Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Stompin' Tom Connors: An Appreciation

When Stompin' Tom Connors died last Wednesday at the age of 77, just about every Canadian could quote one of his songs. That reward alone was enough for Connors whose final statement, issued March 7, 2013, thanked the fans not just for his success but also for his identity. "I want all my fans, past, present, or future, to know that without you, there would have not been any Stompin' Tom." Ironically, in the first volume of his autobiography published in 1995, Connors states, "I didn't set out to create a special image. It was created for me, partially by the media. And, to be honest, I have sometimes enjoyed playing along."

Image aside, Connors had a unique ability to write songs about ordinary people and make them extraordinary. He wrote about miners, bus drivers, tobacco pickers and hockey Moms. He wrote about small town Canada as if he was born in the very city or town he sang about, ("Sudbury Saturday Night") or he could express in no uncertain terms the pain of picking tobacco ("Tillsonburg"), a job he actually held for a couple weeks when he was a teenager. For a musical map of Stompin Tom, click here.

Connors was also a proud Canadian and he wrote dozens of songs about his love for his country, such as "Unity" ("Unity for you means unity for me/Unity for all means all for unity"). It was a simple message but all of his songs were simple. That's not only what made them charming, but what also made them accessible for young and old. I discovered him when I was around 12 years-of-age and immediately liked him. His music was catchy and his look was cool, but that piece of plywood under his cowboy boots was the best thing about his unique act. Oddly, his studio recordings don't have that patented stomp.

In fact, he had little tolerance for people who weren't loyal to Canada. On the liner notes to Believe In Your Country (Capitol, 1992) he boldly states: "If you don't believe your country should come before yourself, you can better serve your country by living somewhere else." As mean as that sounds, Connors wore his patriotism as a badge of honour on everything he did, particularly in his later work. I'm not entirely convinced that it alienated some of his fans, but I do think his fans forgave such indulgences because of his sincerity.

As a songwriter Connors was remarkably clever with lyrics and their delivery. Consider the chorus of "To It And At It":

He was at it and to it and to it and at it

You gotta tune your attitude in

If ya don't get at it when ya get to it

You won't get to it to get at it again

You won't get to it to get at it again

It's a good example of his alliteration, but also his keen sense of rhythm. Another shining example from one of my personal favourites, "The Consumer":

The Consumer they call us

We always get a fair shake

We buy a fridge that doesn't freeze and a stove that doesn't bake

We can't buy nothing lasting unless we get that raise in pay

And they'd only charge us more for the things that cost less today

The Consumer they call us

We're fussy what we eat

We look at the price of T-bone steak and buy hamburg meat

And all those fancy packages we take down from the shelf

They're always full of good fresh air when they're full of nothing else

Oh yes we are the people running in the race

Buying up the bargains in the ol' marketplace

Another sale on something, we'll buy it while it's hot

Save a lot of money spending money we don't got

We save a lot of money spending money we don't got.

This isn't High Art by any stretch but it works because of its broad appeal. That song was used for the debut of Marketplace, a consumer affairs program on CBC Television in 1972.

Connors had a great sense of what people wanted to hear: about themselves and their lives. He also had a facility for colloquial language on "Sudbury Saturday Night" ("The girls are out to bingo and the boys are gettin' stinko/And we think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday night"). (Inco was the name of the nickel company that employed most of the town's population.) Connors had a unique way of celebrating the simple pleasures of the beer-drinking workng class, which was also a key part of his appeal. But he also understood the leisure class. In "The Bug Song," for instance, he tells the story of every cottager's nightmare on a warm summer evening. As music scholar Nicholas Jennings once wrote, "Entertaining and instructive, [Tom] reminds us of familiar characters and events from our past while rescuing from obscurity some that never showed up on our collective radar screen in the first place. That takes genius."

Stompin' Tom Connors wrote over 300 songs. His first album The Northland's Own Tom Connors (Rebel, 1967) appeared in 1967, after many years of performing in small town drinking establishments, but it featured his first Canadian hit, "Sudbury Saturday Night." I qualify it as a 'Canadian' hit because Connors never played in the United States. He made his living in the country of his birth using all of his intuitive skills to create a unique sound and a huge inventory of stories to share. Fortunately most of his recordings are available on iTunes.

Looking at the photos in the first volume of his autobiography, Stompin' Tom: Before the Fame (Penguin, 1996), I can't help but see an old soul, even at the age of 19 just as he was starting out in the music business with beer, cigarettes and a guitar constantly in tow. As a colleague of mine stated the day he died, "He was a combination of Hank Williams and Pete Seeger." I agree. He had the pathos of Williams and the clarity of Seeger. The fact that people could recite his songs easily at a hockey game, or around a campfire, says a lot about the man, the musician and the significance of his contribution to Canada's identity, High Art indeed.

- John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Winds Orchestra.

1 comment:

  1. Very nicely said John. The things I appreciate the most about Tom's music are multifold: his keen selection of detail in songs like the aforementioned "The Consumer" and "The Snowmobile Song," his propensity for cleverly assembling historical facts in tunes such as "The Bridge Came Tumblin' Down" and "The Martin Hartwell Story," his uncanny knack for capturing time and place in such classics as "Tillsonburg" and "Sudbury Saturday Night," and memorable country-spanning melodies like "The Ketchup Song and "Bud The Spud." Make no mistake about it, he was versatile and creative, and there was true genius in what he did: High Art indeed. I saw him at Lulu's roadhouse in Kitchener in 1998. He was 62 at the time, and lively and vigorous. He played for two hours and made me a fan for life.