Fred Penner is a Canadian sensation whose television show and hit songs like “The Cat Came Back” was part of so many of our childhoods. But what few of us knew was how much he understood the pain of growing up. He lost his alcoholic father and his 12-year-old sister in the same year. He turned to music. And his gentle wisdom and songs have invited us—children and adults alike—to stay curious and kind in a hard world.
In this episode, Kate and Fred discuss:
I have so many memories singing along to Fred’s music as a kid and felt so lucky to get to speak to him today.
CW: alcoholism, death of sibling, death of a parent
Learn more about Fred Penner and his work that has had a huge impact on the curiosity of children and adults.
Please, please, please watch this video of the intro to Fred Penner’s Place. The log is iconic.
To learn more about heart murmurs in infants and experiences with what they call it “blue baby.”
Anticipatory Grief is the distress a person may feel in the days, months or even years before the death of a loved one or other impending loss.
Listen to “The Sandwich Song” by Fred Penner “I like Sandwiches! I eat them all the time.”
One of my favorites is his song, “The Cat Came Back.” “But the cat came back the very next day, they thought he was a goner, but the cat came back he just couldn’t stay away.”
Kate Bowler Hey. Just before we begin, I wanted to let you know that we have a free advent guide available on my website. And by that I mean we have an enormous, gorgeous, free, giant e-book thing if you want it. So it’s something to help us ground our days and hope and love this Christmas season. So if that’s something you want, go to katebowler.com/advent and it’s all yours.
Kate Sometimes we don’t know exactly where our lives will take us. Okay. Most of the time. But we can sort of feel ourselves through. We just hear a bit of someone singing our hearts dumb song. And suddenly our feet pick up the pace. It’s strange and incredible when we have that feeling or when other people know how to stir it in us. And at least to me, that feeling always seems like a young self. The one kindled by a little bit of wonder. The one that thought, “Oh, what a great idea. I’d love to be curious” or “I’m very, very interested now in this thing that my older self would have overlooked in favor of Instagram.” So that’s what I wondered if we could talk about today, that heartsong feeling. And I just want to bring you back to a moment from my tiny baby self when I was absolutely in love with the television show host and musician named Fred Penner. Fred Penner is just Canadian gold. He had a television show obviously called Fred Penner’s Place, where he would show up in the woods and he would crawl through a log and behold, he was somewhere very interesting and he would sing songs with such gentleness on his guitar. And it made you feel like you, tiny you, were being loved into something, sung into something or someone. Even if it was very, very silly like his song The Cat Came Back, which every Canadian child can sing. Please quiz them on that.
Kate But what I didn’t know was how much he was sung into being by some very tender moments in his childhood. He had a sister Susie, living with Down’s syndrome, who loved music and they loved it together. And when she died at 12 years old, that part of him wondered just where he was going to land. And then his dad died, whose alcohol dependency made all of this just so fraught and painful. And so and so what what do we do when we want to stay soft and curious and kind? Fred Penner knows and you are going to love him.
Kate For people who don’t know, perhaps that being a painter is like being the Kevin Bacon of Central Manitoba. Their just. I married a Penner. So already I immediately want to ask you about your your family connection. Mennonite culture has such an incredible association with music. I mean, I have always thought that they have made a pact with Satan in exchange for the gift of four part harmony. Yeah. Being musical, it sounds like, was a huge part of your family culture.
Fred Penner Sure.
Kate And your sounds like your sister Susie in particular, understood the understood music as the language of the heart.
Fred She certainly did. I mean, my my parents were were into a wide variety of music. My mother would play the the organ she she did and a mostly hymns that she would play. And my father loved classical or in orchestral music or an opera. And so I had this beautiful range of sound. And fortunately, my my ear was well tuned to harmonies. So when I started listening to to songs and for my generation, the folk era in the sixties, plus I could easily, instantly harmonize with what I heard. And that, as you say, sell your soul to the devil for that value, for that for that ability.
Kate My mom is was a music professor at the University of Manitoba.
Fred Oh was she?
Kate Karen Jensen and has a lovely mezzo soprano. And. And when we were little, we always used to be brought in front of the class, my sister and I, to do these little demonstrations for performing for music students. And we did a really good version of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” I would do the high part.
Fred Oh, I love that melody.
Kate But the feeling like you could, you know, someone would pick a key and then the magic would start is a feeling that you can get even when you’re so young, like you’re participating in this. Like you flick the chord and it rings through the universe.
Fred Yeah. The the power of music is is certainly not to be underestimated.
