A Conversation with Fred Penner
Fred Penner has been an acclaimed family entertainer, singer/songwriter, composer, actor, writer, author, TV host for the better part of a quarter century. He recently graced the 42nd Annual Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival with his presence where he took the main stage for a Saturday afternoon performance I had a brief interaction with Mr. Penner after his set and he was so gracious and warm. In getting ready to launch The Racket, I reached out to Mr. Penner for an interview. He kindly obliged, and we chatted on the phone. He was still gushing about the Folk Festival, St. John’s, and the entire province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Mr. Penner called his experience at the Folk Festival “a delight, “and said “[I made] some old connections [and] some new connections. It was fabulous.”
This was Mr. Penner’s second time performing at the annual event but he is no stranger to Newfoundland and Labrador, having toured the province visiting a number of the Arts and Culture Centres. Mr. Penner said he has many fond memories of performing in Newfoundland, including a performance three years ago in Marystown with legendary Canadian band Trooper, whom he considers his friends. They brought Mr. Penner up on stage for a duet and hat segued into a rendition of “The Cat Came Back”. “They accompanied me on “The Cat Came Back” and we had a pretty great moment,” he chuckled.
Remembering Fred Penner’s Place
Our conversation quickly turned to Fred Penner’s Place, which aired on CBC from 1985-1997. Mr. Penner told me he has the fondest memories of doing the show. Mr. Penner said it was a fun experience and he believes writing the songs for the show was a good exercise for his creativity. He noted several highlights from this era including guests like Nova Scotian fiddler Natalie MacMaster, and fellow Canadian icon Mr. Dressup. “[There were] many powerful memories and emotions that go along with [that] program,” remarked Mr. Penner. He also appreciated the amount of creative freedom he had with the show.
“So they [CBC] basically put it completely in my lap and let me figure out what was important to me,” said Mr. Penner. The people who wrote the scripts gave him lots of creative license in making the show happen. “It was really important to me that there was some nature involved, so the journey to Fred Penner’s Place was so important, and having the hollow log as the entry point into Fred Penner’s Place gave it a very magical kind of quality,” he said. “It was such a fabulous experience to do a program that was in a children’s time slot but I felt had more of a broader appeal than just for children.”
When I met Mr. Penner at the Folk Festival, I told him a story about how when my brother was younger and watching Fred Penner’s Place, he would don a backpack, grab his toy guitar and crawl under a chair as if it was the hollow log that leads to Fred Penner’s Place. I brought this up again during our conversation, which Mr. Penner said he remembered, and I asked how it made him feel to know he has left such an impression on so many young Canadians.
“[It is] wonderful when [this type of] feedback comes to me,” he said graciously. “But what I was doing was trying to bring my own personal integrity to the screen and doing things that had some real value to me and how an audience related to that, in a way is none of my business. Whatever a person took from that show, whether it be an interest in nature or music, was up to them.” Mr. Penner said there were many aspects of the program that people related to and many young adults tell him they pursued careers in things like forestry or music because of something they took from Fred Penner’s Place. “[It was] nothing I could have anticipated, but it gave me a real sense of legacy and pride in my work,” he remarked.
In terms of what he hoped his audience took from Fred Penner’s Place, Mr. Penner reflected and said, “The importance for me with the program was talking directly to you through that camera. It was like a one to one relationship that was happening. I was talking to the camera but I was seeing you there.” He continued, “It wasn’t about talking to thousands of people, it was always about trying to relate to that one child who was watching, [and] in a non-condescending way. So I hope that the viewer understood the importance of relating from one person to another and that bringing music and introducing interesting people to you helped you understand the bigger world that you were growing into.”
State of the World Today
Speaking of the world we grew into, I asked Mr. Penner how he feels about the state of the world and divisive politics that we hear so much about in the news. “It’s pretty terrifying,” he started. “I’m an optimistic human being and when I see the degradation that is happening, it does disturb me.” Mr. Penner admits to living in what he calls a “sort of privileged world” in which many of the people he meets are fans, but he said the feedback he gets from them is all about the joy and the beauty of music and the love that comes from that. “I have to believe that that is the majority. The negative things that we see or read about, all that negativity is the minority; it’s affecting a lot of lives absolutely, but I do believe that there is more love and beauty and acceptance and care between people than all the negativity that we see.”
Still on the Road
The feedback he receives from people telling him about the positive effect he has had on their lives keeps Mr. Penner spreading his message of acceptance and working together through touring. That, and the phone keeps ringing, he joked. “I go to festivals and there’s hundreds or thousands of people who come to listen to me and share in my music. If I didn’t feel like I could connect to an audience or if I didn’t feel like there was a positive there wouldn’t be any point,” Mr. Penner said. “As long as I stay healthy, it’ll continue.”
Now 71, Mr. Penner said he is more selective about his touring schedule and is sure to plan lots of downtime between dates. He and his wife had actually come to Newfoundland ten days before the Folk Festival and visited places like Cape Spear, Gros Morne, Musgrave Harbour, and Fogo Island. “[I still love touring], I love connecting and reconnecting with people I’ve met over the years and who now have their own children and are really excited about bringing them to the performance, so there’s this very organic process that’s happening.” Mr. Penner has been bringing his music across Canada since the mid-1970’s and says he has been to every corner of the country; every province, every territory, and feels honoured to be able to do it. It seems that he does not intend to slow down either. “Ask my wife, she’ll say the same thing!” he joked.
Remembering Mr. Dressup
I asked about Mr. Dressup, who along with Fred Penner helped shape the childhood of many Canadians. While the two men did not know each other well, they took part in a number of appearances throughout the years including cameos on each man’s show. One such cameo was supposed to take place on Fred Penner’s Place just a couple of weeks after Mr. Dressup’s wife had tragically passed away. Mr. Penner and the show’s producers offered to cancel or reschedule the appearance but Mr. Dressup wanted to keep his commitment. During the end of one episode, the two entertainers sang a song called “Together Tomorrow”, which was all about being together tomorrow with the person you love. “I hadn’t really thought about how meaningful this song was in relation to him having lost his wife,” recounted Mr. Penner. “And we both sort of hit that point at the same time and we both sort of had to take a deep breath and not just cry our way through [the performance]. It was a very intense emotional moment with the two of us, for sure.”
To see Fred Penner and Mr. Dressup sing “Together Tomorrow” skip ahead to 26:52
Future Business Venture?
Before our chat ended, I remarked that after meeting my family had watched the opening credits to Fred Penners Place and wondered if Mr. Penner had ever thought of marketing these styles of vintage sweaters to the hipsters that frequent folk festivals. “It’s crossed my mind,” he laughed. “I’ve had people offer to buy some of the old shirts, cause I’ve got a couple of dozen of them so maybe someday I’ll put them on Kijiji or something, I don’t know.”
With that, we ended our chat and Mr. Penner said he hoped to see me again, and after meeting him at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, and listening to his stories about the connections he has made with people over the years, I genuinely felt that he meant that.