At the risk of losing all pretense of objectivity, I will say that I unabashedly love Fred Penner. I grew up watching Fred Penner’s Place, his CBC television show that ran five days a week for 12 years, and I think “Sandwiches” was the first song I ever memorized.
I feel relatively comfortable sharing this because I think that, since the release of Penner’s first album, 1979’s The Cat Came Back, entire generations have grown up loving Fred Penner. He is an iconic children’s entertainer who has received the Order of Canada, won three Junos, and, along with Raffi and Sharon Lois & Bram, helped define children’s music as we know it today. He is also a dedicated humanitarian, advocating for early music education and the rights of children, and he has served as a spokesperson for UNESCO, UNICEF, and World Vision.
These days, the 71-year-old musician is experiencing something of a renaissance. Many of the children who grew up listening to Penner are re-discovering his songs and having children of their own. In recent years, he has begun touring festivals and universities, playing the bar scene to nostalgic college students. His latest album, 2017’s Hear the Music, features guest appearances from many musicians of the moment, including Terra Lightfoot, Basia Bulat, Bahamas, and Ron Sexsmith.
1. It seems like we’re in a bit of a Fred Penner moment right now. Why do you think people still connect to your music after all these years?
It’s an interesting concept, having a connection with a generation. Certainly I know it’s true for me that the images and the music I heard when I was growing up got right inside of me. I have strong recollection of the swing music from my parents’ era and the songs my older brother and sister brought to the table. The world of music is around us all the time, and when it hits us at a critical learning time, it goes deeper. Combining the music with the visuals of Fred Penner’s Place, which kids would often watch on a daily basis, it really became part of—I say in my tongue-in-cheek way—part of their DNA.
Instead of things slowing down at this point in my career, they’ve only accelerated and broadened. Now it’s festivals, early childhood conferences, keynote addresses, soft-seaters, symphony performances… It’s a really wonderful spectrum, and I think it all goes back to those early days and those meaningful times.
2. Since you do have so many different audiences and venues, how does that change your performance?
In many ways it doesn’t change a lot. Much of the material is the same. When I work with an adult audience, the show usually starts 9 or 10 at night, so there’s a degree of alcohol that comes into the picture.
But what I do do in those shows is I get a little more philosophical. I’ve always thought about the value of music in our lives, and certainly in my life I’m influenced by lots of sounds that I recall from my background. And so I try to bring some of those songs forward to the audience. It becomes almost more of an annotated concert, in a way. I’ll give some background on where a particular song came from and why it’s important to me, why I want to share it. There’s a little more dialogue happening.
3. What do you think makes a good children’s song?
It’s a tricky question. My perspective has always been that it’s about writing a song. Who relates to it is up for grabs, but it’s trying to write a good song with a good topic and a good musical pattern. That’s always what performers try to do. Many of the songs I’ve written over the years, I’ve not necessarily even thought of as children’s songs. I think I’ve got a pretty good arsenal of chord progression and melody inside of me.
Certainly I often find when I’m writing something I’ll go back to my younger images and thoughts and try to bring that forward. How did I feel when I was ten years old, or six years old? I think that children have much more sophisticated thought process than people give them credit for. It’s not just about a superficial fun light show; it’s about trying to get in deeper and prodding a thought or a feeling or an emotion… not to say that it can’t be light and fun!
4. I understand that, in your university days, you worked with troubled youth. Can you talk about that?
I worked at a treatment centre in Winnipeg called Knowles School for Boys. These kids all came from broken homes, and they were told they were the cause of the problems in the family. And so they developed these really intense negative self-images, and they would do really negative things to reinforce that attitude.
And I found that often music made that inroad into something positive with them. For a short time we could sing songs together, and we could take them away from the angst of their lives. It’s the philosophy now: never underestimate your ability to make a difference in the life of a child. And I’ve held that as my mantra almost over the years, and music was just a logical part of my connection.
5. Do you have any strong memories of Peterborough?
I’ve been there a few times, but what do you remember about any town? Usually it’s get to a place, get to a hotel, and then get shuttled to an event and back, so I don’t spend a lot of time in any town that I visit.
I remember the beautiful natural amphitheatre where the Folk Festival happens. There was a wonderful band with horns, a six- or seven-piece band, and we did a jam together [My Son the Hurricane]. What I often remember about places I’ve been is the emotion of the space, how the energy of a festival and how comfortable I felt and how strong the musicians were.
Fred Penner plays will play a free show at Lansdowne Place Mall on March 3 along with Melissa Payne and Kate Suhr, part of the Peterborough Winter Folk Festival (more info).