John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Rondinellie’s Castle

A Milwaukee gem hidden In plain sight, created by venerable folk singer Larry Penn.

By - May 2nd, 2014 02:39 pm
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Milwaukee is currently enjoying a nice music moment. The sun is shining on a lot of new bands and there is a lot of excitement around them. Deservedly, I might add — it’s probably as good as I remember it ever being around here and nobody seems to suffer from the nagging inferiority complex that comes with being a 90 miles from Chicago.

Larry Penn

Larry Penn

Young bands nowadays get good awfully fast and the need for veterans lessens every year. This is as it should be, you can’t expect twentysomethings to be jumping up and down about bands their parents’ (or grandparents’) age.  But good is good and guess what?… some people keep their talent going long past their sell-by date — even into their ninth decade, specifically, Larry Penn, age 87, and a Milwaukee treasure.

(Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Penn and consider him a friend. I have no intention of writing about any other musical pals, no matter how good they are, until they ripen a little more.)

Larry cut his teeth in a folk music scene that was in place long before Hibbing Minnesota’s favorite son rolled into New York and changed the game. A retired truck driver, he once ran with the legendary Utah Phillips and like him, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie or Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, he sings about a lot of “folky” things. There are union songs that praise workers and their struggles. There are also trains, dames (both shady and upright), gambling, whiskey, and truck driving.

One topic Penn seems to avoid religiously, aside from religion, is himself. A lot of what passes for folk music currently is a reflective branch of acoustic music made by singer/songwriters. In that cloistered world, teeming with well-educated and erudite folks, the topic is always much closer to home — maybe a little too close. There’s self awareness and that’s fine, when it’s balanced with an awareness of others. Unfortunately, a lot of it isn’t. It seems they have yet to learn that the really great actors like to play the villain from time to time. Or, just possibly, they might not trust that we would get the joke. It sure is nice to have your intelligence respected though, and I think Larry, whose songs feature some pretty wry lyrics, doesn’t mind if the punch lines fly over some people’s heads.

So, not a single musical selfie from Mr. Penn — instead, we get great songs, usually stories about someone or something other than him, almost always introduced with laconic ramblings that could also be called stories. One of his songs, I’m a Little Cookie, is an inspired take on the less-than-perfect members of the human tribe. The inspiration came from Larry’s wife, Pat, who worked with developmentally disabled children at the Penfield Children’s Center. She asked why nobody ever wrote songs about the children there, and Larry was up to the challenge.The resulting song is sweet, like it’s title, and honest. It’s also so catchy it won’t leave once you hear it. Pete Seeger thought the very same thing and recorded it. That’s some serious folk validation.

Before we get to the song of which we speak today, let me tell you about another I just came across. It astounded me in every way a song can. Called Mabelo (pronounced Mabel-Oh), it’s about a doll Penn’s mother owned long ago. Given Larry’s age, you will know his mother wasn’t playing with Barbie dolls. It wasn’t uncommon for dolls to be handmade back then, with pretty porcelain heads, painted faces and real human hair. The bodies were kid leather and stuffed with sawdust. Because of this, the heads tended to outlive the bodies, and Larry’s mom kept hers in an oval box. She took it out from time to time, singing, “I’ve got a pain in my sawdust.”

OK…  good story, but how’s the song? Some people would let that story do all the work. It has undeniable sentiment, so it might not require a lot of effort to come up with an adequate melody and a functional chord or two. But that’s not our man Larry. He’s a working man and doesn’t shun hard labor. The music he conceived, unusually sturdy and fingerpicked in the old country blues style, is stretched way beyond his usual bounds. Alternating between major and minor tonalities, it’s a invention Irving Berlin would be proud to have written. This one could be a movie and I’m including it here as a bonus sound file. (Larry is on Youtube, but not this song or the next.)

Larry Penn - May Day at the Pabst

Larry Penn – May Day at the Pabst

The song that slays me every time I hear it is called Rondenellie’s Castle. (The spelling in the title puzzles me a little. If I was an Italian American club owner in the ‘40s and ‘50s, I would have left the “e” off the end of my name. Larry thinks the typo may be his.) This establishment, long gone, was located near the site of the Italian American Center, down the block from Summerfest, The Castle was in the heart of the Italian/American community back then.

If I had a time machine, I would set the dials for this club on a night when Larry (a drummer back then) was playing for $5 and all the lasagna he could eat. He claims to have gotten the better end of that deal and I bet he did.The picture he paints is charming — a cozy little Italian joint where, “Lots of fine musicians played before their prime.” (I so want to steal that line!) The hook, line and clincher — the reason no video is ever going to come close to what I see in my imagination, is his description of the stage. The set-up comes in his introduction to the song, when he plays live. The stage was round, which is unusual enough to begin with, but it also has an incredible feature I’ve never encountered or heard of anywhere.

There were cut out scallops that went around the stage, painted to represent waves on the sea. Hidden by this little bit of fool-the-eye brushwork was a circular layout of model train tracks. No trains, but they did have The Nina, The Pinta and The Santa Maria circumnavigating the musicians all night. Now that I think about it, the night I want to go back in time to sip chianti and sample the lasagna would be Columbus Day. They must have had some pretty legendary October nights there.

The song starts with a near perfect first verse, not a word out of place and an especially clever third and fourth line:


Down at Rondeinellie’s Castle where a jazz band played

And Christopher Columbus sailed around the stage

He was looking for a new world

But we all were in those days

Watching Christopher Columbus as he sailed away


And it just gets better and better:


Down at Rondeinellie’s Castle in a smoke filled room

Where dancers navigated to a paper moon

There are things you can remember 

‘Bout the way you came of age

Watching Christopher Columbus sail around the stage


Down at Rondeinellie’s Castle on the low east side

You could find Italian treasure for a street car ride

You could taste Italian pleasure

And Italian wine

While Christopher Columbus sailed onboard the pine


Down at Rondeinellie’s Castle in a golden time

Where lots of fine musicians played before their prime

Where the sun rose every morning

On our Lady of Pompei

While Christopher Columbus he just sailed away


Down at Rondeinellie’s Castle where a jazz band played

And Christopher Columbus sailed around the stage

He was looking for the new world

But we all were in those days

Watching Christopher Columbus as he sailed away



© 1983 Larry Penn TRO Devon Music BMI


I’ve hired Wes Anderson to direct my imaginary version of this tune. You can picture the screen lit by flickering candles, glowing with warm reds and greens, the dancers under a paper moon — maybe that’s the song the young drummer is attempting. This song achieves a sensory immersion that is nearly complete.

It would be reasonable to say this song is Larry’s best. But there would surely be arguments from lots of fans and fellow musicians, many of them well known. Every time I see him, the consistency from song to song staggers me. If this was Chicago or New York, he’d be treasured like Studs Terkel or Pete Seeger. It’s a measure of just how far off the map Milwaukee can seem to rest of the nation that a guy this good stays hidden. But, anyway, Larry’s no glory hog. I bet you could still get him to play for $5 and all the lasagna he could eat, but these days you might have to pour a little bourbon or rye.

Past Sieger on Songs: 


0 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: Rondinellie’s Castle”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Larry Penn has no “musical selfies”? How wonderful! Though I often enjoy them, to NOT have them is unique!

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