Every Canadian folk singer worth his or her salt has to have felt a blow last week when Stompin’ Tom Connors died. Mind you, I don’t think anyone can have been surprised; his hard-living ways were as legendary as the on-stage persona he created. Still, in the forest of Canadian music—a mere muddy field when he began plying his trade—he seemed a tree too mighty to fall.
I first encountered Stompin’ Tom’s songs in true folk fashion: I learned them from live performances by another musician. The musician was my Grade 5 teacher, Mr. Caverhill, at Nobel Public School, on a hill along Highway 69 about six miles north of Parry Sound, Ontario. Mr. Caverhill, a tall, balding older man who wore Coke-bottle glasses and a houndstooth jacket, may not have looked like a folk singer. But he was beloved by a generation of students at Nobel Public for spending a half hour each day with his class, strumming his guitar and leading us in song. We sang everything from old camp songs like “Land of the Silver Birch” to contemporary country classics, like Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”. Mr. Caverhill, who had a fondness for tobacco himself, taught us all to sing “Tillsonburg” long before I’d ever heard a Stompin’ Tom recording. He told us about how Stompin’ Tom at the Foley Fall Fair, south of town, had packed the hall and pertnear worn right through a stomping board doing “Sudbury Saturday Night” and “Bud the Spud” and all the rest.
By the time I was playing guitar and writing my own songs in my late teens, Stompin’ Tom had been off the scene for ten years, but his work was ingrained in my consciousness. As a rural kid, I had only ever heard two musicians sing about the places of my youth: Gordon Lightfoot, and Stompin’ Tom. And while Lightfoot was a literary composer, weaving the landscape’s undulations into his works, Stompin’ Tom was a working-class poet belting out three chords and the truth. They were two sides of the same record: Lightfoot the internationally successful songwriter, mysterious and wistful; Stompin’ Tom, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking guy who played the Foley Fall Fair and wrote about places we knew, and stories we could relate to, in a simple, accessible fashion. I couldn’t write like Gordon Lighfoot, but I would try to write like Stompin’ Tom.
In the early nineties, Stompin’ Tom made his legendary comeback, urged on by the likes of the Rheostatics, and suddenly his videos were on Much Music and a whole lot of college kids were listening to his songs. I was one of those, too.
I remember sitting with a friend of mine in my car, in a tree planting camp in Northern Ontario one spring night after work. It may have been 1992. We were drinking Northern Ale brewed in nearby Timmins, where Stompin’ Tom had gotten his start at the Maple Leaf Tavern decades before. (We drank there on the weekends; his portrait was still on the wall.) My friend and I had the windows of my 88 Ford Escort rolled up to keep the bugs out, and a haze of smoke filled the vehicle. The rest of the camp was dancing to Cypress Hill in the mess tent, but we were listening to Stompin’ Tom on the car stereo.
There were brand new Stompin’ Tom albums by that point, but we were playing an ancient tape of Tragedy Trail. There’s a song on that album that name-checks Parry Sound, and another about the Don Jail, just up the street from where my dad grew up. Not to mention the Coal Boat song, a catchy classic with a hook any songwriter would proudly hang his hat on. I was waxing passionate about that, and my friend looked at me with the keen insight that sometimes arises in such moments, shook her head, and grinned.
Then she told me something that’s stayed with me ever since. “Dave,” she said, “There are two ways to listen to Stompin’ Tom Connors. Some people listen ironically, and some people listen sincerely. You listen to him BOTH ways.” I laughed out loud. She was bang on. To be a Stompin’ Tom fan, for me, was to wrestle with contradictions.
Not long before, I’d heard Stompin Tom on CBC radio as I drove out along the bush roads. He was railing against artists and others who moved beyond Canada’s borders, in subject matter or in fact. His opinions were boldly stated, and blunt. I heard the heart in them, but I disagreed. I though he was urging Canadians to distinguish ourselves from Americans with unquestioning Canadian patriotism, and I believed that was a narrow view. I still believe that.
I also thought some of Stompin’ Tom’s songs were wince-worthy. Some were just corny, but others betrayed a combination of earnestness and naivete that was uncomfortable in the light of contemporary songcraft, not to mention what was going on in the world. That’s where the ironic filter came in. Stompin’ Tom was a throwback to a simpler time. Even a just a few years ago, he claimed no one was writing songs about Canada; he was plain wrong about that, and it dated him. In some ways he seemed to present himself as the proud citizen of a cartoon Canada.
