Since Canada was birthed as an experiment of two cultures attempting to co-exist as a means of survival, many have struggled with the question of what it is to be “Canadian”. If you asked that question of 10 different people, you’d likely get 10 different answers. You’d almost certainly hear the words “snow”, “Tim Hortons”, “Health Care” and “polite”. This is often how we like to view ourselves, or, at least, market ourselves. It’s a nice way to see ourselves, like that one mirror in your house you can always count on to give you the reflection you’d most like to see.
Since the first songwriter put pen to paper, troubadours and balladeers have been romanticizing reality. What a wonderful world; love is all you need; ain’t no mountain high enough. Songs and songwriters so often take us away; allow us to escape to a nicer version of what is true. I think it IS a wonderful world, but it’s not all smiling faces and “how do you do”. I think we do need love, but a roof over your head helps too. And I love my partner so much, but I don’t think I’m climbing Everest anytime soon.
Our songs, our stories, are more often than not about who we would like to be, how we would like our world to be. To be sure, there’s not a thing wrong with that; but there is a great deal to be said for “telling it like it is”. Thomas Charles Connors was one of the great champions of that.
Born on February 9th, 1936 into difficult circumstances in Saint John, New Brunswick, Connors bounced around with his young and single mother until he was seized by the Children’s Aid Society, and ultimately adopted by a couple who brought him back to their home in Skinner’s Pond, Prince Edward Island (PEI).
At age 15, he left home to hitchhike across Canada, a journey that would cover the entire country and last for 13 years. His guitar was never far from him, often he would sing (literally) for his supper. The story goes that one day in Timmins, Ontario, Connors was a nickel short of a beer at the Maple Leaf Hotel, so the bartender agreed to let him play a few songs in exchange for a few suds. This would lead to a 13 month contract playing at the hotel, a weekly spot on a local radio station, and some recording sessions. He came by the beginning of his music career, not through an audition, or a contest, or even an actual gig – it was by just doing what he did, which was sing and play the guitar.
He would later earn the iconic nickname Stompin’ Tom because – well, he stomped a lot with his foot to keep the beat. Though of course it would become a bit of performance, or “shtick”, the piece of plywood he brought with him on stage for years was first used because venue owners would complain of damage to the stage. “Stompin’ Tom” did not come from a publicist, or a manager, the moniker was coined by a waiter at the King George Tavern as he introduced Connors to the waiting barroom.
When he sang, he did so about the people and places he met and saw – as he really saw them – likely as they really were. In one of his hits, ‘Sudbury Saturday Night’, is the now infamous line “The girls are out to bingo, and the boys are getting’ stinko, and we’ll think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday Night.” I’m sure there are more romantic ways to look at life in Sudbury, but the truth of it was that a lot of that town worked for the Nickel mining company Inco, and would drink and play bingo on the weekend. It’s what he saw them do, so that’s what he wrote. His adopted province of PEI is a large exporter of potatoes, so Connors put music to a story about a guy who drove a truck of potatoes across the 401 (Bud the Spud). You DID have to don a pair of oilskin pants to work at the Tobacco plants (Tillsonburg). A lot of people have to look at the price of a T-Bone Steak and settle for buying ground beef (The Consumer). Politicians do divide the land, we have two official languages, and they still don’t understand (Believe in Your Country). And yes, in the eyes of many Canadians, the good old hockey game IS the best game you can name (The Hockey Song). These are the real people and experiences that make up the towns that make up Canada.
Stompin’ Tom Connors will likely go down in history as one of the great storytellers. People will talk about the plywood while The Hockey Song echoes in rinks big and small across the country. They will remember that he famously returned the 6 Junos he had won in protest of what he perceived to be the Junos emphasis on American success as opposed to promoting Canadian stories and talent. They’ll muse over his refusal to remove his Black Stetson, even in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II. I hope he is remembered for the truth that he sang. For painting a picture of us that was neither bleak, nor romanticized fiction, but was simply, who we were as he saw it. And I hope that in a world of Beibers and Nickelbacks, of Bachmans and Dions – all of whom have their rightful place – someone will pick up the mirror that Stompin’ Tom held up for us all, for so many years.