Popular children’s entertainer uses music to reach across generations
For countless Canadians who grew up between 1985 and 1997, Fred Penner was a childhood mainstay. Across 12 years and nearly 1,000 television episodes, he crawled through a magical hollow log on CBC’s Fred Penner Place to sing songs and connect with his young audience.
Penner’s impact has gone far beyond his TV series. Those who watched his show as children are now adults. They enthusiastically come out to see Penner play at music festivals and on university campuses. He has two upcoming shows in Calgary: at SAIT on March 15, and at Mount Royal University on March 16.
Born in Winnipeg, where he still resides, Penner has enjoyed a career that has spanned four decades and encompassed a wide range of musical, writing, and theatrical pursuits. In 1991, Penner was made a member of the Order of Canada in recognition of his contributions to Canadian music.
Calgary Journal reporter Karry Taylor recently sat down with Penner to discuss the impact his music has had, and continues to have, on his fans.
Did you always want to be a musician?
Nobody ever told me it was something that I could do as a career. It was always an extra-curricular thing. But it was what I did for my own personal bliss and excitement.
I had a turning point when my younger sister, who was a Down’s syndrome child, and my father passed away within a year of each other. I had these mortality checks in my early 20s, which set me on the course of self-analysis as I tried to figure out where my life was going.
Music was what was driving my soul. So I started playing lounges and bars, and any place that would have me. That led to touring across the country and to doing festivals, which led to doing The Cat Came Back recording in the late 1970s. Then the TV series, Fred Penner’s Place, came along in 1985. And the rest, really, is history.
What makes music so important in the lives of children?
Music, and the arts in general, are vital for every human being. If you surround yourself with beautiful music, it can make a difference in how you feel about yourself. I found that I had an ability that could cut through and create musical moments for children that they identified with, and were able to absorb and understand and feel positive about.
I approached music with the understanding that it can make a difference in the life of a child. And now it’s coming back to me that I was on the right track, because the university-aged generation are quite keen on reconnecting with me because of that TV series.“There are so many lovely aspects to what I do, that it continually fills me with joy and excitement and energy. I am constantly energized by my audience — wherever I might find them.”
What does it mean to be a part of the lives of so many Canadians— not just children, but also parents and grandparents who watched the show with them?
It’s quite overwhelming because when anybody begins a career, you never know where it’s going to carry you. You do it because there is something inside of you that needs to be expressed through whatever talent you have.
Now I am getting email and making personal connections across the country with people who are telling me how they felt that my music and my television presentation made a difference in their lives. I am in constant awe and amazement that it has gone this far. But at the same time, I am completely committed to what this is and there are no signs of stopping.
Is performing on university and college campuses now a regular thing for you?
Yes, I have played in just about every province over the past four or five years. It works really well. It’s very engaging. I think part of it is that the way that I approach music is very direct. I have songs that I want the audience to sing along with. I hope that the audience wants to listen and learn and participate with me. Not many people are doing that today. The ’60s were participation time.
I open a door. The performance is made up of songs that I know the audience will remember. I take requests along the way. I do songs that influenced me while I was growing up. So it’s a pretty broad perspective on my musical history and what I was influenced by. Time just flies by. We have a really good time together.
It’s one more step in your musical journey?
Yes. I am not planning on retiring any time soon. I still feel engaged and connected with the audience. If I felt I was doing this just for nostalgia, then I might hesitate a bit. But there is a dimension here that is going deeper. I still have something to communicate to the audience that is not a superficial flashback only. It’s really quite an interesting path that has opened here.
How do you overcome getting pigeonholed as an entertainer just for children?
The good thing is that I didn’t need to stretch to be that guy on television. He did not condescend or talk down to any viewers — whether they were children, parents, or grandparents. You don’t have to change how you say something just because the person is smaller than you. And a lot of entertainers for children do that. It just makes my skin crawl when I hear people doing that. I want communication to be communication for its own sake. So the pigeonholing as an entertainer for children is more about being an entertainer for the child in us all.
I am appealing to the creative, young, vulnerable joyful side of any person. When you see that in yourself, and you perhaps see me as a catalyst of getting to that point, then it’s not about children anymore — it’s about youth. It’s about how the fountain of youth can be discovered through music.
What delights me when I play at universities is that everybody suddenly becomes the same, in a way. They come forward and sit on the floor in front of me, as if they were sitting in front of the television set. They participate, they sing along, they give me this energy of their youth that they don’t want to let go of — and that they shouldn’t let go of. We should not lose that in ourselves.
I have never taken any of this journey for granted. I see myself as a positive source of energy. If I can bring some of that positivity to others, then that is what I want to do — and it’s what I have been doing for a few years now.
What keeps you going?
As long as I can stay healthy and creative, what is the purpose of stopping? There is no reason to try to turn a corner and do anything else. There are so many lovely aspects to what I do, that it continually fills me with joy and excitement and energy. I am constantly energized by my audience — wherever I might find them.
Note: The questions and answers in this interview have been edited for length.