Fred Penner – 45 Years of Songs, Smiles and Sandwiches – The Ottawa Life Interview Part 2
We continue our chat with Children's Entertainer Fred Penner today discussing his philosophy when talking with children, how to maintain a youthful side in adulthood and how he really feels about that cat coming back! You can read the first part of this interview here.
Ottawa Life: You touched upon keeping hold of Fred Penner’s Place near the end of its run. What were some of the more challenging aspects when it came to developing the show?
Fred Penner: I did what I always do when I am creating anything, I mediate. I think about it, contemplate what is this about, what do I want to bring to this table. I thought that I didn’t want to just have a series where you knocked on the door and came on in. I wanted a journey to Fred Penner’s Place to be just that. You had to journey across a field, around a tree, balance on a rock, wave to a couple of critters and finally crawl through that log. That carried me into the concept of what the series could be.
One of the writers in Toronto, Pat Patterson, came up with the Word Bird idea. We started working on scripts, working on a repertoire. In the beginning I could play any song, from any generation without having to pay royalties because the TV world thought that giving exposure to their material to the young children would just catch them for later. So we did hundreds of songs that now we’d have to pay for when the bottom line became the only focus. Then that made me focus and write hundreds of songs for the series. It became an opportunity, totally, for me to grow as a creator, to learn the world of television, to make that connection with the one child.
This is an interesting perspective for you. As we were doing the series sometimes we would do three, four, sometimes five fifteen minute shows a day. So my brain was spinning out of control sometimes. If I lost perspective, the director watching me would send a message to the floor director to say “Go to Fred, look him in the eye and say: one child”. That zeroing in was not about thousands of children and families watching, it was about one child. So I’d look at the camera as if it was a single child. I think that helped create the intimacy and depth of communication.
It didn’t go unnoticed. Really, it’s what I always respected, even as a kid, was your ability to not feel like you were talking to kids, that you were relating to us as an adult yet, somehow, on a similar plain. It was something that I brought into my own work with kids. Why do you feel it was important to develop that relationship with kids in that way?
I loved the intelligence of the child, the vulnerability, the curiosity. I think that children are often more intelligent in a way than adults. As we grow into the adult world and dealing with so many challenges –economically, physically, spiritually– that the child is so pure, so full of beautiful perspective on what this crazy world is all about, that I wanted to know about that. I wanted to feel connected to that. If you condescend you automatically make it seem that you feel superior to the child and that’s just wrong. So I would ask questions. I still do this today. How are you? How are you feeling? What’s this over here? It’s encouraging the curiosity and having them share their thoughts and feelings.
As a father, did your focus shift much when it came to raising your own children or did your kids only enhance those values you were already instilling through your career?
It was a symbiotic relationship, certainly. I have four children. Being away for chunks of their lives, always trying to be back for birthdays, special events, I tried that but I did miss things along the way. I sometimes feel as though it would have been nice to have been around a little more but they’ve turned out well so that’s alright.
Having seen you perform when I was six and now again in my adulthood, I really feel that the man on stage is very similar to the one I saw so many years ago. How do you maintain the youthful side of yourself as your age and what are ways you feel adults can use to rekindle elements of their kid-like selves they may have lost along the way growing up?
That’s the challenge, isn’t it? It’s very much is part of not being afraid to be venerable. That’s part and parcel with the creative process, to allow yourself to experience something for the first time even though you may have done it a hundred times before. It’s so easy to lose that as the world grows and your responsibilities in life continue. I am encouraged and my exuberance is accepted on a regular basis. In my performance, the energy that comes to me is all about openness and positive identification. If those are values of youthful exuberance then I stand behind that.
I think that we lose perspective along the way as adults and think that it’s maybe a sign of weakness to show a more sensitive side, that side that doesn’t know everything. We are these strange little beings on this absolutely insane little planet trying to figure things out and the more we really on each other to help us through these steps then the stronger we’ll be. But that can be in direct opposition to a youthful joy and happiness and that’s unfortunate. For parents, listen to your children, pay attention to your kids, ask the questions constantly and be open to receiving the answers from them. It’s all about exploring the world, discovering the world. It’s all about being able to open yourself to this beautiful ray of the most incredible things that this world has to offer and taking that into your heart and soul. That will directly contact with your youthful spirit.
Such a powerful message considering some of the things going on in the world right now.