Kate One of the things that unifies this community is an inherent understanding of the fragility of life. And some people age into that terrible education, and some people have it from when they are very young. And it sounds like your your family’s story with Susie was such an early education in love and and also and and feeling the threat of loss on the horizon. I wondered if you could tell me about that.
Fred When it was Susie was born, she said she had a severe heart murmur. She was called a blue baby because she had a hole in her heart that was, you know, so blood was not being pumped and cleaned properly and ultimately it was not operable. They said when she was born that it they could try and fix this hole in the heart, but it would be a 50/50 chance whether she would survive. And my parents said, no, those odds aren’t good enough for us. We will we will keep her. And actually going back a little bit when she was born and and they the they saw that she was Down syndrome. The doctors came to my parents and said, Your child has Down syndrome. Do you want to keep her? You know, and knowing what that actually meant, you know, what they were saying. But do you want to keep her? Well, what are you going to, you know, through throwing in the wastebasket? Are you. That that statement has stuck with me all these years. It’s And they they were quite upset with the doctors for even even suggesting such a thing. But Susie, because of the heart murmur, they they said, well, the prognosis is that she will live to puberty in all around 12 years old once her body starts to go through the change her her her bodily organs will not be able to to grow accordingly because of the of the poor quality of her blood and because because it was not being purified. It was it was thickening. And and so they gave her digitalis, which is a blood thinning agent. And but but by the time it exactly what they said, by the time she reached 12 years old, then everything shut down. And then she and she died. We knew that that was inevitable. But it was still, you know, the the shock when it happened, you know, and I bet I, I can pinpoint the moment that I found out and what my body went through, feeling that I was working for the city of Winnipeg, cutting the boulevards, you know, cleaning the grass in spring springtime. And a police car pulls up to me. You know. Immediately I start thinking, what? What have I done? You know, did I, did I but you know, I go through my my thoughts of how have I crossed the the line somewhere and the police are coming to take me away. And then these two policemen came up and told me that Susie had died. And I remember and I’ve heard this from other people when they hear news of losing a loved one, you collapse. And my legs gave away. And I and I dropped I dropped to the ground. And then they they they took me home. And then, you know, then the process of of dealing with with this as a family began.
Kate Yes. To lose your dad and your sister in the same year. Imagine it was just. A leveling. Like all the landmarks are gone.
Fred Yeah. I mean, Dad was alcoholic as well, and he was ailing for for many, many, many years. It also is that, you know, also was, you know, was expected.
Kate There’s a lovely phrase, anticipatory grief that someone gave me about the the feeling like you’ve pre when you pre know the ending like that somebody that someone will die young or that somebody is, you know, because of alcoholism or a disease or something will… That there’s, there’s finitude there.
Kate Does it feel do you think it felt like you you had to have pre worked through those feelings before it happened or did you or did it still feel like when it finally did? Like you, you know, you you couldn’t have known at all. You couldn’t have pre worked any of those feelings.
Fred I don’t think you can ever truly prepare. For what? For what you will feel when when a loved one dies, you know, and for me, you know, at 70, 76 years old, almost, I’m. I’m closer to death than I am in anything else. I hope to be around for who knows how much longer, but I. I don’t fear death. I really have have no regrets in my in my life. I mean, things that I may have done differently along the way, but it’s I’ve, I I’ve done the best I could with what I was given.
Kate Yes. What a lovely thing to say, Fred. That’s a rare. That sounds like a man who’s really, really tried then. Yeah. Yes. I love that.
Kate When you dove into this new vocation released from the. Tell me where you. Tell me what your bachelor was in again.
Kate Economics. And you decided music was the call of your heart. You had some wonderful musical experimentation and some absolute. So tell me, what genre did you pick? Tell me about the hilarity. You, you. You went right for Kornstock to it. Just. I want to hear all about it.
Fred It was clear in my brain that I did not want to be an economist, but I was not a great student. I didn’t you know, I didn’t know what I could possibly do in this world. You know, being an economist was central mortgage and Housing Corporation just didn’t seem to be the path that made the most sense for me. You know, I was at literally a a mortality crossroads of my life. You know, I remember feeling that I need to find what my bliss is. What is it that that makes me feel like I have have something to offer to other other people in this world. And and music was the only thing that I had ever done that. That I remember having having that value in all the choirs that I had sung in the, the, the folk groups that I had been part of in my high school years at university. So it was okay. Music is certainly important to me. How do I do this? Well, I played guitar. I, I auditioned for a couple of lounges and bars in Winnipeg, the the Cancan Lounge at the Baltimore Hotel. That still exists, by the way. Basically, I played there for $25 a night in, you know, in 1972 or something. I was just so enamored. Enamored is not the word, but overwhelmed that I could. That I could get up on a stage, just interact with an audience. Play some songs that I learned that were important to me for whatever reason, and the audience would respond. I thought, that has got to be the the most beautiful and purest form of expression possible. And in a way, I went.
