Banjo Fred Starner obit
According to Fred’s wife, artist Barbara Starner, Fred volunteered to raise money and to do concerts to help bring attention to the job of building the sloop. He then sailed the first crew of the Clearwater from Maine to New York and then up and down the Hudson, working as a singing member of the crew. Later in the 1970s, he served on the board of the Clearwater restoration for three years.
Diagnosed with sarcoidosis shortly thereafter, which may have been brought on by exposure to pine resin and dust during the ships building in 1968, which Fred was involved in until its maiden voyage the following year, Starner could fairly say, with T.S. Eliot, “in my end is my beginning.” He was warned early on to avoid lung infections like the plague, as for him it could be life-threatening.
He was born August 6, 1937 in Toledo Ohio, the son of Charlotte and James Starner. He graduated from Scott High School.
Trained as an economics professor with a Ph.D. from Ohio State, Starner taught at Drew University, Ohio State, and the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse, where he founded the Great River Traditional Music and Crafts Festival, which the faculty community helped him keep going for ten years, until he left for LA’s greener pastures in 1987.
In LA he continued to teach economics at Pierce College, Glendale Community College and Cal State Dominguez Hills, but his dedication to the kind of protest folk music popularized by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly gradually drew him further a-field. He took early retirement when he turned 62 and devoted the last decade of his life to reaching out to every social cause that needed a troubadour and a song, and to helping younger musicians who looked up to his extraordinary skill and talent on both the longneck banjo and 12-string guitar.
Unlike many a would-be protest singer, Fred never allowed his message to get in the way of his music. His recordings utilized many of the area’s finest instrumental accompanists and harmony vocalists. Early on he became acquainted with bringing other musicians into his projects: in 1972 he hosted a ten part PBS series called Oleanna Trail for New Jersey public television, which featured singers who continued the folk music tradition. He believed fervently in the power of live recordings, so all eight of his albums, encompassing the LPs of the 1970s, tape cassettes of the 1980s, CDs of the 2000s, and a DVD of his self-produced hobo documentary were made in a myriad of live performances collected from coast to coast, from LA to aboard the Clearwater in New York Harbor, literally, as Guthrie put it, from California to the New York Island.
Fred Starner’s second album, The Black Struggle in Song and Story, with its’ stunning cover portrait of Harriet Tubman by Barbara Starner, is of particular note. It was recorded with civil rights hero and fellow Clearwater troubadour the Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick. During the 1970s they traveled and toured often together, and one such singing expedition found them face to face-an integrated mixed race duo-with an angry mob of KKK members in Grambling, Louisiana. Fred and Kirk seemed to be the only participants in a local demonstration who were unarmed, except for Fred’s banjo and Kirk’s guitar.
Starner later said he had never felt so close to death in his life, but Kirkpatrick was finally able to exercise his ministerial gifts with the local police department to extricate themselves from the situation, and go back to their original purpose, which simply to bring a bookmobile of donated books down to the under-funded schoolchildren of Kirkpatrick’s home town.
It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that Fred Starner put his well-thumbed and strummed banjo on the front lines of progressive social struggles. The man who taught Phil Ochs his first guitar chords back in Oberlin College in 1959, found himself in the summer of 2006 in the midst of the struggle to save South Central Farm when a local developer tried to buy it back from the city for a song and sell it to another developer for a small fortune. Fred was there every step of the way, along with much better known performers like Willie Nelson, Joan Baez and Rage Against the Machine’s guitarist Tom Morello, who all came in for a quick photo-op, got their pictures in the papers, and decamped for less demanding venues. Fred was in it for the long haul, until the bitter end, and kept writing and singing songs to uplift the local family farmers who were trying to maintain their community vegetable garden to supplement their subsistent diet.
That same sense of resiliency and dedication kept him coming back-whenever he was not on the road-every Friday night for six years to the corner of Ventura Blvd and Laurel Canyon in Studio City, where Neighbors for Peace and Justice kept their on-going peace vigil since the night before the first American bombs fell on Baghdad in March of 2003. It also made him the star attraction at the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club’s monthly hoot.
Fred reworked Pete Seeger’s classic anti-Vietnam War song Bring Them Home for the Iraqi war veterans who increasingly began to turn against the war and join Veterans for Peace, in the mold of future Senator John Kerry in 1970. Fred sang:
If you love your Uncle Sam
Bring them home, bring them home
Support our boys in the desert sand
Bring them home, bring them home.
Throughout his involvement with environmental, civil rights, economic justice causes and the peace movement, however, Fred Starner kept on searching for a cultural cornerstone that seemed to encompass the spirit of resistance and American rugged individualism in a larger sense, with historic roots going back the late 19th century. He found it in the revival of the hobo, which captured his imagination in a way that led him to devote the last two years of his life to documenting their music, travels and travails on a cross-country trip that led him back to where he had begun in 1969, as he got 90-year old folk legend Pete Seeger to sit down for his first-ever interview on his own adventure in hoboing with Woody Guthrie in the 1930s.
According to his wife, Barbara Starner, he then went on to research less famous members of the Hobos, who emerged during the Great Depression. Hobos traveled the rails, leaving home and families during that desperate economic time, looking for work and a way to survive. Starner met and talked to many of the old hobos, collecting their stories, songs and poetry. This collection turned into a documentary film which is now being shown at festivals around the country.
Fred’s just-released movie-made with director Bill McIntyre-The Hobo’s Song: That’s the Ticket Roadhog? is unexpectedly timely, as it turns on the O. Henry-esque tale of a hobo known as Roadhog, who managed to solve his own health care crisis with a desperate one-man plan to get himself incarcerated in a federal penitentiary by robbing a bank, so that he could gain access to the prison’s single-payer health care system, a grassroots strategy that even Michael Moore missed in his movie Sicko.
While never sporting a gun, Roadhog did handprint a note to the bank-teller, got himself arrested and sentenced to two years confinement, during which he was finally able to see his first doctor in thirty years, get diagnosed and treated, in a manner any European citizen could take for granted.
Roadhog’s story inspired Starner’s title song, That’s the Ticket Roadhog, which allowed Fred to unify his background as an economist, social activist and musician all in one song. By celebrating those who had fallen through the cracks of our frayed social safety net, and been reduced to a life of homelessness, free transportation in box cars and police cars, and itinerant migrant labor, Fred Starner found an outcast hero for a broken economy and failed health care system, just as the government was beginning to pour trillions of dollars into rescuing the banks and Wall Street brokers who had helped to create this very class of jobless, homeless hobos.
No stranger to adversity, Fred dragged his seventy-year old arthritic body onto one of those boxcars near Dunsmuir, California, where he met many of these modern hobos, just so he would know from firsthand experience what they had gone through.
They treasured his devotion to them, and when news of his passing began to spread through the on-line hobo community (yes, even hobos use the Internet!), one of them posted his brief but poignant tribute to his fallen comrade, “Banjo Fred Starner caught the Westbound for his last ride,” a hobo’s traditional picturesque reference to one who has passed away.
As songwriter Tom Paxton wrote in his classic song Rambling Boy, “If when we die, we go somewhere, I’ll bet you a dollar, he’s rambling there.”
Fred Starner is survived by his wife Barbara, daughter Natasha Starner Roper, sister Jacqueline Bartels in Toledo, brother James Starner of Cincinnati, numerous nieces and nephews, and hobos in a hundred far-flung jungle camps. To them all Fred would say, Keep on singing, and let the banjo ring!
In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, 724 Walcott Ave., Beacon, N.Y. 12508; www.clearwater.org.
Fred Starner’s web site is www.hobobanjofred.com
Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at Greygoosemusic@aol.com