate. Groppi later got the assignment he wanted in the inner city where, under his mentorship, a lot of self-destructive kids turned their lives around. Inspired by civil rights efforts he had experienced while in
, Groppi had nurtured the
support of the many who participated in the marches he led from the inner city
in the struggle for open housing. The
Penns were among them. Selma,
Ken Germanson edited a monthly newspaper for the Allied Industrial Workers of America. He also organized Community 19, an activist group supporting civil rights issues in
Ward. Early meetings of the group were
held in the Penns’ living room.
Germanson knew that Penn was doing civil rights songs and he was aware
of their connection with songs from the labor movement. When he arranged for Penn to sing for workers
at the in University
of Wisconsin Madison, Penn’s work
began to evolve.
Germanson eventually wrote the liner notes for Workin’ For A Livin,’ in which he cites Penn’s appearances at the George Meany Labor Study Center in Maryland, the Illinois Labor History Society, and before Cesar Chavez and his farm workers as evidence of that evolution. In a blurb on that early recording the famed labor balladeer, Joe Glazer, writes of Penn: “He is one of the very best. I predict that one of these days he will be as well known as Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie.”
Penn’s fears of being branded as an activist singer may be well-founded but you need not sit at that kitchen table long to see the limited accuracy of such labeling. Larry Penn writes about everything. His songs, stories, and poems run the gamut of human experience.
Asking people how their parents met is a good way to get them to tell you a lot about themselves. Penn responds to the inquiry with eight verses in waltz time in which he turns the clock back to the days of his mother’s youth. The blossoming lighthouse keeper’s daughter rowed out onto
in a small dinghy while her father was asleep.
She aimed to get the attention of a young surfman on duty for the United
States Life Saving Service by feigning distress. Overestimating her boat handling skills and underestimating
the power of the waves, she soon found herself in real peril. Equal to the task, the surfman rescues the
girl. Then he marries her. “The rest is history,” Penn concludes.
In the company of folksingers, stories, songs, and laughter tend to fill the night and overflow into the wee hours of morning. Without exception a circle is formed; kitchen tables or campfires are the centerpieces of choice. The circle opens freely to allow another to enter but also serves as a barrier to distraction from intercourse. This night it holds just the three of us. The Penns are gracious hosts; they make you very welcome.
By mid-morning of the next day we have been amply fed and fussed over by Pat. Penn’s GMC van is chockablock with guitars, PA equipment, boxes of compact discs and cassette tapes, and our overnight luggage. His years of truck driving are evident as he easily wends through the intimidating traffic that connects
where he will perform under the billing of “The 5th Annual Grand
Penn’s fascination with industrial folklore stoked an interest in railroad history which in turn led him to an esoteric milieu of
Americana: the hobo. While the popular representation of the hobo
is a slothful fellow inflicted with wanderlust, a more accurate depiction is one
of a large class of migrant laborers who were the driving force behind enormous
industries like mining, lumbering, and the harvesting and canning of fruit and
vegetables. Historical imagery is
seductive to this autodidactic scholar and is the catalyst to a spate of
artistic output that has lifted Penn to the apex of this particular genre. While no shortage of ink has been spilt in
the writing of great songs about trains and hoboes, no one has done it better
He is noticeably irritated by those who would blur the distinctions between mythological icons, folklore, labor history, and the few remaining practitioners of the hobo lifestyle. “There’s a lot of guys out there hoppin’ freights who do it for recreation. Most of ‘em are carryin’ cell phones and have a credit card in their sock. And I don’t make no bones about it. I don’t approve of it. It’s illegal and it’s dangerous.” Then, just as quickly, his tone softens and he talks about people he knows who have been riding the rails for decades. “Some of these guys are the genuine article. They’re not a part of an army of itinerant laborers like you’d’ve seen years ago but they’re makin’ their way the only way they know how.” The soliloquy is interrupted long enough to check his blind spot and merge in the dense traffic. “You’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em,” he adds.
Our first stop in the
is in a seedy post-industrial section of Windy City 18th Street. “Come on,” Penn says. “I’ll show you the biggest model train set in
the world.” We turn from the pocked
asphalt into the subterranean parking lot of a building that looks like an
empty warehouse. Seven floors up the elevator
door opens and we cross an empty space to enter a large square room, perhaps 40
by 40 feet and brightly lit by sunlight pouring through floor-to-ceiling
windows. For the moment it takes to
adjust to the light a smell of old paper dominates the senses. We are standing among huge stacks of railroad
memorabilia, posters, handbills, bills of lading, and ilk of documents.