Kate And you went. That’s exactly right.
Fred When Al Simmons, the leader of Kornstock, came into my life actually a second time, we had been in Air Cadets together in our teen years. And then then I called him up and and we and we talked and I was looking for for a path. And so we we started we started working together and and completed our band with Mike Clem, formerly of The D-Drifters. It was a Ukrainian band that that toured with the rusalka dancers in Winnipeg and with Bob came the the infamous Bob King, who wrote “Sandwiches,” and it was the second most requested song.
Kate Fred Well, I’ve I’m so sorry to do this to you. Would you mind for those of us not yet blessed with this song “Sandwiches,” just giving me a sense of what that song is. I won’t be mad if you sing because sandwiches are beautiful. Sandwiches are fine. I love sandwiches.
Fred [Sung] The sandwiches are beautiful, sandwiches are fun. I love sandwiches. They come all the time. I eat them for my supper and I eat them for my lunch. If I had sandwiches….[Sung]
Kate [Sung] I’d eat them all at once. [Sung]
Fred There you go.
Kate And. Oh, good.
Fred It’s a duo. It’s a duet.
Kate Oh, my gosh, Fred. How. How is it that you are so good at that you. It’s not just that you wanted to play music. You wanted to pull it like you wanted to weave everybody into it at the same time. What… what made you immediately want to experiment and play around with participatory song?
Fred Well, that that was the key of folk music. I mean, just about every song that that that happened when I was, you know, in my first prime in the sixties, all the songs were learn the chorus, learn the chorus, learn the chorus, learn the verse, sing you know, get ready, get ready to sing the chorus. So, you know and here it comes, here it comes, you know, it’s just around the corner. And then and then you just you just fill the air with that, with that music and it’s soul. For me, it was so inspiring. I, I love that opportunity to raise my voice with other people, you know, in a group soul. So when I did in all those early lounge dates, that’s what it was all about. It was those songs that I brought to the table. So, so with with Kornstock, we did, you know, the participatory songs, but it was it was deeper than that because it was. We were an improv group, basically. Yeah. And we and we get on stage and we would start playing in in the purest form of the word with the audience. And and because Al was was such a comic genius, is a comic genius? And still and still at it. You know, the the the music grew to that other level of of comedy as well as the participation. You know, so it was it was four years with with those fellows of of really fascinating experiences and, you know, and and and playing again with with audiences on on a different, different dimension. But but ultimately, it it wasn’t satisfying for me, you know, because because it was crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy and crazy. And let’s have a little more about some more crazy. Let’s go. Let’s go wacko on this one. Let’s just go as far as we can in that direction. We did a ten minute Sesame Street sketch, you know, in the bars. And that was that was the most that was beautiful, beautiful journey. But what I was still craving in me were songs that that got deeper, that that really energized our audience, that made them think for a moment that weren’t just fluff and fun. Yeah, but, but had some add that had substance. Yeah. So when I started writing really my own songs, it was tunes that that always went a little bit deeper than work. You know, the, the example that I often, you know, bring when I, when I get into this level of conversation is the song called “Collections.” As many of my songs did a similar sort of thematic path were collections is a universal topic because everybody has a collection of one thing or another. So with collections, the first collection is rocks and shells, bottle caps, a bottle of oil, a string. They didn’t cost a penny. And I felt just like a king, you know, because those are things you can you find anywhere in there or look at that one. Look at this one. Oh, that’s look at the shape of that. You know, you feel that one. And then the second level is stamps and coins and stickers, stories, poems and songs that opened my imagination to thoughts that make me strong. Yeah, you and also they’re there from from simple to. Oh, now this is what collections can do. They can go they can go into your into your spirit.
Kate Oh, that’s lovely.
Fred And then and then the third verse was, I can’t show you the collection. That means the most to me because it’s hidden deep inside where nobody can see it comes from those who care for you. This collection has its start with the memories and the feelings and the pictures in your heart. I mean, that that poetry.
Fred Is, is so strong for me and that path of an a one too. And there is the pay-off.
Kate And then the punch and then the heart punch.
Fred You know, and, and, and many of my songs are, are a similar kind of direction, you know, “Proud” is like that, “Courage” is like that there. I mean dozens go try to go deep into, you know, into that hitting the hitting the spirit, hitting the soul of the listener. And it’s as much to the adult as it is to the child. You know.
