Paws for reflection Kidsfest a belated chance for Fred Penner to celebrate The Cat Came Back’s unlikely success
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Fred Penner has been celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Cat Came Back — the debut album whose title track launched his career as a beloved children’s musician — for two years now.
● Winnipeg International Children’s Festival, a.k.a. Kidsfest
● Featuring Al Simmons, Splash’n Boots, The Silver Starlets, and more
● Thursday to Sunday, The Forks
● Tickets $11.50-$40 at kidsfest.ca
You see, the milestone was to be officially commemorated with a tour in 2020, but we all know how that year went down.
“We managed to squeeze Calgary under the line, and then we got up to Edmonton at the Winspear Centre, and we had 1,000 people ready to go and about two hours before the performance, the Alberta health authority pulled the plug,” says Penner, 75, over the phone from British Columbia, where he’s playing a few catch-up Cat Came Back dates.
The tour will bring him back to Winnipeg this week for the Winnipeg International Children’s Festival, also known as Kidsfest, at which he will be performing for what he believes is the 36th time.
Penner almost didn’t become a musician. He was, before a certain unwanted (but determined) yellow cat changed his life, an economics student.
“My whole career evolved out of mortality,” he says. The loss of his sister Susie, who had Down syndrome and a heart condition and died at 12, was followed by the loss of his father. Music had a profound effect on Susie, which, in turn, had a profound effect on Penner.
So he jumped on the road, playing where he could.
“I never expected to do an album,” he says. “I drew upon my childhood experience, songs that I remembered and (The Cat Came Back) arrived, and people embraced it,” he says. By the mid-’80s, he would have his own television show, Fred Penner’s Place, which aired on CBC from 1985 to 1997.
“I never expected to do an album… I drew upon my childhood experience, songs that I remembered and (The Cat Came Back) arrived, and people embraced it.” – Fred Penner
Part of the album’s success, he says, came down to timing.
“With Raffi, Sharon, Lois & Bram, and myself essentially arriving on the scene at the same time, and the audience, the postwar generation, the boomers were having kids (and) wanted quality,” he says. “It was a perfect storm from that point of view.
“I think, because it had that big beginning, that really critical time frame in society, that those people embrace it because it was it was important to them, and they’ve passed it on, generation after generation, and it just keeps keeps rolling. I couldn’t be more delighted and honoured that it has had the life it has.”
The Cat Came Back was originally written by Harry S. Miller and published in 1893. The fact that it became such an enduring children’s song seems unlikely when you take a close read of the lyrics: The man around the corner swore he’d kill the cat on sight/So he loaded up his shotgun with nails and dynamite/He waited and he waited for the cat to come around/97 pieces of the man is all that they found.
“It’s very dark,” Penner says with a laugh, though dark in a cartoonish, Wile E. Coyote vs. Roadrunner kind of way, he points out.
Penner was jamming with his brother and cousin one day, and they were flipping through Jerry Silverman’s Folk Song Encyclopedia, playing whatever happened caught their eye.
“And I turned the page and there was The Cat Came Back. I had remembered that song from my childhood — there was a singer named Sonny James who did a major version of that song, almost a bluegrass kind of pattern.
“But this was a minor version. I thought, ‘Oh, this is different.’ We just started playing it; it’s the perfect jamming pattern — E minor, D, C, B7 — and we related to it very quickly.”
Four decades on, it’s still a fan favourite among Fredheads young and old — but it’s a Fred favourite, too.
“I’m always happy to perform it — I never tire of it,” he says.
“I’m always happy to perform it– I never tire of it.” – Fred Penner
There will be ample opportunity to hear it at Kidsfest: Penner will be performing daily. Visit kidsfest.ca for the full festival schedule.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.