The singer is the voice of the people,
and his song is the soul of the land.
So, singer please stay,
and don't go away,
with so many words left to be said.
For a land without song,
can't stand very long,
when the voice of its people is dead.
Stompin’ Tom Connors, the Popeye-jawed, true-patriot troubadour, died on Wednesday. He leaves behind a legacy as rich as could ever thought be possible for a folk-music composer. The American badass Johnny Cash boasted that he’d been “everywhere, man,” but Connors was his country’s rough-cut bard of song, nonpareil – his Canadian content extraordinary and independent of CRTC stipulations.
It was big news in the summer of 2009 when Canada Post slapped the Bud the Spud singer’s likeness on its 54-cent sticker. Of course Connors, responsible for The Singer (The Voice of the People) and more than 300 other songs, had left his stamp on the landscape well before then.
In his rock and roll chronicle On a Cold Road, the musician, author and sometimes homesick Dave Bidini wrote, “Tom’s voice drew me back across the ocean, and the songs about bobcats and Wilf Carter that I’d once been embarrassed to listen to anchored my identity in a culture where nationhood was everything.”
Bidini’s embarrassment was not uncommon; the canon of Connors was seen by many as hokey and homespun compared to other country-conscious songwriters such as Gordon Lightfoot or Robbie Robertson. Connors was the uncool stubby in world turning Heineken green – a throwback rube to a once unsophisticated country that had grown cosmopolitan. Connors stayed the course though, and his song-of-place material and sing-along historical markings eventually gained back appreciation.
Nowhere was his idolization more vital than in the minds of younger Canadian songwriters. As noted in the landmark book Have Not Been the Same: The Canrock Renaissance, 1985-1995, Bidini and the artful folk-rockers the Rheostatics, partly empowered by Connors’ unwavering home-country boostering, in 1991 released Melville, an album that included Saskatchewan, Northern Wish and a cover of Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The foreword to Have Not Been the Same is a poem by the Tragically Hip singer-songwriter Gord Downie, who wrote, “Sensitivity happens, and the idea is the more it happens the more it happens more.” And so the Rheostatics lead was followed by Downie and others, including Maestro Fresh Wes, the rap star responsible for the cocky maple-blooded declaration, “Because I’m from Canada, don’t think I’m an amateur.”
In a posthumously released letter, Connors wrote that he was passing torch, “to help keep the Maple Leaf flying high, and be the Patriot Canada needs now and in the future.” Connors is gone, but not really at all – the land is strong with song and northern pros, no small credit to him and his dogged heavy lifting.