Sir Sandford Fleming once referred to Peterborough as “rather a poor little place.” Stompin’ Tom Connors clearly disagreed, and it was his wish to have a memorial service in this cottage-belt city.
Billed as a “celebration of life,” the tribute took place at the Peterborough Memorial Centre, where more than 3,000 fans and well-wishers assembled for a party and to pay respect. “He was the voice for people who aren’t necessarily articulate,” said Sylvia Tyson, backstage before the warm, upbeat ceremony. “He had a connection with his audience, because he sang for them, not at them.”
After a version of O Canada, hatless RCMP pallbearers brought out the coffin of the iconic Bud the Spud singer, accompanied by a fiddled waltz. The widow of Mr. Connors placed a black hat upon the flag-draped coffin. A tobacco-sunburst Gibson acoustic guitar was set nearby, as was a plain plank of wood – a defenseless board upon which the country singer’s black boot kept a hard, fast beat.
Outside the arena, a party atmosphere had prevailed, with a roving bagpiper and occasional pockets of tailgating, complete with the blaring of Mr. Connors’s Tillsonburg.
Once the doors were open, the working-class well-wishers filed in from the cold, taking to general admission seats casually at the home of the Peterborough Petes hockey team.
“When we first heard his music, we laughed,” said John Shea, a fan who had travelled from Iroquois Falls, Ont., near Timmins, where the iconic songster began his career. “But then we realized he was singing about us.”
The first performer in the arena was British Columbian Tim Hus, who opened concerts for Mr. Connors on his last tour. Fittingly, he performed Man With the Black Hat, a melodious biography. The chorus went: “With the sawdust flying, oh my Lord / He stomps his boot on the stomping board / He sings about Canada, he sings it like that / And he always wears a black cowboy hat.”
East Coasters J.P. Cormier and Dave Gunning followed with Little Wawa and Gumboot Cloggeroo.
Former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson then offered a moving recollection, noting that the New Brunswick-born singer was born with nothing and was given nothing, but “gave us all so much.”
What he gave was a sense of nation and collective culture. His songs were relatable; girls playing bingo and men getting stinko were not exclusive to Sudbury’s Saturday nights.
Ms. Clarkson then read words from Senator Roméo Dallaire, who had prepared a letter for the occasion. During the darkest hours in Rwanda, the former lieutenant-general had played a tape of Mr. Connors’s material, including The Blue Berets. The songs, he wrote, provided a sense of comfort and confidence that helped the Canadian peacekeepers weather the heaviest of barrages.
A video of The Blue Berets was shown on the screens on each side of the stage.
Before a version of Farewell to Nova Scotia (a traditional, favoured by Mr. Connors), Ms. Tyson said of the gruff-voiced singer that he was a man of strong opinion, and that what he wrote in song was a product of where he’d been and what he’d done. “I think he’s here,” she said. Ms. Tyson was accompanied with harmony vocals from the Juno-nominated country artist Cindy Church.
The evening, hosted by Mr. Connors’s long-time promoter Brian Edwards, continued with a thoughtful testimony from former EMI Canada president Deane Cameron, who had brought the self-exiled singer out of retirement in 1989. “He was a patriot, a troubadour, a poet laureate for the everyday Canadian,” said Mr. Cameron.
Before performing the hoedown special Bridge Came Tumbling Down, author-musician Dave Bidini spoke of one of his meetings with Mr. Connors. After a Massey Hall concert, the singer had a warm reunion with the younger musician, who was surprised that a hero of his had such a common touch. “He would reach out to you, take you close and make you feel like what you were doing was the right thing.”
The party went on past press time, something which likely would have pleased the hard-living subject of the proud and communal occasion.