Canadian folk entertainer Fred Penner has been entertaining families for decades, but one song remains a staple – The Cat Came Back, which celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Fred called into 519 from his Manitoba home to chat about that darn cat.
You’re coming to Hamilton and London in March for the 40th anniversary of The Cat Came Back. That’s a long time for a cat to keep returning.
Well, you know what they say, the nine lives of the infamous cat. Yes, it is a long time.
The Cat is a really old song, going back to the late 1800s. How did you first discover it? And what were some of the steps that you took to make that song your own?
I discovered it in an old folk song book that I was flipping through in the ’70s. And a cousin of mine and my brother, we were just sitting jamming one night, and flipping through this book, and suddenly turned the page and there was The Cat Came Back. Oh that’s a nice progression. I like that E minor, D, C, B7 turn. And it’s easy to jam to. It’s fun to play.
And the verses are like a bunch of cartoon scenarios, because it’s these crazy, impossible things were happening to this cat. But in spite of that, he managed to survive. So it was an interesting story. And it had that bit of magic to it, a storytelling sense that makes the song even more fun to sing.
So I’ve adapted multiple verses over the years to that song. I’ve got a Santa Claus verse that I threw in, and I did a version where the cat is actually getting into traveling the world and goes to Australia and the Far East. And so it’s taken on many ramifications over the years. But it’s always a really a delightful song to sing and share with the audience.
That’s awesome. I love how the cat travels now.
I have to ask, do you actually like cats?
I do. I’m a cat person more than a dog person. We’ve had numerous cats and dogs over the years, but I’m still on the road a lot, so I don’t have pets now.
You’ve performed music that generations have grown up with. Do you find that your audience has grown with you?
Yes, for the most part. The audiences that I had certainly in the ’80s, when this whole journey began, those parents, those grandparents, the postwar generation, the boomers, were very excited about having quality entertainment for their children. So they brought the kids in, and those children from the ’80s are now the parents of the next generation and then into grandparent world.
So the whole journey has turned into this beautiful life circle. And it’s quite amazing to watch how it has grown and developed over this amount of time. And multiple generations are coming to my shows now, and it is a little awesome that this is actually happening, because in the beginning I know I had no idea where or how long this would continue. And here, in 40, 45 plus years of being a professional entertainer, I’m still apparently kicking the cat, no pun intended.
You’ve made a difference in so many lives through the power of music. Was there a moment or a memory of when you actually realized how much of a difference you are making?
Oh, numerous along the way. One of the earliest ones was after The Cat Came Back album had been created, the vinyl, back in the late ’70s, ’79, around 1979. And one of the first performances I did in support of that album was at the University of Manitoba, at one of their rooms. And at the end of the show, there was a lady who was waiting to talk to me. So I signed a batch of autographs, and then I went and had a chat with her.
And she wanted to tell me a little story, as often happens, where their family, she and her husband, had three kids, and their youngest was four-years-old, and he was in the Victoria Hospital, which was just around the corner from where we were playing. And they had brought my Cat Came Back album into their child’s hospital room.
And they’d had a little record player that they would play the album on. And through that song and the music, they would sing along and listen to it and laugh and have fun. And that album, she said, was such a wonderful bonding thing for the family during such a tragic time of their lives. And the child did pass away. But she just wanted me to know how truly valuable that was to them.
And I thought, “Oh, my goodness. That’s a pretty amazing story to start the deal there.”
With that love of music and people, it earned you the membership with the Order of Canada and the Order of Manitoba. Other than validating everything that you’ve done, what does that honor mean to you?
Well, I am a Canadian, and I am honored to be that. When you see what’s going on in the rest of the world, Canada really is standing at the forefront of being one of the most powerful countries from a humanity point of view. I think Winnipeg, or Canada, has a pretty solid perspective. And being recognized by my home province of Manitoba, and by the country of Canada for the work that I had done over these decades is a little overwhelming.
It’s not something, again, that I had ever aspired to. I know very few performers who actually look for the accolades. The accolades come as a result of the work. And that’s where I’m based is I love to do the work.
I love my journey of going on stage and creating a dialogue, a musical dialogue, and sharing thoughts and feelings with an audience. And that continues. I am honored to have been in this occupation and the number of places that I played and the people I’ve connected with are continuing. And there still seems to be a relevance of the work that I’m doing. And I’m just answering the call as long as I can.
When you recorded that first album and it catapulted you into as a children’s icon, an image that you will probably never shake off, was that the route you originally wanted to go? Or was that just the route fate took you on?
That’s where it evolved. Initially in the ’70s, I did a lot of acting, theater class, just a wide range from comedic performance to serious drama, like Death of a Salesman. And I just explored many different directions. I was a folk singer in the ’60s and ’70s, playing the coffee houses, doing the Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell songs in bars and nightspots.
And then towards the end of the ’70s, my future wife, we met. And she was a dance choreographer, and she was coming to Winnipeg. And she started her dance career there. And we developed a children’s dance theater company that ultimately led to an offer to do the first record back in that date. So it could have taken many directions. It could have gone into just serious acting. But then as I developed my career of music, being a musical performer, I did lots of Gilbert and Sullivan and Rodgers and Hammerstein, that kind of stuff, and I just built my skill as a stage personality. And all of those skills I bring to the stage now. I still know how to engage a full audience from a few hundred to several thousand people.
I’ve learned many abilities in the world of performing over the time. And all of those came together. And I do write. And often reviewers or interviewers ask about, “Did you ever want to be an adult performer? Is this holding you back at all?” things like that.
