Back in the days when posses of cowboys galloped across the duotone television screen, you could always tell the good guys because they wore white hats. That’s only one of the anomalies about Canadian troubadour Stompin’ Tom Connors. He wore a black Stetson, not to side with the bad guys, but because he liked the colour. Besides, he didn’t want to give the impression, which a white hat might have conveyed, that he was sissified or pumped up about himself.
Still, there was plenty of dark in the cantankerous outsider who rambled the country, carrying his 3/4-inch plywood stomping plank, the way other musicians might pack a keyboard into their luggage. And when he performed, usually in a black shirt and jeans stretching up from his pointed black cowboy boots, with the hat planted firmly on his head and a guitar slung over his shoulder, he stomped his left foot to keep the beat and stared straight ahead as though hoping a ride would materialize from over the next hill on the highway.
Most entertainers long for international fame and try to write songs that are universal, but Mr. Connors celebrated the particular and shunned the monolithic American musical bandwagon. He’d been told that he was never going to get anywhere singing songs about backwater places, and he agreed that might be true. But as his bandmate Tim Hus, the cowboy singer, once heard him tell an audience, “When you put them all together, we call it Canada.” His manager Brian Edwards said, “he could relate to anybody whether you were a doctor, a lawyer, or a homeless person with two cents in your pocket.”
Tall and lanky with an aquiline nose and a square jaw, Mr. Connors loved the nooks and hamlets of this country, and the ordinary girls who “are out to bingo” while the boys “are gettin’ stinko” on a Sudbury Saturday Night.
A committed drinker and smoker, Mr. Connors, 77, died of renal failure in his home in the Halton Hills northwest of Toronto on March 6. He hadn’t sought treatment, according to Mr. Edwards, preferring to succumb to mortality rather than submit to the often dubious miracles of medical technology. As he grew weaker in his last few weeks, he made his farewells, helped plan a memorial/fundraiser for the homeless and wrote a final letter to his fans, imploring them to “keep the Maple Leaf flying high” and reminding them that “this great country kept me inspired with its beauty, character, and spirit …”
Musician and songwriter Murray McLauchlan thinks Mr. Connors was loved because he “wrote songs for the simple working people of Canada about the things in life they recognized,” which “no one else was reflecting.” Then there was the music itself. “He was heavily influenced by early Johnny Cash and that 4/4 chugging sound of the Tennessee Three,” said Mr. McLauchlan in an e-mail message. “People loved that because they recognized the sound.” Of course, he had his detractors. “Urbanites and intellectuals mostly,” according to Mr. McLauchlan. People who “appreciated him in an ironic way by lauding him and at the same time laughing at his style and simplistic music.”
The part of the country Mr. Connors called home was Prince Edward Island. “It’s Bud the Spud, from the bright red mud/ Rollin’ down the highway smilin,’” he sang in the song that made his name back in the late 1960s. In fact, like the fictional Anne Shirley, another talismanic figure from PEI, he was born on the mainland, dumped in an orphanage and then sent across the Northumberland Strait to a farm family looking for cheap labour in the potato fields.
That’s where Anne of Green Gables, the novel about a feisty, imaginative girl, diverges from the hardscrabble reality of Mr. Connors’s life. Skinners Pond was no Green Gables; and Cora and Russell Aylward were deficient in the human kindness that permeated the characters of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. Mr. Connors represents the underside of that much beloved coming-of-age story and that perhaps is also part of his appeal – the loner who survives adversity, damaged but upright.