Published Aug 21, 2015It's been a good while since Fred Penner was on television, but these days, he's having a bit of a moment. He plays festivals regularly; he's knee-deep in university tours; and on September 21, he'll host the tenth annual Polaris Music Prize Gala. Part of this is timing: many Canadian children who grew up on Fred Penner's Place — now in their 20s and 30s and in positions of influence — tell him, in their own words, just how much his show and music meant to them.
"It's really intense, actually," says the 68-year-old Penner, as polite and thoughtful as ever, from his home in Winnipeg. "That generation are now university students, young parents; there's a really strong connection when I am performing either at universities, doing pub nights or at festivals that will draw in that generation of Fredheads. There are often tears involved. There are often people walking up, just asking, 'Can I give you a hug?' There's a love vibe that certainly is coming from the audience, to a level that I could never really have anticipated."
But Penner's legacy is a formidable one. He plays catchy songs like "The Cat Came Back" and "Sandwiches," sure, and many probably wished they had a hollow log that led to an enchanted clearing like at his Place, but Penner ultimately attributes his success to respect.
"Children are, in my estimation, the most intelligent beings. And they have opinions! If you give children condescension, they'll start to think that's the way it's supposed to be, and they'll develop a negative attitude toward themselves and humanity. It's all about being a pure and positive human being trying to communicate something of value to another human being."
Asked what makes a good children's song, he refers, somewhat hesitantly, to a quote he paraphrases from Peter, Paul and Mary. "It's a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but it definitely has some meaning: 'There are three things a children's song needs to be. It needs to have a level of simplicity — not to a fault, but something that a child can relate to and understand; repetition, to give the child a sense of security; and pathos, to prepare the child for later traumatic experience.'"
That the quote sounds a little bit like a recipe for a good pop song — simplicity, a hook, emotion — makes it easy to understand why Penner's music has had such a lasting effect on a generation, and why he's eager to host the Polaris Gala and see what's next for Canadian music.
"I'm watching these young artists, who are, again, part of the generation that grew up with me, and it's almost a sense of pride, as your children are growing and developing. There's a little bit of that in me as I watch them step up to the plate and deliver such beauty."