Oh Tom, we hardly knew ye.
Actually, we knew you very well, Tom. Farewell. You’ll be missed.
I am old enough now to have heard four generations of Canadians argue over the merits, music and message of Stompin’ Tom Connors, the great Canadian who died Wednesday at age 77.
He of the black cowboy hat and perpetually grinding boot heel has a deserved place in the Canadian mythos, not just for his celebration of Canadiana in his inimitable small-town hall musical style, but for his standing up for all things Canadian, especially in the face of the American cultural juggernaut. He may not have put it that way, but he may have put it better.
Connors fought a lifelong war on behalf of Canadian artists — demanding that homegrown musicians should be able to perform in Canada for equal billing and fees as American musicians. He decried the amount of American music on Canadian radio, criticized those Canadian artists who moved south of the border to ply their trade (though it’s hard to blame Neil Young or Joni Mitchell, et al, for doing so), and especially derided those who returned to Canada only to pick up their Juno Awards.
He took this philosophy so seriously that in a famous incident in 1978, he packed up his own Juno Awards — six in all — and sent them back to the awards committee. He then retired from music.
But his songs continued to bubble through the collective public conscious. Everyone knows that Bud the Spud has a bright red mug, that Ketchup Loves Potatoes, and where Big Joe Mufferaw paddled to (he paddled into Mattawa, all the way from Ottawa, in just one day, hey hey).
You know what to say if anybody ever asks you “Have you ever been to Tillsonburg?” “Tillsonburg!” you shout. “My back still aches when I hear that word!” — from one of only two songs about the Canadian tobacco industry, neither of them paeans (Daniel Lanois wrote the other).
And of course, there is only one song about hockey. If there are others, Stompin’ Tom’s overshadows it like a musical Mount Everest. We hear it at every hockey rink, in every town, during every game. Let it start running through your head … now!
Fifteen years after his retirement, Tom came stompin’ back into music with perhaps the greatest rhyme schemes ever created in Canadian music — “Sudbury Saturday Night,” and to a lesser extent his tribute to then newly arrived star k.d. lang.
By this time, Connors’ old battles on behalf of behalf of his nation had seen some fruition, with growing respect for Canadian music, a friendlier media for Canadian music, and a growing international reputation for Canada punching above its weight when it came to musical influence.
For this positive state of affairs today, Stompin’ Tom deserves some of the credit.
As a personal note, the Stompin’ Tom song which will forever play on that radio in the back of my brain is the theme from the CBC consumer watchdog program “Marketplace.”
“… Another sale on something, we’ll buy it while it’s hot/And we’ll save a lot of money, spendin’ money we don’t got …”
God bless you, Tom, for those lines. They’ve run through my mind for years, and never get old. And before I die, Tom, it is my great wish that Canadian musicians everywhere incorporate a boot heel pounding the stage floor into sawdust into their acts, so that it becomes a recognizable Canadian trait. What a great legacy to leave behind.