A half dozen fellows are seated in ancient chrome and leather chairs—apparently salvaged from a doctor’s office waiting room circa 1956—arrayed in front of the huge panes. They are staring out and down upon a mesmerizing expanse of steel tracks, behemoth locomotives, and freight and passenger railroad cars. In railroad parlance it’s known as the Amtrak and Metra’s South Branch Sidestep. You have to look closely to realize that the narrow brown strip bisecting what a hundred-fifty years ago might have been called landscape is actually the south branch of the
Chicago River. Soft
green patches along its edge are living organisms in what otherwise looks like
a world of steel, glass, and concrete immersed in an atmosphere of diesel
Penn is at once recognized by everyone here at what I eventually learn is the headquarters of the 20th Century Railroad Club, an organization dedicated to rail fans. “It’s Cream City Slim,” shouts one as everybody in the room stands to greet him.
In the hobo culture monikers are given by your peers.
is itself a nickname
derived from the cream color of local bricks used by masons in the construction
of many of the city’s buildings during the 19th Century. “Somebody who can eat with impunity named me
‘Cream City Slim’ because of my Milwaukee
goiter,” Penn admits.
Penn acknowledges them by rattling off names like “Banjo” Fred, “Texas Madman,” and Luther “The Jet” while aiming his index finger at each man as if shooting empty bottles off a fencepost. Greetings completed, everyone returns to their seats and their free-wheeling chatter. Stories meet with regular interruption by comments on the movements of the various trains in the busy yard below us. A great deal of railroad talk consists of acronyms and slang terms that depict the longer names of railroads and gizmos used in the physical management of trains. UP, B & O, and IC are recognizable; beyond that I am lost. It’s like listening to the play by play of a sporting event that you don’t understand. Penn knows the game but spends the better part of the next hour listening.
At the southernmost end of
Chicago land lies the gentrified community of
Pullman. Tree-lined boulevards shade the neat two-story
brick row houses and there is a sense of having left Metropolis for Smallville.
The Pullman Historic District comprises an area of several city blocks in what
was once the home of the Pullman Palace Car Company, the model town created by
its industrialist founder, George Pullman. Pullman’s professed vision was to provide his
workers with decent housing and a community where their families could flourish
while they churned out the luxury railroad coaches that would make him incredibly
It is mid-afternoon when Penn maneuvers the GMC van to the edge of the immaculately groomed
. His carefully cultivated reputation as a
curmudgeon is quickly betrayed by the broad smile that erupts when he
recognizes a couple of young ‘boes. They
are milling on the soft grass among a handful of folks apparently gathering for
the upcoming festivities. Penn seems
unaware of the fact that his arrival, for the second time today, is the focus
of everyone’s attention. Pullman
After warm greetings and introductions (no last names) are exchanged it becomes evident that little in the way of formal organization will rule the day. No one in this slightly haggard assemblage looks like a dues-paying member of the Pullman Garden Club, the event’s sponsoring organization. Neither does anyone seem to be expecting the arrival of a host or hostess anytime soon. I have seen a schedule of events announcing a Hobo Poetry Reading in the park at . There is no mention of schedules or time of day in this crowd but somehow a consensus is achieved. Bindles are lifted and we saunter in the direction of the Hotel Florence about a block away.
This elegant four-story Queen Anne Victorian hotel opened in 1881. Built as a showcase for visitors to the model town, it was named for
favorite daughter. The aging structure is currently closed for renovation but
there is little evidence of work underway.
Approaching the building is to be drawn back in time. A small marker on the well-kept lawn
commemorates the events of the Pullman Strike and displays a photograph of the
federal troops encamped on this site just days before the killing took place. We are on hallowed ground.
For the next hour I drift in and out of consciousness lulled by a freshening breeze that seems to rise from the earth itself. This odd assortment of travelers, at first sprawled pell mell on the cool grass, soon assumes the shape of a circle as stories and poems are read or recited from memory. Penn is attentive to each rendering, nodding approval no matter how many times he may have heard it before. When the offering is a creation of the teller he leans forward. A long strand of gray hair escapes the confines of his coiffure, dangling freely about a forehead so furrowed in concentration that his thick eyebrows rise to meet at a right angle just above the bridge of his wire-rimmed glasses. When struck by the lyric value of a well-turned phrase he emits an involuntary grunt about three octaves below middle C.
