Stompin' Tom Connors

Charles Thomas (Stompin’ Tom) Connors, OC, singer, songwriter, guitarist, fiddler (born 9 February 1936 in Saint John, NB; died 6 March 2013 in Ballinafad, ON). One of the most iconic figures in Canadian music, Stompin’ Tom Connors was a working-class, salt-of-the-earth troubadour and perhaps the most overtly nationalist songwriter that Canada has ever produced. His traditional country songs about Canadian people and places — such as “Bud the Spud,” “Sudbury Saturday Night,” and “Big Joe Mufferaw” — were humorous, patriotic and widely popular, and reflected his extensive travels throughout the country. He was a passionate activist for Canadian music and culture, going so far as to return six Juno Awards in protest of what he saw as the organization’s favouring of expatriate Canadians over those with only domestic success. He received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the East Coast Music Awards, the Toronto Musician’s Union and SOCAN, and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Early Years

Tom Connors had as hard a childhood as one could have, experiencing poverty, homelessness, hunger, and the rigours of the child welfare system. In his very early childhood he and his mother begged on the streets of New Brunswick, and when she was jailed, the young Tom was incarcerated with her. Eventually he was placed in an orphanage and foster care before being adopted by a family in Skinners Pond, Prince Edward Island.

Connors wrote his first song, “Reversing Falls Darling,” at age 11. At 15 he began playing the guitar. The country music of Wilf Carter and Hank Snow had a profound influence on him and his music. He left his adopted home at age 15 and hitchhiked his way across Canada, working for 13 years at various jobs and occasionally spending a night in jail for vagrancy. It was this period, during which he saw a great deal of the country and experienced the seamy side of life, which informed his musical persona as a rough-hewn, sincere, grassroots songwriter.

Early Career

Connors began singing professionally in 1964 at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ontario. He initially performed in exchange for a beer but remained there for 14 months, eventually earning $35 per week. He was also heard locally on CKGB radio. In the absence of amplification at the Maple Leaf and other bars where he performed in Ontario, Connors pounded the floor with his booted foot to establish the rhythm of his songs (partly sung and partly recited) above the noise of the crowd. He was first referred to as “Stompin’ Tom” when he was introduced before a performance at the King George Tavern in Peterborough, Ontario on Centennial Day, 1 July 1967. To avoid damaging the stages, he would place a sheet of plywood under his boot. This “stompin’ board” became as much part of his image as did the black Stetson hat he habitually wore.

Connors sang with a piercing edge that reflected the grittiness of life on the road and his hard-won life experience. He recorded his first single, “Carolyne,” in 1965 and distributed this and other early recordings (for the Rebel label) while touring in Northern Ontario. In 1969 he moved to Toronto and began recording for Dominion. His first single, “Bud the Spud” (1969), was a Top 30 hit on the Canadian country chart. It was followed by the national hits “Big Joe Mufferaw” and “Ketchup Song,” which both reached No. 1 on the chart in 1970, and “Luke’s Guitar,” which peaked at No. 2. In 1971, Connors established the independent Boot Records label with his manager, Jury Krytiuk, and released “The Bridge Came Tumbling Down” (1971), “Moon-Man Newfie” (1972) and “The Bug Song” (1972), which reached No. 2, No. 1, and No. 9 on the Canadian Country chart respectively. Other well-known early Connors songs include “Sudbury Saturday Night” (1967) and “To It and At It” (1974).

1970s

From the early 1970s on, Connors took a no-holds-barred attitude to his championing of Canadian content. Seen by many in the industry as a mere novelty act, his songs were virtually ignored by commercial radio (he titled his 1975 album The Unpopular Stompin’ Tom Connors), and his record sales were limited (Bud the Spud and Other Favourites was released in 1969 but wasn’t certified gold until 1998). His successes came mainly on country and university radio stations. However, he received the Juno Award in 1971 for best male country singer and became something of a cult figure, due in large part to his popularity as a live performer (he toured exhaustively throughout Canada, and his record-setting 25-night run at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern became legendary).

