Fred Penner spread nostalgic joy on Saturday night during his performance at the Fernie Community Centre.
Penner had two shows that day, an all ages’ show and a later performance for those seeking a night out. This was a part of the annual music festival, Fernie Stoke Fest, which was a success once again.
Penner is known mostly throughout Canada for his influences in children’s education, and his most well known hits include Itsy Bitsy Spider and The Cat Came Back.
Despite his success, Penner is humble. He is grateful for where he ended up, but says it wasn’t something he ever expected.
“I don’t think it’s something that any performer anticipates,” said Penner. “I came into it with a philosophy and with some very positive energy.”
Before his success in music skyrocketed his name onto the lips of Canadians, Penner worked in residential treatment centres in Winnipeg, with physically and mentally challenged kids. Music was always a part of anything he would do.
”Clearly it was inside of me,” he said.
Growing up, in high school, Penner would be the one sitting in the back of the bus, practicing contemporary songs on his guitar. As he started to work more with children through the help of music, Penner followed the philosophy of, “Never underestimate your ability to make a difference in the life of a child.”
From the get-go, Penner attempted to connect with the entire audience, through the power of positive music and visual storytelling. For him, the size of the audience is irrelevant.
Five years into his performances, CBC Radio approached Penner and asked if he would be wiling to do a series with them.
“I had no intention of doing that. But they had been watching me and seeing my progress and liked what I was doing,” said Penner. “And that really is the foundation that established much of my contact.”
Penner loves that he has grown into the ability to do what he does. Growing up, his teen years were filled with challenges. He believes this is a hard time in everyone’s lives. These moments fell into a place that later on touched his heart, soul and spirit, and gave him the ability and ambition to channel that into his music and attempt to help others.
Between the ages of two and six, a child’s personality is formed. Those watching Penner on television saw his performances, learned his music, and essentially ingrained Penner into their DNA. These are the modern day ‘Fred-heads’ which are now following his tours, despite being older with young children of their own. Even after 45 years of performing, Penner doesn’t expect to be recognized. He considers himself a very present and in the moment person.
Perhaps the most popular of Penner’s hits is his rendition of the old tune, The Cat Came Back. This old folklore song, which was originally written in 1893, came into existence through old medicine shows in the northern United States. Wagons would pull into communities and people would come out of their huts to sell you snake oil, amongst other products. Another part of this tradition included the minstrel shows. These musicians used to sing about this cat.
“It’s so engaging because there’s that mystery about it… maybe in a way it’s the image of what happens to all of us as we go through life. In an existential way, we all deal with challenges. But if you work through it, you come back.”
After Penner rewrote most of the verses, he adopted The Cat Came Back as his signature song. As soon as he started performing it, the tune took off.
The Canadian legend recalled hundreds of moments throughout his career that were gratifying. One of the earliest and most fond memories came in 1979 at the University of Manitoba, in the form of a woman with an inspiring story.
The woman had three children, one of which had a brain tumour. Taking a record player into the hospital, Penner’s hit, The Cat Came Back, was played. In the worst of times, the song united the family. Later, the child passed away.
“So she’s giving me this, saying, thank you for your music, it was important to me.” said Penner. “I thought, are you kidding, I will take nothing for granted, I will do my absolute best in my life to put out as strong and positive an energy to the universe.”
People continue to connect with his message and this has given Penner strength, even as he grows older. Now at 70, the Canadian has been doing this for 45 years.
“It’s (been) an absolutely incredible life and career,” he said.
Penner says he will continue to do what he does until his voice gives out.
He will be releasing a new CD in April, which is deeper than his previous music. Songs that tell stories of courage, humility and the celebration of life.