Not before the last bit of steam escapes from the storytelling circle do we make our way a short distance south to the stately
Now home to the United Methodists, this was the only church George Pullman
allowed to be built in the town. Made
from beautiful Serpentine rock quarried in Greenstone Church Pennsylvania, the church can accommodate
about 500 worshippers; the town was designed to house 20,000. The original interior woodwork is exquisite cherry
and the stained glass is splendid. But
the most outstanding feature of the church is the 1882 Steere and Turner pipe
organ, an aural . Tower
Performers for Sunday’s concert are gathering for a run-through of the program. To call it a rehearsal would be a generous use of the term. Luther “The Jet,” one of the gents from the 20th Century Railroad Club, will be the stage director and a featured performer. Understandably enchanted by the fabulous instrument, he insists that all the musicians transpose their selections to the key of F, enabling his accompaniment. This causes considerable grumbling amongst the rank and file who are scurrying to find capos for their guitars. Unlike Penn, most are amateur folk musicians for whom playing in the key of F is akin to speaking Chinese.
It is hot and uncomfortable in the loft of the church where we gather around the organ’s keyboard and eventually the session drags on until it is becoming counter-productive. The day has been long and is only half over. Approaching his threshold of patience and frustration, Penn resorts to clowning and cracking wise in an attempt to ease the mounting tension of the situation. He is quick-witted, funny, and considerably less reverent than most in this group. When his antics garner an upbraiding from “The Jet,” Penn slumps in his seat, shamefaced like a schoolboy. “You can’t keep attacking the king without getting beheaded,” he says when we discuss the episode later.
These events do, however, attract more than just curiosity seekers and nostalgic lovers of folk music. The hour is late and shadows are long when we clamber once more from the GMC van near the side entrance of the Lucky Lady Pub. I am feeling a bit squeamish in what looks to me like the mean streets of a neighborhood much more jagged than the Historic Pullman District only blocks to our north; Penn is at home wherever he goes.
Paul, the proprietor, has prepared a meal and is serving a growing throng in a small fenced beer garden at the rear of the aging two-story brownstone building. Many are performers from the concert and I spot a few of the fellows from the poetry reading. Some in attendance appear to be locals—probably regular customers of this workingman’s tap room—but there are a few disheveled pilgrims who are clearly not from the neighborhood. One cautions me not to approach the shaggy red dog lying next to a small pile of canvas knapsacks and moth-eaten bedrolls. At two rows of picnic tables several weather-worn faces hover intently just inches over paper plates from which spaghetti and meatballs are being slurped with fervor. Paul emerges from the back door calling for a show of hands from the remaining unfed then retreats to the darkness of the kitchen. People are helping themselves from two large, unplugged chest freezers filled with iced beer. No money is changing hands.
I recall Penn’s words from earlier in the day: “You’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em.”
Within an hour appetites are sated and trash barrels are brimming. Red tomato stains soaked into the disposable flatware are the only vestige of victuals. Flies buzz their disappointment over the refuse and then move on to the greener pastures of distant dumpsters. The population of empty aluminum cans is growing apace but the ice chests are still bountiful. It is increasingly clear that this event won’t be over until the inventory is thoroughly depleted. A can of beer sits untouched in front of Penn throughout the night. He deflects all offers of more by lifting the can by his fingertips, swirling it slowly to demonstrate its fullness and nodding in appreciation of the surrogate generosity.
The chatter of the crowd is eventually silenced by the sound of “Banjo” Fred strumming on his long-necked instrument, filling the
South Chicago night with his booming baritone voice. Soon the music yields to a series of slurred
toasts and the christening of the host, henceforth to be known by the honorary
hobo moniker “Polenta” Paul, in honor of his Italian heritage and his custom of
When Paul requests that some of his “traveling” guests address the congregation everyone cheers for a fellow they call “Frog,” a scaled-down version of Charles Bronson. With a noticeable limp he steps to the fore and suddenly the event takes on the mood of an AA meeting gone amok.