Oh boy. Don’t get me started. It’s just so perverted, (that mentality of) let’s try to work on some basic principles of greed and dishonesty. We must realize we’re not in this by ourselves. There’s so much arrogance in the disparity between wealth and poverty. It’s one of the biggest pitfalls we are in now. There’s so much money, so much commerce and it’s all sitting in the hands of the few. So you have insane poverty all over the world, people suffering, children dying and it’s hard to maintain a positive perspective when you see how perverted and corrupt political systems have become.
I’ve seen that first hand in Africa and other parts of the world. It’s not a pretty sight and you hope against hope that somehow that person who has just ripped off his country while people suffer has to get up in the morning thinking that was a good idea. I can hardly believe that a person can be that corrupt, that perverted, and have to make the decisions that affect a population. As a sensible human being it just boggles my mind.
Well, let’s shift to a good decision. Back in 1979 you decided to do a little song about a cat. Since then the cat has come back many times over your 45 years of entertaining. Really, at this point, that cat isn’t going anywhere but back to you and back to you and back to you. What is it about this particular tune that accounts for its longevity?
Well, it was written in 1893, for starters. It’s a very old gospel folk tune. That’s a surprise to some people as they think I wrote it. I wrote verses I perform but the song itself is very old. I think there’s this cartoon, almost Wile E. Coyote, quality to it. That the most devastating things can happen to this creature and it survives. That kind of goes back to our previous conversation, right? This is all about survival. Our world is all about being survivors, dealing with the crap that is thrown at us. In some way, if the listener identifies with the cat and the cat always comes back then that perhaps make the two..well, (laughs), I may be overlaying things. That may be why "The Cat Came Back" has stood the test of time. It’s a fun song, it leaves you hanging at the end.
There’s this whole psychological paper we could write here?
We totally could. We could get deep on that one.
I got to admit, hearing you break into "Stairway to Heaven" a few years ago at CityFolk was kind of surreal. This was dubbed your more adult themed show. Do you have this collection of tunes tucked away somewhere for an album of material not specifically for kids? Fred Penner After Hours?
I got a whack of stuff that’s at the back of my mind from my generation. We just finished doing a brand new CD called Hear the Music. It’ll be out officially on April 21st. It’s a little broader perspective. There are some tunes on there that have a little more jam to it and very interesting musically. It will be really interesting to see how the audience relates to that. There are some tunes there I wouldn’t consider to be kids songs though the topics are a little younger. It’s all about universality. That’s the key to everything I do, having songs with a universal concept, so that anybody regardless of the age can connect to it.
For example, there’s a song on the album about courage. There’s a song about stumbling. Here we are side by side / hold on tight / it’s a bumpy ride. The songs kind of follow my life. There’s a song about humility, about strength, about so many values that I hold dear to my heart. It’s a different album for me. It’s clearly a families album trying to relate to those parents who grew up with me carrying it over to their children.
As somebody who has taught kids so much, lessons they have brought into adulthood, what, do you feel, are some of the things children are still teaching you?
Humility is number one. That comes often from the Down Syndrome world. I had a sister (with Down Syndrome) and she was my inspiration for going into this career. She passed away in my early 20s and my father passed away a year later. Those two mortality checks is what put me in a position of trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life. So Susie, being a Down Syndrome child, taught me so much about the value of music in her world. She loved singing. She loved to literally become engrossed in a song to the point of tears. I’ve been involved with many Down Syndrome events over the years and sort of the unwritten law there is check your ego at the door and be ready for love. These kids are open and bright and they don’t care who you are and where you are from and they just come right in for the hug. The purity of their world is so fantastic. Going to children’s hospitals and seeing the things some of the kids are going through…I learn courage from that side. I learn about how proud a child can be about who they are. I learned the entire spectrum of human emotion from children. It keeps me very buoyant and grateful to be able to do this.
You’ve said you have no plans on retiring. Like that cat in your most beloved song, audiences are happy to see you keep coming back. What keeps your motivated to continue?
My motivation is connecting with the audience. As long as the phone keeps ringing, as long as people are excited about my coming to visit, then there’s relevance and value to that. What keeps me coming back is the audience. What I’ve learned is basically my mantra, in some ways, is never underestimate your ability to make a difference in the life of a child. One really seemingly, insignificant moment can become the foundation of a positive life…complementing the people around you, especially the children, and giving them the confidence to continue, that’s where my life is based and they fire it back at me on a daily basis.