He toured with his heroes Wilf Carter and Hank Snow, and his increasing popularity led to two films: This Is Stompin’ Tom (1972) and Across This Land with Stompin’ Tom Connors (1973). His marriage to Lena Welsh was broadcast live on the CBC Television program “Elwood Glover’s Luncheon Date” on 2 November 1973, and from 1974–75 he starred in his own CBC TV program, “Stompin’ Tom’s Canada.” The CBC TV program “Marketplace” featured his “The Consumer” as its theme song for several seasons.

Boot Records released 12 studio albums by Connors and six compilations during the 1970s, including the five-volume sets, Stompin’ Tom Sings 60 Old Time Favourites (1972) and Stompin’ Tom Sings 60 More Old Time Favourites (1976).

1978 Boycott - 1988 Comeback

Connors won the Juno Award for best male country singer every year from 1971–75, and his LP To It and At It (1972) received a Juno in 1974 for Country Album of the Year. In 1978, however, he returned the awards in protest of Junos given to expatriate Canadians. He subsequently retired and launched a personal, one-year boycott of radio and other media to protest their lack of support for identifiably Canadian material.

In 1986, Rheostatics frontman Dave Bidini and a group of young Toronto musicians crashed Connors’s 50th birthday party in Ballinafad, Ontario, and presented him with a petition urging him to come out of retirement. Record label interest in Connors was somewhat renewed when Bidini’s article recounting the experience was published in Toronto’s Nerve magazine in October 1986.

Connors did not return to performance until 1988, when he released Fiddle and Song. The album, which introduced the fiddle style he had developed during his retirement, included the popular “Canada Day, Up Canada Way,” “Lady KD Lang” (see k.d. lang), and “I Am the Wind.” It was followed in 1990 by a triumphant 70-city tour of Canada, culminating in two concerts at Massey Hall. That year also saw the release of the greatest hits compilation, A Proud Canadian (1990), which was the first of Connors’s albums to go gold, and eventually platinum in Canada. Capitol Records also reissued many of Connors’s earlier albums and in 1991 released a new recording, More of the Stompin’ Tom Phenomenon.

Successful 1990s-2000s

By the 1990s, Connors’s flag-waving emphasis on Canada’s history, natural beauty, and unique character had come into vogue and brought him broader support. At a time when Canadian cultural values were perceived to be under growing threat from the US, the unmistakably Canadian topics of his songs helped to forge a nationalist song style. Writing in the Canadian Folk Music Journal in 1994, William Echard pointed out that Connors was “a major force in challenging the assumption that Canadian themes are less worthy than American or blandly ‘universal’ ones.”

In 1992, his “The Hockey Song” was played during an Ottawa Senators hockey game, and quickly became an anthem for National Hockey League games. His albums during this period included Believe in Your Country (1992), Dr. Stompin’ Tom...Eh? (1993), Long Gone to the Yukon (1995), Move Along with Stompin’ Tom (1999), and An Ode for the Road (2002). Several of his new songs commemorated significant Canadian events, including “Confederation Bridge” (the building of the PEI-mainland link), “The Blue Berets” (UN peacekeeper assignments) and “Believe in Your Country” (Canada’s 125th anniversary).

Another greatest hits compilation, 25 of the Best Stompin’ Tom Souvenirs, was released in 1998 and went platinum in Canada. Two separate best-selling autobiographies were published: Stompin’ Tom: Before the Fame (1995) and The Legend Continues: Stompin’ Tom and the Connors Tone (2000).

In 2005, the relationship between Connors and the CBC was damaged when the broadcaster declined to air a live concert film that Connors had produced at his own expense, on the grounds that the CBC was moving away from music and variety programming. CTV stepped into the breach and broadcast “Stompin’ Tom in Live Concert.” The DVD went on to sell more than 20,000 copies.

A stage show, The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom, written by David Scott and starring Randy Hughson as Connors, premiered in 2006 at Ontario’s Blyth Festival. It was later revived in Charlottetown and in Gananoque, ON. In his later years Connors continued to record and perform in Canada, including at Edmonton’s Klondike Days in 2004, Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place in 2009, and throughout Western Canada in 2010. Over the years, he auctioned off many of his “stompin’ boards” and donated the proceeds to charity. One board brought in $15,000 for a program that helped the homeless and mentally ill in Orillia, Ontario in 2011. He released his final album, Stompin’ Tom and The Roads of Life, in 2012.

