Hard Travelin' ("Banjo Fred" Starner's Last Ride)

By Ross Altman

O Henry tells a story of a vagrant who on a cold winter night deliberately gets himself arrested in order to get a warm bed and a hot meal. He should have met Roadhog, the hobo hero of Fred Starner and Bill McIntyre's new documentary, That's the Ticket, Roadhog-the Hobo's Song. He takes O Henry's premise and stretches it five hundred miles further by robbing a bank in Miami, Florida, to get into the federal health care system available to inmates of a federal prison.

After handing out fifty dollar bills for a couple of days-thus insuring his Robin Hood status-he turns himself into the police, pleads guilty before the judge, and is sentenced to a minimum two years in what he calls "Club Fed," where he sees his first doctor in thirty years, gets tested and treated for diabetes and mental illness as well.

Sound like a Michael Moore movie? Think again. You won't find it in Sicko, but rather in this just-released (December 1 on ) hobo documentary. Fred Starner's title song tells Roadhog's story with an economy of detail worthy of the short story master himself, and we also hear the story recounted in Roadhog's own words.

What makes this desperate one-man health care plan so compelling, however, is that even though Starner first wrote and recorded the song back in 2001, its new appearance in 2009 lands right smack dab in the middle of a national debate on health care, where a creative and daring prison inmate manages to avail himself of precisely the single-payer system that has been taken off the table for us law-abiding citizens. Its appearance now, just as the House bill must run the gauntlet of the more conservative Senate, could not be more timely, and Fred Starner's eight year-old song sounds like it was written yesterday.

Even more compelling, moreover, is that we see this Hobo Minstrel-who just passed away at 72 from complications of pneumonia on top of the chronic lung auto-immune disease sarcoidosis-at the top of his game, as he is featured singing his song for Starner's now 90-year old mentor, Pete Seeger, who first inspired him to become a folk singer when Fred was at Oberlin College in 1958.

Fred Starner had a long history with Pete Seeger; as one of the original members of the Sloop Clearwater that began a decades-long struggle to clean up the most polluted waterway in North America, the Hudson River. Starner was a singing deckhand, who played banjo right alongside Pete at the concerts that the Clearwater crew gave along the way, to raise environmental consciousness and much-needed money as well, to demonstrate what a committed, small band of constructive renegades could do to realize the still nascent dream of Pete's-to recreate the river he had swum and fished in as a kid, before it had been destroyed by decades of industrial pollution and waste.

But Pete couldn't do it alone. And Fred and his wife Barbara, who was dragooned by Pete into becoming the volunteer cook for the whole crew in that critical first year of operation, 1969, joined a non-violent cadre of volunteers to help him succeed. It may have been the tail end of the 60's, but that one year saw us land on the moon, launch the struggle for gay and lesbian equality at the Stonewall Inn Rebellion, and conceive the spectacular image of a replica of the 19th century sloops sailing up and down the Hudson to dramatize its endangered status.

Before there was an Earth Day this small band of dedicated missionaries was trying to save the Earth.

Fred Starner spent the next forty years as a folk singer/activist in the mold of Pete Seeger, taking the lessons he had absorbed during that maiden voyage and creating a life out of them.

To see him in this beautifully shot and extraordinarily imagined documentary, coming full circle, to sing a new song for Pete's rapt attention, back on the deck of the Clearwater where it all began is a sight to behold.

In the end, Fred has a thing or two to teach his old master. First he listens while Pete recounts his own experiences riding the rails with Woody Guthrie back in the late 1930's, where he got a taste of the hobo life with a true veteran of the rods. We learn how Pete's banjo got broken when he hopped a train unprepared for its sudden jerking start, and how it lead him to pick up a cheap pawnshop guitar so he'd have something to accompany himself with when he tried to pick up some eating money at the local bars by singing for the paying customers.

Woody's advice: Just sit there with your guitar in sight-eventually someone will approach you and ask, "Say Mister, do you play that thing?" "Just nod," says Woody, "and maybe add, ‘Once in a while, Mister, you know how it is.'" "Finally," says Woody, "one of them will toss you a quarter and ask, ‘Now will you play us a song?'" "Then, and only then," says Woody, "do you take your guitar out of the case and play them the best song you got."

Pete is utterly charming as he launches into the first song he learned to play on the guitar, a song Gene Autry did, It Makes No Difference Now. Says Pete, "Suddenly they handed me a silver dollar to keep me singing, and then another, and another; in today's economy it was like handing me a $20 bill for one song. I began to think, gee, a fellow could earn a living doing this.