And it never has, because the kinds of songs that I write are universal concepts. So parents, grandparents, children, everybody can relate to them. And they just have that topic. And some of them go quite deep into emotional directions. And I just find it very gratifying to be able to do that. And I mean, I’ve written literally hundreds and hundreds of songs over the years for different projects I’ve done.
You touched a little bit on singing folk songs in the coffee houses. We’ve seen a program the other day where Sharon and Bram spoke about how their early years started with singing folk songs in coffee houses.
True. We all did that, because in the ’60s and ’70s, there was no really such thing as a children’s entertainer. There were people who did the old, old folk songs, like Ella Jenkins and Pete Seeger and a handful. But there were no specifically children’s oriented performers then until Raffi, and Sharon, Lois and Bram, and I came along. And we were listening to the demand that was coming again from the postwar generation.
But we all came from the same roots, and it ultimately led to the value of what we were doing. This folk performance was bringing just good songs to an audience. And that’s what the performing for families is all about. It’s having integrity with your style, with your ability to make music, because Bram is a very, very fine guitar player. And Raffi, he is a very good guitarist and songwriter. And also, we just developed our careers as a demand called upon.
Now speaking of Sharon and Bram, you were on the Elephant Show. Was that one of the things that helped spark the Fred Penner’s Place?
No, the Fred Penner’s Place came up long before the Elephant Show did. It was a phone call that came from the head of children’s television in Toronto in the mid ’80s, after I’d been touring for five years, playing festivals and coast to coast runs. And they had been looking for a replacement for The Friendly Giant in 1985.
And they saw the work that I was doing and they liked my energy and approach. So they said, “Would you like to do a TV series?” And I was a bit aghast because I had not even considered that. But then they said, “Yeah, we think you’d be a good replacement.” So I developed the core of Fred Penner’s Place, and then other writers and people came in to put in their perspective, and ultimately the series evolved, and away we went.
The education system is completely different now. Television has changed. Technology really rules everything now. But somehow The Cat Came Back and its album survived all of those changes. What do you think that makes it such a special album and song?
I think because of the essence of the songs, I mean, and hopefully my energy in bringing them to the front, because it’s not condescending, there’s engagement with the audience. It’s all about participation is what I do in my life.
But it just kept, I think, because it has that history going back to those early days when those kids first started listening to it. It gained popularity. And the phrase The Cat Came Back is just a beautiful, simple four word phrase that people remember.
Yeah, there were songs that I brought to that album, songs that I had grown up with myself and a few original tunes as well. But it was all about doing something that had a connection between me and the audience. And they responded and they liked it and then kept demanding it.
So two songs on the album, The Cat Came Back and Sandwiches, it was written by a friend of mine, Bob King. Those two songs are the number one and number two requests, still, in my repertoire. So I just do what I, again, what I do to the best of my ability. And if people respond to it, then that really is on them.
My husband is a hard rock fan, but he still loves what you do. He told me about an appearance that you made on a Vancouver radio show a couple of years ago, playing an AC/DC song. And he has never forgotten it.
Oh, it was hilarious. Because it was a rock station that I was on, and just to try and generate some excitement on the program, they said, “Can you jam to one of these AC/DC songs? And I said, “Sure. Play it.” I mean most rock songs are pretty easy to play with, because they’re only three maybe four chords. They’re not tough things. So once I know the chord progression, easy, easy to jam.
Do you find yourself strumming to different music styles here and there?
Always, from country to jazz to blues to rock. No, I cover a lot of territory in my musical experience.
What is the latest music you’ve been listening to lately?
Oh, God. I’m listening to some of the Hall and Oates stuff. Daryl Hall has the program on YouTube, and he brings in a lot of his old pal rockers, and I play along with that. And I’ve got a wack of old jazz stuff that I listen to, and the country classics, and more and more contemporary albums by some great female singers coming up. Variety is the spice of life.
Your style of singing requires very precise pronunciation and clarity. And I believe that’s part of what makes your songs such great stories. Can you hear the story every step of the way? There’s such clarity that it’s almost a lost art today.
Language certainly is. Yeah. My wife is a vocal coach, and language is such an important part of her work, and the enunciation, and using the right words. And I think it would be doing a disservice to the audience, certainly to my audience, to not enunciate, to not use full sentences and words, because that’s how a young person learns the language, learns how to pronunciate and then speak properly. So, yeah, so language has always been very important from my point of view. I tend to write lyrics before I do the music, so the lyrics have to be clear.
My dad’s about your age, and I just can’t imagine him still working. What keeps you going, and is there an end in sight at all?
It is slowing down, other than this year is very intense. But I’m just doing the work that is answering the call, the demand, as I said. But at the same time, my wife and I are finding time to relax. We’re going to go to Hawaii in April. And then things are very slow in May, and then a few festivals over the summer, and then another.
Well, our place, where we are, in Vancouver Island, is very much a place of relaxation and calm. And so it’s finding a balance, certainly, in my life. And so I don’t cause too much stress to my aging body. I mean, I do have lots of aches and pains, so I’m just trying to take care of myself as much as possible.
With the upcoming shows here in Hamilton and London, do you have any specific fond memories of the area at all?
Oh, I’ve played there many, many times. There’s just so many festivals in the area. I’ve been to Hamilton Place a number of times. I have fond memories of just about every place I’ve ever played, because you’re only as good as your last gig. So I try and be consistent with where I’m playing, nothing specific jumps out at this moment.