“They call me Frog. I started running away from home about the same time I learned to walk. The first time I made it to the end of the block. When I was six I got halfway across town. By the time I was twelve I had made it ninety miles, to
and back on my own. To this day my mother cries because I haven’t
got a roof over my head. I tell her I’ve
got something better. My ceiling is the
And one by one they tell their stories. Somebody is slapping me on the back and spilling beer on my shoes. I don’t get the name of the one who travels with the red dog: “I lived with an abusive alcoholic mother as long as I could stand it. One night she got crazy drunk and chased me out of the house with a butcher knife. I ran until I was exhausted. At the edge of town I came to the railroad tracks and crawled into a boxcar and fell asleep. When I woke up I was a hundred and fifty miles away. That was in the early 80s.”
It’s “Texas Madman’s” testimony that is most intriguing. His mother was a traveling lady. When she got pregnant some hobo friends helped her outfit an abandoned boxcar as a home where he spent his early childhood. “Hoboes would look in on us regularly with gifts of food and useful items they had scrounged up for us.” His eyes mist over and the words come hard. “I was just a kid when she took sick and died.” His guardian hobo friends gave him a choice. They would take him to an orphanage or he could go with them. “I’d heard plenty o’ stories about the orphanage. It wasn’t a hard choice.”
It’s after when Penn and I make our way into the comfort of a modern hotel room. We sleep hard on soft beds.
Back at the
afternoon, Penn and a handful of musicians and hoboes are seated around card
tables in the annex of the church.
Ladies in fine hats and beautiful spring dresses, reluctant at first,
steel themselves and venture through the scattered instrument cases and singing
men. You can hear sighs of relief as
they pass into the next room to register for the Pullman Garden Tour. Greenstone
By the church is filled to capacity. Luther “The Jet” unleashes the full power of the pipe organ playing Hallelujah, I’m A Bum as prelude to the event. It is a very hard act to follow requiring a revival preacher of untold zeal. The first performers are meek in comparison and, at best, only amuse the crowd.
When Penn takes the stage he is nervous. The room is growing hot and uncomfortable. He takes a moment to compose himself, settling into a catchy guitar riff. Then, loudly enough to rattle the bones of old George Pullman himself, deep beneath the thick layer of concrete poured over his casket to protect his carcass from desecration by disgruntled laborers, Penn thunders the opening line of End of Train Device, his tongue-in-cheek paean to the vanishing caboose. In railroadspeak, FRED (flashing rear-end device) is a computer clamped to the last car of a freight train that monitors air pressure and wheel temperature. It replaces both the caboose and its human crew. The lyrics are clever and immediately ingratiating.
Nothing’s colder than an empty jug
Or the ring down in a coffee mug
It’s like a heart that don’t return your love
An end of train device.
His opening song captures the attention of his audience; his follow-up captures their imagination and leaves them cheering for the heroine of a real life melodrama. Run Kate Shelley Run chronicles the courageous deeds of a teenaged
girl. During a raging storm in the very
wet summer of 1881 she struggled across the railroad bridge over the Des Moines River to warn the crew of the oncoming Chicago
and Northwestern’s Midnight Express that the trestle at upcoming Honey Creek
had broken. Kate knew if the train
arrived before she could get across she would be crushed or she could easily
slip into the raging river as she crawled across the slippery rails. Hundreds of lives were saved. The
over the C&NW Bridge Des Moines River now bears her name.
Daddy was a section hand, run Kate Shelley run
Proud to be a railroad man, run Kate Shelley run
When he died the lantern passed to a fifteen year-old lass
She held the mantle up with class, run Kate Shelley run.
Penn’s performance is far and away the highlight of the Grand Hobo Concert, for the hoboes and everyone else. He modestly accepts compliments from many who linger in the audience to offer their gratitude. At the same time he deflects the praise onto others. “Thank you. I thought everyone did a nice job. Didn’t you?”
It is nearly when we pull into the alley behind Penn’s
home. When I suggest that the whole trip
has been about forty hours Penn replies, “Yeah, that figures. I get a two-song gig and it’s a whole week’s
A warm light comes from the kitchen window and a brighter light comes on at the back door as we dismount once more from the van. Pat is waiting up; the table is set with sandwiches and fresh fruit. If more than a half century of driving truck and working as a touring musician strains a relationship it’s not apparent between this couple. Their eyes meet like young lovers who have been separated for weeks.
