He always comes back

There are few Canadians between the ages of 18 and 30 who don't quiver with nostalgia upon seeing the iconic opening sequence for Fred Penner's Place, CBC's children's program. Against a theme of acoustic guitar, Penner...

There are few Canadians between the ages of 18 and 30 who don’t quiver with nostalgia upon seeing the iconic opening sequence for Fred Penner’s Place, CBC’s children’s program.

Against a theme of acoustic guitar, Penner, wearing a pack, wends his way through a variety of natural Canadian landscapes until he comes to a large hollow log. Entering the log, Penner emerges into a cozy forest glade where, grasping a guitar and surrounded by a plethora of forest creatures, he teaches audiences everything from the intricacies of the French language to the importance of sharing.

“I thought the value of a natural environment would be good for children to see,” said Penner.

“Part of my history has been the value of the land,” he said, explaining that his family originates from Mennonite communities in southern Manitoba.

Penner is so closely associated with his 1979 recording of The Cat Came Back, a variation on an 1893 comic minstrel song, that in interviews he refers to it simply as “the cat.”

The classic song features “Mr. Johnson,” and his failed attempts to rid himself of a seemingly invincible yellow cat. Backed by a small children’s chorus, and framed within Penner’s amiable vocal style, the song gets away with some particularly risque lyrics:

The man around the corner swore he’d kill the cat on sight,

He loaded up his shotgun with nails and dynamite;

He waited and he waited for the cat to come around,

Ninety seven pieces of the man is all they found.

After the cat hit the shelves, Penner’s status as a premiere children’s performer was all but assured.

The song was released at a time when children’s music was beginning to emerge as a separate musical genre, spurred by the efforts of artists like Raffi, Penner and Sharon, Lois and Bram.

“It was off the mark and unique, so the audience just gravitated to it, it was really a steep incline at that point,” said Penner.

“I did every children’s festival across the country; I’d go into a place like Windsor, Ontario and do five performances in the Clearie Auditorium, with about 1,500 people per show,” he said.

Penner’s style strayed away from children’s songs that simply pitted goofy themes against simple melodies.

“My songs are not simplistic three-chord things; there’s some complexity to it, there are arrangement patterns to it that take you to other places,” said Penner.

“Often I get e-mails from parents saying, ‘I listen to this without my children, because it’s good music,’” he said.

Drawing upon innumerable genres, Penner’s albums act as cultural primers to their young audiences.

En Roulant Ma Boule off 1992’s Ebenezer Sneezer is sung in French, against a Quebecois backing of spoons and fiddle.

You Can Do It (If You Try), included on the 1989 release Fred Penner’s Place has a Dixieland sound, incorporating rollicking clarinet and muted trumpet.

Out of the blue, in 1985 a call came from CBC television asking Penner to do a half hour children’s show to replace the 18-year run of the Friendly Giant. From its outset, cynics referred to the new program as “the Giant Killer,” but for Penner, it was an opportunity to bring his message of positive-connection to millions of homes.

Penner held an interest in music throughout high school, but was spurred into academia by the wishes his parents. In 1970, he graduated from the University of Winnipeg with degrees in both economics and psychology, but he would soon swear away the white-collar world in favour of working in residential treatment centres for mentally and physically challenged children.

It was there that Penner first wielded music as an instrument of communication.

“I came to believe that through music you could affect children in a positive manner that would affect them positively as adults,” said Penner.

YouTube features a grainy video of Penner performing the song last March at Gert’s, McGill University’s student bar in Montreal.

Before a crowd of cheering undergraduates, Penner transitions into Hit the Road Cat before ending with a cat-themed version of k-os’ Crabbuckit.

“It was a spirited afternoon, to say the least,” said Penner of the gig.

Connecting with a room full of university students is Penner’s way of validating his philosophy of positively affecting adults by making contact with the “vulnerable spirit of the child.”

Ernie Coombs, commonly known as Mr. Dressup, did a similar university tour in the waning years of his career.

“That’s the generation that I first worked with many years ago, and now they’re going through the university experience and having their own children and families,” said Penner.

By reintroducing them to the values and philosophies he espoused on Fred Penner’s Place, he hopes to pass them on to a succeeding generation.

“Parents have to take responsibility for their kids, that’s the ultimate perspective here, and if I can be of any assistance in that journey, that’s where I want to be,” he said.

While still a prominent fixture of the Canadian children’s festival scene, as well as a sought-after keynote speaker, Penner has been largely ignored by mass media children’s entertainment since Fred Penner’s Place was cancelled in 1993.

Penner has developed a couple of pilot scripts, but has been turned down by every major children’s entertainment network.

The children’s entertainment market’s current focus on computer animation is fun, but it lacks the connection that his show offered to viewers, said Penner.

“I came onto the scene with some philosophy behind me, with some focus on the real value of music for children, trying to inspire the importance of communication and awareness of the elements in your life that make you a stronger, better person; ready to face the world that’s on your door step,” said Penner.

“That kind of thing, which you don’t really get in the same way through cartoons,” he said.

With the launch of fredpenner.com, Penner aims to sidestep television, and connect with kids through the internet, the new “educational tool” for families.

“As Fred Penner’s Place was a safe environment for the child to visit for 15 minutes or half an hour, we’re trying to create fredpenner.com into a similar kind of thing,” said Penner.

As the children of the 1980s form their own families, Penner envisions a return to the value-based children’s entertainment he has always espoused.

And the cat had indeed come back, reappearing on Penner’s latest album Where in the World.

“The cat’s no longer trying to taunt Mr. Johnson; the cat is now a world traveller,” said Penner.

Having scoured the geographic reaches of Canada in his 32 years as a travelling Canadian performer, Penner has spent the opening decade of the new millennium on a journey to connect with the wider world.

In 2004, Penner toured Zambia and Kenya with World Vision, seeing firsthand the effects of AIDS. As always, the cat has been by his side.

“The thought is to open up the cat on a global perspective, and hoping that turns into the importance of openness and acceptance and nurturing the value of the planet,” said Penner.

Fred Penner is performing on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Whitehorse Elementary School as part of the Nakai for Kids festival.

Contact Tristin Hopper at