When the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO named Larry Penn the “poet laureate for Wisconsin labor,” it was most appropriate for the retired Teamster who was better known for his folksinging.
Not only did his songs – that highlighted working people, hoboes, disturbed
children and others – have a poetic quality, but they that celebrated the human spirit that comes to those who must struggle for justice. The State AFL-CIO in 1998 conferred that poet laureate name on Penn, who died at the age of 87 on October 7 of complications from diabetes and heart disease.
It seemed that wherever there was a strike or a workers’ rally in last forty years, Penn was present, bringing his guitar and singing in his distinctive voice to stir the spirits of the folks. He helped lure Pete Seeger to the 1980s strike at the Cudahy, Wis., packinghouse strike; he traveled to Ft. Smith, Ark., to boost the workers there during a pending strike in the late 1980s; in short, he was present rain or shine, warm or cold, whenever workers need him.
In spite of fragile health in the last few years of his life, Penn performed until the last months of his life, when he entered hospice care. He was among the founders of the Bay View Tragedy event and performed at each annual commemoration in early May from 1986 through May of this year. Though too fragile to mount the three stairs to the platform, Penn sat next to it; yet, when he opened up to talk briefly about his two songs, his voice was loud and clear and full of humor. One of the songs, “Ghosts of Bay View,” that he wrote in 1986 on the centennial of the 1886 massacre in which the state militia killed seven when firing into a crowd of workers marching for the eight-hour-day. And the crowd sang along to “Solidarity Forever” which he led to close the show.
Unlike many labor folksingers, Penn was a worker and teamster who became guitarist and singer midway through his life. A self-taught guitarist, he played an acocustic guitar and continued to be his own worst critic through the years. What made his songs real was that he had experienced most of the feelings about which he wrote. As a young man, he worked for a household moving company doing interstate trucking. After his marriage to his wife, Pat, he became a local cartage driver, working mainly with Barry Trucking, of Milwaukee, often pulling a flatbed trailer carrying structural steel.
Penn’s first venture into singing for causes was for the cause of equal rights for African-Americans when he joined many of the marches led by the late Rev. James Groppi, singing along with a bass player named Bill Brown. His sense of justice brought he and his wife to host the formation of a group to support civil rights causes in his own white, working class neighborhood.
For the most part, Penn sang his own compositions, his earliest on the topics of civil rights. He taught himself some popular labor songs, such as “Union Maid,” which he sang regularly and “I’m Stickin’ with the Union.” His first formal union gig was at a summer school program for members of the Allied Industrial Workers Union (now part of Steelworkers) at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Soon, he was appearing in union causes and in 1976, Joe Glazer, another labor folksinger and record producer heard Penn and had him cut his first record, “Workin’ for a Livin’,” a collection of labor songs. Glazer brought him to Washington DC to perform at the George Meany Center, and soon Penn’s career took off.
Nonetheless, Penn did not quit his day job, continuing to drive during the day and performing on weekends and evenings until he retired at age 58 to work fulltime at composing, writing and performing. He cut a number of records for Collector Records, usually with a labor or railroading theme.
His most popular composition was “I’m a Little Cookie,” inspired he said by memories of the old Johnston Cookie Co., that sold broken cookies for $1.25 a bag, the lyrics repeating the words that the broken cookies tasted just as good as a cookie should. The song was written to honor emotionally disturbed or “damaged” children who could love just as much as any child.
His life will be honored at a celebration on at 5:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 19, at the Anodyne Coffee Roster, 224 W. Bruce St., in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point area. It will include tributes from other folksingers.
He is survived by his wife, five children, seven grandchildren and one great grandson. See obituary from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 10, 2014. — Ken Germanson, Oct 15, 2014