Penn is a natural comic who maintains a steady and hilarious stream of kidding around with his wife, always good-natured and based on a strong foundation of mutual respect. Laughter abounds.
“Tell the truth, Larry,” I say, trying to get him to confess his love out loud. Pat is picking up the dishes while we sit numbed by exhaustion. “If Pat was off gallivanting in the big city and didn’t show up until midnight two days later, would you wait up for her?” “Sure I would,” he roars indignantly. “Somebody has to feed me!”
Now, on this November night at the Café Carpe, it’s clear the spring in his step isn’t wound as tightly as it once was; but as a performer Penn is at the top of his game and as a writer he is relentlessly prolific. This fellow who came to music at an age when most of his peers had already spent twenty years in the business has established a body of work and garnered accolades that would make any artist proud.
He debuts Just A Rose, a love song so wistful that every chest in the room tightens. With the nation on the verge of war in the Middle East he introduces A Cannon For Washington Square, his own monument to the fallen inspired by the installation of a French 75-mm artillery piece in a Racine, Wisconsin, park after World War I. “This was written about the time guys were coming back from
Vietnam. I am World War II vintage. There were a lot of those vets in coffee
houses then and I needed some way to establish empathy because they get just as
dead in any war.”
No friends or wives or lovers to weep
And only the pigeons the vigil do keep
Them that remember are buried too deep
A cannon for Washington Square
Everyone applauds in recognition of the opening strains of On My Grandma’s Patchwork Quilt, the folk music classic inspired by Penn’s immigrant grandmother. In it he likens the design of her crazy-quilt to a social design in which ethnic diversity is cause for celebration. Then he segues into Once Upon A Katy R.R. Line, a musical reminiscence of the history of the
Missouri, Kansas, & Texas Railroad, the first
major north-south line known affectionately by railroad men as the “Katy.” The rail buffs—there are some in any of
Penn’s audiences regardless of size—are nodding nostalgic approval of the
lyrics while the uninitiated are rapt by a sense of loss of something they
never knew they had.
All along the M-K-T from
down Junction City
Nobody seemed to worry about a lady leavin’ town
And now the ghost of Jay Gould’s daughter calls across the time
Once there was a Katy Railroad line.
After the show we share memories of the
Chicago trip we had made the previous summer. He brings me up to date on some of the folks
in the cast of characters that were there.
When the subject comes around to work he mentions some upcoming
performances and speaks with enthusiasm about a new recording about to be
released. Some of the songs from
tonight’s show are too new to be on it but he is already making plans for
another studio session. I offer a brief lament about how my own
writing has become bogged down of late.
A few weeks later I receive a package in the mail from Penn containing his new cd release, A Ride On The Westbound. A peel-and-stick note attached to the plastic case carries a one-line poem brimming with the elder’s wisdom: “Get f----n’ crackin’!” Penn does not suffer complacency well.
To “catch a ride on the westbound” is the hobo euphemism for death. The title track is a poignant tribute to James “
Lord Open Road”
Langford, an old hobo who, in 1981, was killed by a couple of young thugs for the
three dollars in his pocket. Penn is a great artist because he sees what
most of us overlook. In the death of Lord Open Road he
sees beyond the obvious tragedy and finds redemption in the story of the hobo’s
friends who travel all the way to the Texas
panhandle to retrieve his remains from a potter’s field. In the hobo tradition of sharing and taking
care of their own, they take him on one last train ride to to
scatter his ashes in this little town where hoboes have convened for over a
hundred years. Britt, Iowa
His friends have made sure with a ‘bo guarantee
Lord Open Road
would be free…
…A ride on the westbound is easy to catch
Cinders to cinders and ashes to ash.
You can find Penn performing in any number of coffee houses and folk festivals around the country. Recently he has teamed up with a loose-knit group of a half a dozen or so hobo-at-heart friends and songsmiths who are known collectively as The Rose Tattoo for the indelibly-inked markings they all wear. Among them is the legendary U. “
Phillips. If you’re lucky enough to
catch up with this group you will enjoy a serving of Americana that is becoming increasingly rare.
Larry Penn loves
America. He sings about what it can be at its very
best. His curiosity is the source of seemingly
endless artistic energy, the steam that drives one of the finest locomotives in
American folk music today.