Kate After college, I worked with kids for a bit, and I think that was my favorite. You know, I think I’d finished some, like, philosophy degree. And I don’t want that many existential thoughts. And it turns out that working with kids is shockingly soulful. Because they will tell you exactly what they fear. They will tell. You exactly what they love. They will worry with you. They will very much want to tell you their secrets.
Kate It’s almost like you just learn to live right side out again.
Kate Instead of putting all the good stuff on the inside where it’s hidden, as you were describing.
Fred Yeah. That’s that’s one of the interesting perspectives on childhood. I mean it’s and it’s defined children’s personalities form by the time they’re five, six years old. But if you if you are able to go into into the perspective that a child has. It is pure. It is honest. It is absolutely the most beautiful thing in the world to hear the perspectives that come from a child and the and the tragedy of the whole thing is that. The child ultimately has to assimilate into being an adult.
Kate Yes, that’s right. That’s how horrible. I totally agree.
Fred And you’re suddenly in this world of complexity and and how how do you make a living? And how do you how do you how do you find someone that that loves you and that you want to love? How do you do? How do you do that? With with real with real honesty, you know, and and breaking down the barriers and and being the kind of pure spirit that you were as a child?
Kate You had an amazing hit television show, Fred Penner’s Place. You did 900 episodes and I’m sure you get fan mail every second of every day about it. But there is a really distinct thing that you know how to do that I wish we all knew how to do, which is the the simple and kind and direct way that you know how to speak to kids and to the kid in our hearts. What are your I don’t know how to say it this way, but like what? Almost like disciplines of speech. Did you start to take on in in in 900 episodes of learning to talk this way.
Fred Yeah. The Fred Penner’s experience, Fred Penner’s Place experience was was the best thing that could ever have happened for me, because if it allowed me back to the word of play, it allowed me to to just just be there and to play on, again, a fundamental level. The, the, the initial scripts that we did the first season. The whole goal is like we did 60 episodes in three months. Now, you know.
Kate You’re like, I slept on air. How is that possible?
Fred Well, exactly. And the way that worked was there were a number of writers who put a script together, and these were all fifteens at the beginning. And and they would have, you know, very specific things of lines to to say, but I could never do that. There’s no way that I could memorize that. So I, I played I didn’t follow strict lines until until the the last been a few seasons when when the scripts were were written in a different manner. And the critical thing for for me in in all the Fred Penner’s Place world was knowing that that camera was going to one child I was not talking to. Who knows? I mean, hundreds, thousands of people all over North America because it aired in the States for many years. But the the attitude for me. When I was talking, when I was sharing whatever I was sharing with it, whether it was the simplest, simplest little thing or a big song, it was looking at that camera as if that was one child I was communicating with. And that allowed my energy to, *phew* you know, to come down so that it’s it’s not like I projecting to a, you know, to a big audience. And that and that that made a huge, huge difference. And I think my ability to communicate.
Kate Looking back, what were the great themes of your show? Do you think?
Fred It’s it’s imagination, it’s sharing, it’s communication, it’s understanding, it’s compassion. It’s respecting yourself. It’s it’s being a good person. It’s opening up to the world around you. It’s discovery. It’s all of the values that we appreciate, you know, in our humanity. And and just taking them down to, you know, sometimes the simplest perspective, you know, the easiest little thing. I mean, there were there were some some really beautiful, beautiful moments in the course of the show that that were were heartfelt and, you know, to the point of tears. And some of them were. And it was it was just a absolutely awesome creative journey for me to, you know, to write songs about these topics.
Kate Do you have a favorite? I’d love to hear it.
Fred I mean I mean, the first one, that sort of sort of pops in is is about discovery. [Sung] What are we going to search for? What are we going to find? Open up your eyes. Don’t leave anything behind. We’ll know it when we see it. And we’ll see it when we try to discover and identify. To discover and identify. [Sung]
Kate Oh, my gosh. Fred. You are bringing me back. I have been a devoted, devoted, devoted fan forever and ever. I watched your show with my sister all the time. And so just picture, tiny cross legged me, just glued, just developing vision problems. I’m sure I was two inches away from the television screen just mooning moony. Well, it’s a it’s a beautiful kind of thing to feel loved through the screen when you’re at such a tender little age and you’ve been that person, you’ve really been that person to just a whole generation of kids who felt like you made the world very gentle and very. Yeah. Open to them to discover. What a gift you are.
