Well, besides the (very early) Guess Who, SCTV, and of course Young Neil, for seventy-seven years there roamed across the Great Wide 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 left 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, and forever shall be…
Stompin’ Tom Connors.
He wrote over three hundred songs, his thirty-four original albums sold over three million copies, and his autobiographies soared high up the best sellers lists. He was the subject of at least one Masters thesis, was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree, received a citation from Queen Elizabeth II as well as the prestigious Order of Canada …why, he even got married live on national television! But yes, chances are 99.9 percent of non-Canadians out there have never heard of, much less heard, Stompin’ Tom Connors. Probably because all of the above achievements took place north of the 49th Parallel, and because Stompin’ Tom Connors was an entertainer who not even 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 though that fervent, heartfelt nationalism seldom helped Connors’ own career in his Home and Native Land one iota it seems, as he rarely placed a solitary song upon 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 once tried to explain. “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 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 television series, and duly won a heap of Juno awards …every one of which he eventually, defiantly returned in protest of those damned, ingrateful, good-for-nothin’ “border jumpers.” As in Canadian talent who forsake their homeland in favor of high-falutin’ American record deals and low-price Yankee BBQ. You see, Tom absolutely despised all those Canuckleheads routinely heading south with their songs 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” ended up lasting TEN.
Nevertheless, between ‘68 and ’73 the man released six albums which are today 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’ staunch 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 still perversely receive precious little airplay outside of underscoring altercations during NHL broadcasts.
Tom finally ended his border-jump-protesting exile in 1988 (singing a tribute to his most high-profile progeny, “Lady k.d. lang,” by way of reintroduction), and to the bittersweet end continued touring and recording proud and unbowed, remaining fiercely, stubbornly loyal to his beliefs and ideals …and still without ever stooping to sign a single record contract south of the border. No sir. All one had to do was give him a case or twelve of room temperature Moosehead, 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, on March 6, 2013, 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