And yet for all the elements of caricature in the persona he created and brought to the stage, Stompin’ Tom was also the real deal. It was plain to see, up close and in performance, and to my mind it’s a unique characteristic. The only other person I can think of who’s anything like him in a Canadian context is Don Cherry. As with Don Cherry, there were personality quirks that made me uncomfortable; some of them were the very things that made other people love him most. Likewise, though, the honesty of his effort, the depth of his experience, and at its best, the quality of his work, were worthy of the deepest respect.
Stompin’ Tom’s great songs – and there are many – are truly great folk art. They’re memorable, singable glimpses of real life as seen from his quirky, personal point of view. They form an essential chapter of the Canadian songbook. There’s nothing ironic about what it took to collect, to create and to and deliver those songs. Playing local Legion halls and watering holes, and writing songs about all the stops along the way, for half a century, is an epic task. When Stompin’ Tom played Massey Hall, where I saw him perform a few years ago amid Canadian flags a-flying, he filled that space with the spirit of all those places and people he’d seen and known. He carried them in his heart. That’s an amazing gift, and it’s something no one else has done on the national stage.
About eleven years ago, I took part in a Stompin’ Tom tribute at Hugh’s Room. I’d just hosted the Gordon Lightfoot tribute for the first time, and I heard a similar thing was going to happen for Stompin’ Tom, so I offered to host. Folk DJ Steve Fruitman—the world’s biggest Stompin’ Tom fan, and a perpetual supporter on his Toronto radio show—was organizing the event. He was gracious enough to accept my offer, sight unseen, and he let me play a couple of songs too.
When I got to the club and met the other musicians, a whole bunch of them had actually played in Tom’s band. That was nerve-wracking. Someone told me Stompin’ Tom didn’t like it when people deviated from his versions; that was worrying, because I’d worked out my own arrangements. Then I heard Stompin’ Tom would be in the audience, and that was just plain scary.
I chose two of those songs I mentioned before: ‘Around the Bay and Back Again”, about Georgian Bay, and “The Old Don Valley Jail.” When my turn came in the first set, I started with the latter, and I destroyed it. Not in a good way. I was trying to do too much: I was playing an electric guitar on stage for the first time, plus a harmonica in a rack, and the version I did was a kind of a finger-picked calypsoesque thing. All the other artists were on stage, acting as a house band, and when I began my song, they jumped in the way they knew it. It was an instant catastrophe. We restarted twice. I finally asked the band to back off and managed to get through it, but it was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me on stage. From where I stood, publicly screwing up his song, I could see Stompin’ Tom’s unmistakeable cowboy-hatted silhouette in the audience. I was sick with embarrassment.
At the break, I went straight up to Stompin’ Tom’s table. He was smoking and drinking bottled beer in a room that usually caters to wine-drinkers and microbrew aficionados. (Incidentally, Stompin’ Tom and Joni Mitchell share the distinction of having been the only people ever to smoke in the restaurant section of Hugh’s Room. Who could ever tell them to butt out?) Anyway, I swallowed the lump in my throat and said, “Mr. Connors, I want to apologize for making a mess of your song up there.” He said, in a voice that was larger than life, “Christ, chum, I was bleedin’ for ya! Them guys jumped all over ya! They never shoulda done that. You done it your own way and you done a good version!” It was about the kindest thing a legend could ever say to a young performer, and I’ll never forget it. He could have crushed me, and he raised me up instead.
During the second half, I started out the show. I asked the band to lay out, and I laid into a version of Around the Bay and Back Again that combined all my love for Georgian Bay and all the nervous energy I’d built up in the first set. I could see Stompin’ Tom nodding and applauding and the audience was warm—God love a good audience, they always want to see you recover and they’ll help you do it.
After the show, I approached Stompin’ Tom again. I held out my hand and said, “Sir, I really want to thank you for what you said at the break. I think it made a big difference for me.” He gripped my hand like a bear, and said “Yer fuckin’ right it did! You fuckin’ nailed ‘er, buddy! I had tears in my eyes!” I’ve never received a higher compliment.
I’ve known a few people who have played with Stompin’ Tom and knew him well. I didn’t. I’ve heard a lot of stories about him, from folks who had real insight into his personal life and his character. I don’t. All I can say, as a fan, as a songwriter, and as a Canadian, is that Stompin’ Tom Connors, with all his faults and foibles, his gifts and his greatness, had a heart as big as this country.
The man is gone. He was one of a kind, and we’ll never see the like of him again. But he left a big body of work, a collection of Canadian songs, the best of which will live on for a long, long time.
And whenever we gather to strum and sing along to Stompin’ Tom’s songs, we’ll hear that mighty heart beat on— like a big boot stomping on a plywood board.