Just last week, I was putting together a conference proposal. I originally organized a panel on Canadian cowboy music, taking advantage of the Alberta conference location, with the only two guys who are experts in the field. Then they dropped out and I was trying to incorporate their historical material into my own proposal; what was I going to include? What could I leave out? No matter what direction I took, I kept coming back to the same two central people in Canadian country: Wilf Carter and Stompin’ Tom Connors.
Americans on this site may not know Stompin’ Tom very well, if at all. If anyone is distinctly Canadian, it’s him. Some might scoff at the idea of an essential “Canadianness” (even I do); to be fair, it’s a nebulous concept in these multicultural-policy-kinda times. Still, I challenge you to find anyone to argue against Stompin’ Tom’s Canadianness.
How that Canadianness was manifested in Tom varies. Some might suggest it’s there in his voice: he had got the good ol’boy conversational tone of the uncle you run into at the hardware store or the neighbour who talks to you over the fence while you shovel your walk. Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy once told me that he thought the sound of Canadian music was the everyday voice, someone you could imagine living next door to you and then who suddenly becomes a star: “What I’ve always thought inhabits the Canadian music is the character that is singing…I think in the same way that Canadian hockey players are revered because they’re just a kid from Kingston or Swift Current, there’s some kind of romance in that…that you succeeded and yet you came from very humble, understandable backgrounds.” Stompin’ Tom had that character and that voice – he was no virtuoso, so you felt you could sing along with him (yodelling excepted). The anthemic simplicity of some of his songs helped too. But despite not having an Idolesque voice, he was certainly recognizable. Any hockey fan in Canada knows who’s responsible for this tune:
It’s not fair, though, to limit Stompin’ Tom’s influence to a hockey song typically roared out by drunk fans. Another facet of his Canadianness might be the effort he made to sing about small places right across the country. From “Sudbury Saturday Night” to “Tilsonburg” (ok, not that far apart), he was singing about normal people doing everyday things in places unrecognizable to those outside of Canada. A career killer, normally. But he didn’t care, and was loved all the more for it. He even sang about a wee place called Toronto:
One of Bob Mersereau’s favourite stories about Tom – and possibly one of the best-known about him (though I would offer up the one I always remembered: how he refused to play the Horseshoe’s 60th birthday party because he wasn’t allowed to smoke in the building...is this just a rumour? I’ve never found out for sure) – is how Stompin’ Tom accepted the Dr. Helen Creighton award at the East Coast Music Awards with one condition: that an award in his name be subsequently established, one that honoured the “unspoken heroes” of the music industry. Several are given out every year, to those who are otherwise unrecognized and toil away behind the scenes to make East Coast music what it is.
So he sang like a normal guy, about small towns and regular people, and gave awards to those who are usually ignored. No wonder Canadians like him. Historically overshadowed by American exports, Canadian culture has a tough go in getting support, press, an audience – no wonder we love the guy who doesn’t care about all that and celebrates Canada as it is. Then there he is in a genre further overshadowed by pop music, and in a place that isn’t Toronto – dude, could you be any more marginalized? And so the love grows.
Why do I care? Well, as someone who researches Canadian country music, I should, right? I’m forever championing the underdog, the outsider, the westerner, those who make up the genre...so I feel an affinity for Stompin’ Tom’s attitude. For me, my work and my musical passions are all bound up together, and I can’t separate his relevance from my personal feelings on how he conducted himself. There’s a great article in Queen’s Quarterly by Greg Marquis called “Country Music: The Folk Music of Canada” that questions how far apart the two styles really are up here in the North. The line between the two genres is a shifting one, especially in Canada where we don’t have the Southern US country music history (or identity) and we have a much greater folk music influence in our country songs. In many ways, our folk music is our country music and vice versa. It’s hard to separate the two, particularly when artists like Stompin’ Tom veer easily from one to the other. Some of our greatest country stars – Wilf Carter, Hank Snow, Tom – come from the East Coast, a place one would think is unlikely to produce them. Some of them ended up in Alberta, one province that has obvious American roots, a significant American population, and a history of cowboy-related industry, and divisions between East and West, between folk and country, gradually fell away. Though he was never an Albertan, Stompin’ Tom managed to take the country of his predecessors like Carter and make it relevant to everyone in Canada. A tough job. As far as Canadian country music goes, he was, and will remain, a central figure.
‘Bye, Tom. We hope you found Wilf up there.