“The best goll-darn singer you’ve never heard came from the same country as Celine Dion and Drake.”
“Yeah, right,” I can somehow see you all sneering right about now: “What the hell good has ever come out of Canada?!!” Well, besides the (very early) Guess Who, SCTV, and of course Young Neil, there roamed ’cross the Great White Northlands a man, a myth – dare I say, a LEGEND who cast a long, black, yet somehow barely perceptible shadow over every guitar lasher who means a half hoot on either side of the dreaded U.S. / Canada border. A man who possessed a wicked tongue, beaver-sharp mind, commanding right leg and, above all, a wit and wisdom before which few others dare even stand, let alone deserve to approach.
That man, that myth, and/or that Legend was…
Stompin’ Tom Connors.
OK, look: He wrote over 300 songs, his fifty original (Canadian) albums have sold over three million copies, and his autobiographies soared high up the (Canadian) best sellers lists. He has been the subject of at least one Masters thesis, been awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree, received a citation from Queen Elizabeth as well as the prestigious Order of Canada …why, he even got married live on (Canadian) national television! But yes, chances are you most likely have never heard of, much less even heard, Stompin’ Tom Connors. Probably because the man not once performed outside of Canada – and never had a single record released outside of Canada – throughout his tempestuous fifty-some-odd-year career.
Most ironically, this fervent, stubborn nationalism didn’t help Connors’ own career up there one iota it seems, as he inexplicably never placed a solitary song on a Canadian country music chart (“They told me in 1964 I didn’t fit the format. They told me that in 1974. In 1984, they told me that again,” Tom said. “I guess the format hasn’t changed that much”). That Stompin’ Tom not only survived, but actually thrived under such adverse conditions is a testament not only to the man’s rig-load of talent, but his self-described, never-fail “to-it-and-at-it-iveness.”
Born on the 9th of this month, February, 1936 unto an unwed teen, raised in an orphanage, he began conjuring songs at eleven and spent his Wonder years on the run – and on the high seas (illegally working as an under-age merchant seaman). Once back on dry land, he indulged his Woody Guthrie fantasies and hitch-hiked the length and breadth of Canada, guitar in hand, til in 1964 he surfaced at the mangy old Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ontario …a nickel short of a forty-cent beer. Agreeing to sing for his alleged supper, Connors ended up on stage at the Maple Leaf for the next fourteen months straight (where a bartender nicknamed him “Stompin’ Tom” after his habit of keeping time pounding one gigantic booted leg against the nearest floor).
He cut his first self-manufactured single the following year, signed to the tiny Dominion label in 1969, formed his own label, Boot, two years after that, starred in a cool low-budget movie and (Canadian) television series, and duly won a heap of Juno (Canadian Grammy) awards …every one of which he eventually, defiantly returned in protest of those damned, ingrateful, good-for-nothin’ “border jumpers” (Canadian talent who forsake their homeland in favor of big American record deals and low-price BBQ). You see, Tom absolutely despised all those Canuckleheads who headed south with their songs, their stories, and their stompin’ boards. In fact, in the late Seventies he actually went on “strike” against the Canadian recording industry for not only allowing, but actually encouraging such unpatriotic practices, and so ornery was Tom over this sticky matter that his planned one-year retirement [sic!] ended up lasting TEN.
Nevertheless, it was between 1968 and 1973 that the man released six albums which are rightly considered the Holy Grail of Canadian Country: On Tragedy Trail, Bud The Spud, Stompin’ Tom Meets Big Joe Mufferaw, My Stompin’ Grounds, Stompin’ Tom And The Hockey Song and the landmark To It And At It. Rich in character studies as vivid as those of Hank Williams, but etched as always with Connors’ fierce sense of Canadiana, the classic tone poems which fill these records stand today as nothing less than national totems, part of the Canadian cultural lexicon …yet at the time inexplicably, and totally unforgivably, received nary a spec of airplay in BTO Land.
All one had to do was give him a case or twelve of room temperature Moosehead lager, a stage to throw his trusty stompin’ board onto, and ideally enough room to play an after-show round of full-contact lawn croquet with his bandmates and Tom was yours.
But then, eight March 6’s ago, as it must to all men, death came to Charles Thomas Connors. He will, to say the very least, never be replaced.
His own final words, as always, said it all:
I want all my fans, past, present, or future, to know that without you, there would have not been any Stompin’ Tom.
It was a long hard bumpy road, but this great country kept me inspired with its beauty, character, and spirit, driving me to keep marching on and devoted to sing about its people and places that make Canada the greatest country in the world.
I must now pass the torch, to all of you, to help keep the Maple Leaf flying high, and be the patriot Canada needs now and in the future.
I humbly thank you all, one last time, for allowing me in your homes. I hope I continue to bring a little bit of cheer into your lives from the work I have done.
Your Friend always,
Stompin’ Tom Connors