In Before the Fame, the first volume of his autobiography, Stompin' Tom Connors recalls how a group of teachers came into the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins one night while he was playing. They had just come home from an exchange program in Europe and were amazed by the Canadian material in Connors's show. They told him how at parties overseas they were often asked to sing songs from home. But, while teachers from other countries had no problem doing this, the Canadians could only come up with the national anthem or an American tune. They felt they had no national songs to compare with the Americans, Germans or French.
In the same vein, a friend, recently back from a teaching stint in Korea, recalled that whenever Canadian teachers got together someone inevitably would sing, or put on, a song by Stompin' Tom. This enhanced the mood and reminded the sojourners of home.
For both sets of teachers, Connors's songs became something they could present to others and say, "This is Canadian." In his book, Connors says it was those teachers that made him realize his music might have a special significance for Canada.
Asked to elaborate, Connors, a recipient last week of a Governor-General's Performing Arts Award, said: "On every album I've put out, I've put diverse Canadian songs on it. They're not provincial albums, my albums are national albums. There'll be a song about Saskatchewan and Vancouver and Nova Scotia on there. I guess you could say that Stompin' Tom connects the nation through his albums and if I've accomplished that I'm proud."
Sudbury, Tuktoyaktuk, Wawa, Rouyn, Reesor Crossing, Tignish, Renfrew Valley, Skinner's Pond and Reversing Falls -- these are just a few of the locales Connors has written about. Place names are an integral part of a cultural geography and the practice of place-naming in songs can evoke national pride and a sense of identity.
Think, for instance, about Woody Guthrie's U.S. classic This Land is Your Land. Ian Tyson's version changed the place references so the song would be meaningful to Canadians. Thus "California to the New York Island" became "Buena Vista to the Vancouver Island."
The entire Connors canon is filled with Canadiana. Connors's first original album, Northland's Zone (1967), has six songs that mention specific towns or cities in their title ( Movin' on to Rouyn, Algoma Central No. 69, Streets of Toronto, The Peterborough Postman, Sudbury Saturday Night and Little Wawa).
Five more titles invoke a Canadian place by using northern images ( Northern Gentleman, Goin' Back Up North); Canadian symbolism ( Emily the Maple Leaf, The Flying C.P.R); or regional names ( The Maritime Waltz). In fact, out of the 16 songs on the album, only five titles do not invoke Canada specifically.
Likewise, on the first compilation of the most popular Stompin' Tom songs, A Proud Canadian (1990), six of the 20 songs name Canadian places in the title and 18 of them either name or mention a famous Canadian personality, icon or symbol (Martin Hartwell, k.d. lang, the Blue Nose, the fleur-de-lis, etc.). Popular American music has always made use of place-naming. Examples include famous cities like Nashville (found in any number of country songs); streets like Santa Monica Boulevard (Sheryl Crow); pop-culture iconography (Paul Simon's Graceland); and obscure towns such as Waylon Jennings's Luckenbach, Texas.
Canadian music, on the other hand, has a less robust naming tradition. In fact, popular Canadian music does more American naming than Canadian. According to Connors though, that doesn't mean we're any less nationalistic: "It's not that Canadians aren't proud of their country. We pretend that we're not patriotic but I think most of us just have a different way of expressing our patriotism. We're too close to the States and we hear them brag so much that we can't hear our own braggin'. I think one reason all these people buy my records is because I'm not afraid to express my patriotism."
A survey of Canadian country-music radio stations conducted in the eighties found that the majority of place-naming songs sung by Canadians named American places. It concluded that the lyrics of these songs "scarcely contributed to the building of a Canadian self image" and did nothing for the cause of cultural nationalism.
The trend is changing thanks to commercially successful bands like the Tragically Hip and the Rheostatics. The Hip have made a career of including Canadiana in their songs and place names like Sault Ste. Marie (from Born in the Water) and Bobcaygeon appear throughout their discography. Likewise, the Rheostatics have a song titled Saskatchewan and mention New Brunswick's Hammond River in Cephallus Worms/Uncle Henry.
Still, Canadian songwriters have often been pressured by their record labels to make their music more appealing to the lucrative American market, often by changing Canadian place names to American names. This is a point that Connors revisits time and time again in Stompin' Tom and The Connors Tone, the second instalment of his autobiography. He repeatedly cites the inability of artists writing identifiably Canadian songs to succeed in this country as one of the major shortcomings of the Canadian music industry. This is clearly an emotional subject for Connors.
"When people ask my advice about how to make it in the music business I ask them, 'Do you have a love for the people you are writing about or do you just want to get played on the radio? If so, then do what the industry tells you to do and go to Nashville or New York or L.A. If not, then write for the people so they will hear about themselves.' "
In his book Singin' About Us, Bob Davis says Canadians have developed an inferiority complex by being indoctrinated with American place names, histories, heroes, dreams, myths and legends.
This is a theme that Connors also tackles in his song No Canadian Dream: "Canadian Radio, boy is it grand/ when you want to hear stories from some other land/ they teach us to long for those far away scenes/ where there's no Canadian dream."
Davis argues it's important for a nation to hear something as simple as their own place names in songs. This binds a people together and makes them realize they have something worth writing about. It also increases the geographical and cultural awareness of the nation.
Connors agrees: "We view our jobs, our towns and our lives as drab until we hear someone sing about them. I like to make people's towns and work and their country come alive for them. When I'm on stage I like to see the looks on peoples' faces when I mention their towns -- wow!"
When he sings "Margo's got the cargo b'ye and Reggie's got the rig," (from Margo's Cargo), he does so in a Newfoundland accent and uses that region's vernacular to enhance the sense of place in the song. Similarly he sometimes sings in French ( The Canadian Lumber Jack, Fleur De Lis) to emphasize the bilingual nature of Canada. Even his newest album, Move Along with Stompin' Tom, keeps up the tradition of glorifying the diversity of Canada and its people. Songs like The Confederation Bridge, Long Gone to the Yukon and Sasquatch Song present regional and national culture side by side.
By singing about home, Connors brings Canadian history alive and ensures that the places he sings about will be remembered. After all, a place is just a plot of land until it is enriched with cultural meaning.
Asked, in closing, if he thinks his songs evoke a sense of patriotism in Canadians, his response is classic Stompin' Tom: "If they don't they damn well should!" Brent Hagerman is a writer and musician who researched Connors's music for his Masters in Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University.