Songwriting

A prolific and intensely patriotic writer, Connors composed more than 500 songs, many based on actual events and people (e.g., “Big Joe Mufferaw” references the legendary lumberjack Jos Montferrand), and others that honoured the locales in which he had performed (e.g., “Tillsonburg”). In this he continued a long folk tradition. He showed an affinity for topical and novelty songs and especially for country elements. In 2011, he told the Winnipeg Free Press that he wrote “traditional country music.”

His best-known songs have been covered by a number of notable artists, including Corb Lund (“The Hockey Song”) and Kim Mitchell (“Sudbury Saturday Night”). SOCAN deemed Connors the “unofficial Canadian poet laureate” and called his songs “virtual national anthems.” The words and music to 125 Connors songs were published in Stompin’ Tom: Story & Song in 1975. In 2005, Crown-Vetch Music published a second songbook, 250 Songs by Stompin’ Tom Connors.

Honours and Awards

In 1993, Connors was to be inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, but declined the honour. He accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award from the East Coast Music Awards on the condition that an award was created to honour those who made a long-term contribution to the East Coast music industry and paved the way for other East Coast artists. The Stompin’ Tom Award was established in 1996, and that year Connors was named an Officer of the Order of Canada.

He was a recipient of a SOCAN National Achievement Award in 1999, as well as the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 2000. In 2009, he received a SOCAN Lifetime Achievement Award and was the subject of a postage stamp issued in Canada Post’s Canadian Recording Artist series. The East Coast Music Awards honoured him on multiple occasions. Stompin’ Tom Road in Skinners Pond, PEI is named for him, and the Toronto Musicians’ Union gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. He also received honorary degrees from St. Thomas University, the University of Toronto, and the University of Prince Edward Island.

Legacy

A hard drinker and heavy smoker, Connors died of kidney failure at the age of 77 on 6 March 2013. The National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa lowered its flag to half-mast in tribute to Connors’s contribution to the artistic life of the country. On 7 March, New Democrat MPs paid tribute to Connors by performing “Bud the Spud” in the foyer of the House of Commons. A memorial service was held at the Peterborough Memorial Centre in Peterborough, the birthplace of his nickname, on 13 March 2013.

Connors’s unrelenting patriotism earned him widespread respect from people in all walks of life. Following his death, the tributes poured in. Peter Herrndorf of the NAC said that “Stompin’ Tom Connors loved Canada and wrote about the beauty he saw in the Canadian people and the landscape. When he composed ‘The Hockey Song’ it became known as Canada’s second national anthem.” According to Liberal MP Bob Rae, “Tom was a wonderful voice for Canada, and his music brought cheer to the lives of so many. He was a true patriot and embodied the very best of what it means to be a Canadian.”

Musician and author Dave Bidini said, “Stompin’ Tom Connors changed my life. I owe him a great, great debt. We all do, as proud Canadians. We won’t see his like again.” Singer-songwriter Corb Lund commented, “Artistry is doing exactly what you want to do in the face of all kinds of challenges and not letting your vision be diluted. He’s 1,000 per cent an artist that way. He did his own thing start to finish, front to back.”

Awards

Top Country Singer Male, Juno Awards (1971)

Male Country Singer of the Year, Juno Awards (1972 & 1973)

Country Male Vocalist of the Year, Juno Awards (1974 & 1975)

Country Album of the Year (To It and At It), Juno Awards (1974)

Honorary Degree, St. Thomas University (1993)

Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award, East Coast Music Awards (1993)

Officer, Order of Canada (1996)

SOCAN National Achievement Award (1999)

Honorary Degree, University of Toronto (2000)

Governor General’s Performing Arts Award (2000)

Honorary Degree, University of Prince Edward Island (2002)

SOCAN Lifetime Achievement Award (2009)

Toronto Musicians’ Union Lifetime Achievement Award (2011)

East Coast Music Awards (various)

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.