But then it's Fred's turn, and on his lush-sounding 12-string guitar (hand-crafted for him by Nick Appelone in Maine many years ago) he takes over from Pete's pleasant remembrance of things past, by showing him that, as Faulkner so eloquently put it, the past didn't go anywhere-it isn't even past.

He sings him the story of Roadhog-a modern-day hobo-indeed a duly-elected King of the Hoboes in Britt, Iowa's annual hobo gathering, and utterly charms Pete with this picaresque hero-leading up to a very Seeger-like conclusion: if 10,000 Americans did something like Roadhog, maybe we could get a Single Payer health care plan for all.

But while Pete, Fred and Roadhog are the stars of this hobo documentary, they are not the only stars. It tells a series of wonderful vignettes of true-to-life hoboes all across America, from Dunsmuir, California to Miami, Florida, each one an amazing character. There are both Hobo Queens like Mama Jo LeCount, whom Fred befriended at an annual hobo gathering in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and got to MC the concert-for the first time in her life-putting her in the spotlight to reveal a wonderfully warm-hearted raconteur.

Fred and director Bill McIntyre also shine a light on his long-time friend, songwriter Larry Penn, and have him recite a powerfully evocative poem about one single railroad tie, and the fully imagined story it has to tell. Larry is a compelling performer as well, playing his old Gibson and singing in his moving baritone voice of life lived from the ground up.

Yet another long-time hobo friend of Fred's becomes an unlikely hero in this movie-another former King of the Hoboes (they only serve a one-year term so there are a lot of them!) known as Luther the Jet (derived from his real name, Luther Gette. Luther is a major-league scholar with a Ph.D. in French Literature.

While the movie does not frame it as such, one viewing (it's premiere LA screening at the public memorial we held for Fred Starner last November 14, which was attended by a packed house at the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Studio City) convinced me that it has a fascinating subtext in the aesthetic disagreement between Luther and Fred.

To summarize the difference: Woody Guthrie once famously said that all you can write is what you see, a literary variation on muralist Diego Rivera's assertion, "I paint what I see." That is precisely Fred's position as he chastises Bob Dylan (in absentia) for having written hobo songs (presumably Only a Hobo from 1963) without having been one himself.

Without addressing the question of whether Dylan actually ever hopped a freight, Luther the Jet takes a more tolerant approach and implicitly defends Dylan (and by extension all poets) for the right to go wherever their imagination takes them. He then takes the audience on a wildly improbable imaginary ride through Charlemagne's France, and even earlier through Ancient Greece, to make his aesthetic point that places way beyond our actual experience may nonetheless exercise an inescapable hold on our imagination and become a powerful part of our reality.

And then to demonstrate his thesis beyond the scope of argument, he recites (in French) in all its splendor Francois Villon's ballade, Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear? If you came to this movie with low expectations of the great unwashed underbelly of American culture, this class of homeless vagabonds that gave us such classics as The Wabash Cannonball and The Big Rock Candy Mountain, you will be stopped dead in your tracks by Luther's (and Larry Penn's, and Rick Palieri's, and Donald D. Desimone's-AKA Roadhog's-) unflagging eloquence and unpretentious display of learning.

They have a lot to teach us, these modern-day Jack London's, and Fred Starner and his collaborator/director Bill McIntyre have created a low-budget ($23,000 of Fred's hard-earned money commuting to three jobs as a community college economics professor in LA before he retired to become a full-time folk singer) high-yield road movie that will take you places Easy Rider never imagined existed, with heroes as compelling as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, and music and poetry as chilling in its raw portraits of life lived at the edge of existence, where the jungle fires are still burning-and the hoboes are still yearning.

Thank you to a wonderful director Bill McIntyre and the magnificent hobo minstrel "Banjo Fred" Starner, for taking us on a journey across America to see a land we thought we knew, but not so well as they who have seen it from an open box car door. I promise you will come away singing This Land Was Made for You and Me as if you had just heard it for the first time.

Fred gave that movie his all, and when I last saw him in the hospital a week before he died he told me that with the movie done, he could face death with equanimity. As hard as it was to see him go, for his devoted family and friends, Fred was clearly at peace with this world, and ready to take the Westbound into the next-wherever it may lead.

I think he knew, deep in his heart, that this train was bound for glory.

Fred Starner's web site is

Bill McIntyre's web site is which will release

That's the Ticket, Roadhog: The Hobo's Song on December 1, 2009, on-line

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