I first heard of Stompin’ Tom Connors because, whenever PEI was mentioned, my mother would grin and gamely (if not tunefully) warble a few lines of Bud the Spud. He came to my independent attention during his brief late-1980s comeback when he hitched wagons with kd lang and wrote of how she “jumped around like a ‘rang-ee-tang.” My teenaged friends and I would listen and laugh at him. As I’m afraid many people who hoist a brew and belch along to “the good ol’ hockey game” still do.
It was a year or two more before I got to know his chronicles of work and social life such as Tillsonburg, Big Joe Mufferaw, The Bridge Came Tumbling Down and, of course, Sudbury Saturday Night, and realized how much more there was to Connors – the closest Canada may get to a Woody Guthrie, a Robbie Burns, a musical heir to Robert Service.
These are the folk artists who in common language, what you could even call doggerel, turn the mundane and overlooked and unfair into myth and anthem. Their work can come off as kitsch; some of it may be.
But it’s also an indelible record of life as it was lived and felt then and there. They are, generally, tough sons of bitches. Connors was an abused and abandoned child, a runaway who dug graves and picked tobacco and hung out in saloons before he remade himself as a troubadour.
Most mainstream Canadian media patronized him as a novelty singer. Novelty songs can do a lot in pop – subvert self-seriousness and sometimes (for example, in the case of hip-hop and Rapper’s Delight) introduce new genres. But it’s also how you class things as dismissible and disposable.
With his weaknesses for goofy rhymes, patriotic platitudes and the “Stompin’” persona itself, Connors unfortunately gave aid and comfort to some of the condescension with which he was treated. Until he wouldn’t any more.
Obituaries this week speak admiringly of his withdrawal in disgust from the unsupportive, branch-plant Canadian music industry at the height of his fame in 1979, but at the time people looked at it as if he were nuts.
A friend reminded me of a song by Fred Eaglesmith – maybe the most similarly cussed, prolific and rangy Canadian songwriter left after Connors – that asks where everyone eulogizing Johnny Cash in the 2000s had been in 1989: “His career was fadin’ and his shows weren’t sellin’/ You were listenin’ to heavy metal/ But you sure do like Johnny Cash now.” As recently as 2006, the CBC abruptly refused to air a special they’d taped with Connors. But we sure do like Stompin’ Tom now.
The Canada that Tom Connors sang about was the real Canada of his heyday, and his nationalism not exclusionary – his label, Boot Records, released albums by first-nations artists and reggae groups. But his main subject was a rural, regional, resource-based Canada. Today it’s a transformed country, which sure could use its own large-hearted, peripatetic singer to bring us the news from Rexdale strip malls and Fort McMurray oil fields alike with a bouncy hook. But I doubt our supposedly more sophisticated media now would receive him or her with even the stingy dignity Stompin’ Tom was accorded.
As they say, we get the leaders we deserve. Then again, with novelty singers, sometimes we get better.
Carl Wilson is a Globe and Mail editor and author of Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.