By Paul Rodgers
CALGARY — A couple of weeks ago, I had my four-year-old niece spend the weekend at my house, and it was an absolute joy. However, I was struck by some of the children’s programming she happened to like. Is it just the cynicism of growing older and thinking that the programming for the youth of today pales in comparison to that of my early ‘90s youth? Or is that these flashy, seemingly nonsensical shows really don’t compare to stuff like Raffi, Sharon, Lois and Bram and Fred Penner? BeatRoute caught up with 69-year-old three-time JUNO winner Penner and discussed that and much more.
“Well, there’s an attitude that a child’s attention span is so limited that they have to make these really quick hits to catch their attention… So I guess the answer is no, I don’t think really think there is enough being done to really give that respect and understanding of the range of expression that children can appreciate.”
Penner speaks in a thoughtful, articulate manner, recalling countless memories and feelings from his youth and extensive history in family programming, weaving it brilliantly into his responses. It is no question that he was an important, almost archetypal figure of countless young people’s upbringing, and with his Order of Canada designation and multiple JUNOs, it’s clear that he’s recognized as an icon of Canadian culture as well. When asked what some of his own role models from his youth growing up in Winnipeg before Saturday cartoons took over and radio still reigned supreme, Penner responded:
“There was a character, who I’m sure you will not recognize, called The Great Gildersleeve and he had this beautiful voice and wonderful style of telling. I remember plugging in my little earphones and listening to this character share his stories and I remember the power of that, of listening to a voice taking me on this journey; so perhaps that set a foundation for my appreciation for the human voice.”
A long time pet peeve of Penner’s has been the condescending manner in which many producers of children/family programming address their young audiences.
“So many entertainers who think they’re going to be working for children feel that they have to change the way that they talk or the style to, in a sense, dumb down their phrasing for children because they’re just smaller than us,” states Penner. “And I just think that it’s actually quite the opposite, I think the more that you speak to a child with absolute respect for their ability to understand you, or to understand the energy that they’re giving to you, the words may not connect necessarily but it’s the strength of speaking to another human being in a respectful and grown-up way.”
On his program Fred Penner’s Place, which aired on CBC from 1985 to 1997, he had a mantra he practised for times when he felt overwhelmed or lost in the technical aspect of filming the show. His director would simply say to him, “one child,” which reminded Penner to speak into the camera as if he was simply addressing just one individual child. Another of his mantras is “never underestimate your ability to make a difference in the life of a child.” He says these phrases still constantly hold true in his life.
Penner currently has yet another full-length album, set for release in spring of 2017, coinciding with Canada’s 150th anniversary. He still tours regularly, and Penner’s Calgary and Edmonton shows are 18+ events; he describes them as nostalgic, fun, audience participation, encouraging all the old “Fred-heads” to come and get engaged, and relish in a living component of their youth.
Fred Penner performs in Edmonton at The Needle on November 25th, and in Airdrie for Fred Penner Christmas with Footprints of Learning Choir (all-ages early show) and at the Palomino in Calgary alongside Clinton St. John on November 26th .AB, Alberta, Fred Penner, Palomino, The Needle