Collaborators Lil Rev and Larry Penn aren’t just two musicians – they are living cultural archives, preserving and performing music with deep roots. The list of accomplishments between the two of them is amazing.
He is also a champion of the ukulele, organizing both a Milwaukee Ukulele Club and an annual festival that draws uke players from around the world. Everyone from Taylor Swift to Mumford & Sons utilizes the ukulele in songs these days, but Rev fell in love with the instrument long ago.
“The way it felt in my hands, it’s small, you hold it kind of like a baby,” Lil Rev says. “It’s intimate, your fingers play the strings, and there is no pick. I just fell in love with the sound; it’s a very sweet, highly rhythmic type of sound and a really happy instrument. I mean, try to play the darkest tune you can think of and it comes out sounding happy.”
Lil Rev has authored several instruction books on ukulele and harmonica playing for the Hal Leonard publishing company.
Growing up with a family that appreciated music helped send Lil Rev on his career path. His mother was a Broadway musical enthusiast and his granddad a harmonica player. He also loved the pop hits of the day in the 1980s, and this affection developed further during his job as a paper boy.
“I remember delivering the newspaper at 4 in the morning, cranking my headphones, listening to the music of the day,” Lil Rev recalls. He used the money he made on his route to buy his first guitar. He began to take an interest in older folk and country musicians like Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash. He went back further to vaudeville and developed a show based on vaudeville music called “The Jews of Tin Pan Alley.”
“My grandparents spoke a lot of Yiddish around the house, usually when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying,” Lil Rev says. “So I picked up a lot of the more colorful words of the language – like I wrote this blues song about getting drunk, “She Sure Got Shikker.”
Lil Rev feels that keeping these traditions alive is an important part of what he does.
“You take it for granted, then when you get older you realize you grew up around something that was really vibrant and rich. As a teenager – in America at least – it is very easy to get caught up in this whirlpool that sucks you in and homogenizes everyone so it can package and sell things easier. It makes it easy for you to not realize your own authenticity and that is for all of us, whether you have Slavic heritage or German or some unique connection to your African American heritage, there are things about you that make you unique.”
An Epic Collaboration
Lil Rev and his collaborator Larry Penn met “eons” ago – so long ago that their stories differ on where the event took place. Rev says it was famous folk venue The Coffee House on 19th and Wisconsin. This is where Rev played his first gigs and where Penn was already an established performer. Penn places the meeting elsewhere.
“Maybe he won’t agree with my version of it,” Penn admits, “but I used to play a place called Nash’s Irish Castle on Lincoln Avenue. It’s long gone now. The guy who owned the place really wanted Irish music in there, but on Friday night he didn’t care if you sang political music, because people would get to drinking and arguing politics. So I had a gig there fairly regular. Lil Rev came in there one night and he had a bunch of mouth organs in a jacket. As soon as I saw him I knew he wanted to play. I invited him to come up and sit in on a few songs and I made a friend for life.”
The two began to play gigs and festivals together and Lil Rev began to learn about Penn’s colorful life.
Penn first picked up a guitar in the late 1950s after he bought a Lead Belly record, he says.
“I ran across a Lead Belly album in a cut out rack and I bought that and went home and he just blew me away,” Penn recalls. “I was running around the kitchen playing air guitar and trying to sing Lead Belly songs and my wife said, ‘For crying out loud, go buy a guitar!’ I probably would have put the guitar down after the novelty wore off, but once you get a little applause you’re hooked for life.”
Penn, a retired teamster, took a strong interest in labor songs and participating in picket line work, which led to him being named the Wisconsin’s Labor Poet Laureate by the AFL-CIO. Penn also has a love for train songs. One of his fans, hobo king John “Songbird” McCue, even arranged to have him play at the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa.
Besides hobos and teamsters, his songs also became popular with other folk singers. Over thirty of his songs have been performed by other musicians. His song “I’m a Little Cookie” was recorded by folk legend Pete Seeger.
Fans had long been asking Lil Rev and Penn if they might collaborate and they answered with the release of this year’s album, Around the Campfire.
“This guy, Larry Penn, is my hero,” Rev says of his collaborator. “He is just a legend in Milwaukee. He’s really got mud on his boots and he’s paid his dues. I consider it a blessing and compliment he wanted to make an album with me.”
For the album, both musicians picked three original songs they had composed and three favorite songs to cover. The material ranges from old standards like “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and “Midnight Special” to “Glide Sully Glide”- a song Penn wrote about Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the steel nerved pilot who safely landed a plane in the Hudson River.
One of the album’s tracks, “The Popular Wobblie (They Go Wild over Me),” was included on the 2009 Grammy nominated compilation tribute album Singing through the Hard Times: A Tribute to Utah Phillips.
To support the album Lil Rev and Larry Penn will be joined by musician John Sieger for a show October 27 at Linneman’s.
“I’m not playing all the time. I can play a couple times a month to keep my chops up, but I can’t beat the bushes like I used to or be a road warrior,” Penn says. “But like my friend Utah Philips said – no one retires from this job, you know.”
If you go:
Thursday, October 27
1001 E Locust St
$7 cover, door at 8:30
Larry Penn also plays The Coffee House with other artists Friday, October 7 at 8PM for a Food Pantry Benefit and again for a solo show Saturday October 15, 8PM.