Fred Well, I. That’s so kind of you to say that I. But, you know, because I never knew I never knew where any of this would go, obviously. And and all I could do was. Present what I was thinking and feeling again to the best of my I did the best I could with what I had, you know, to the best of my ability to do that. Essentially, what we do, what I do on on a stage is create a dialog. And the dialog is between me and the child, between me and the caregiver. Adult. Yeah. And then ultimately between the caregiver and the child. So it’s a triangle, you know, and will you know and it’s that pure in my mind. That’s all, that’s all that this is about creating an idea, a story, a song. And then on the way home, listening to it in the car, talking about it, what was your favorite part of the show? Oh, I love “The Cat Came Back.” Okay, great. You know there but but it’s that that sensation that I and I and I felt this after every performance, I feel like I have gained something from the audience. You know, that’s that there may have been a, a special needs child, you know, in the autograph line that that touched me as Susie did. You know, there’s always something that happens in the course of a show that I can. Take away with me that. Yeah, that was good. I enjoyed, I learned, I shared. You know, it’s not I never get tired of singing. “The Cat Came Back.” I never get tired of singing “Sandwiches,” you know.
Kate Yes. And I don’t ever get tired of hearing them. Fred, what a gift. Thank you so much for doing this with me today.
Fred This was a lovely conversation. I really appreciate speaking with you. You’re a gem. And what you’re doing is really is really important.
Kate Look, you might not be feeling exactly primed for wonder at this moment. The world has a way of just squeezing it out of us in heartache, in busyness, in just sheer adulthood. Is there poetry in taxes? But not really. So I thought maybe we could bless that part of you that needs to wake up to wonder again, especially if it’s hard. How about that? Okay.
Kate I stand stone still at the edge of disheartenment. I have nothing but this certainty. Nothing changes. Nothing lasts. I feel hollow. God. This world you made is full. Warm earth. Pushing up new seedlings. Unfathomable oceans teeming with mystery. And the miracle that our clay bodies bear. Even the possibility of creating new life. We are all swimming in wonder. So, God, why can’t I feel it? I feel my own blood turning cold with each tiring loss. Good things, beautiful things pried from my fingers. Make them seem empty to me now. Still. Even if today I am sure that hope is not knocking at my door. Let the lights at the neighbor’s house glow like a jack o lantern. But the sounds wafting through the window, someone’s barking dog and kids running amok. The buzz of someone’s television rehearsing the day’s calamities remind me that we persist somehow under a distant shadow, but happy anyway. But the sun come down the sky and touch me and I will walk out to greet it, feeling the low murmur of the ground beneath my feet. And as the earth makes its creaky turns toward night. But the day fallen behind us. What’s next? We will say to the night sky before we close the door and consider its answer. Tomorrow. Bless you, my loves. May this be a wondrous day.
Brendan from St. Louis Hi, this is Brendan from St Louis, and I’m responding to a question from Instagram about, you know, what song or what music makes you think about your childhood or, you know, seasons of life being different and all that. And I’d have to say it’s “Riders on the Storm” by the Doors. I still love the doors to this day. And I become that, you know, a musician on the side. And I still love to play the Doors music, both to listen to it and to play it on guitar. So listening to that takes me back to a place where, you know, things seemed like they were simpler, less stressful, rainy days and just hanging out with my dad and my parents. So thank you for taking the time to listen to this.
Laura from Nashville Hi, Kate. This is Laura calling from Nashville, Tennessee. Apparently, when I was really, really little, one of my favorite songs, to have them play on the jukebox at the place where we would go eat pizza was Shake Your Booty.
Trish from North Dakota Hi, my name is Trish calling from Steele, North Dakota. And I immediately thought of Joyride by Roxette. Hello, you fool. I love you. Come on. Come on. Joy Ride. I loved that song. My sister hated it. But whenever we were watching MTV, I wouldn’t let her change it because loved it. Loved it. Even today, when it comes across my Spotify, they came out like nobody’s business. Very funny. Thanks for the question. What?
Kate A really special thank you to our generous partners who make this work possible. Lilly Endowment. The Duke Endowment. Duke Divinity School and Leadership Education. And to my wonderful team. Jessica Richie. Harriet Putman, Gwen Heginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Keith Westin, Jeb and Sammi. Thank you. And I would love to hear what you thought about this episode. Would you do me a favor and leave a review on Apple Podcasts? It really, really means a lot to us when we get to hear what we do well and also might even do better. You can also leave us a voicemail and who knows? We might even be able to use your voice on the air. Call us at 919-322-8731. All right, lovelies. I’ll talk to you next week. But in the meantime, come find me online. @KateCBowler. This is Everything happens with me. Kate Bowler.