April 5, 2013

Canada patriot Tom Connors stomps out

By PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch

---- — I was maybe 12 years old when I had my brush with the man who would go on to become one of Canada’s most beloved musical heroes.

Being embarked on my own (short-lived) career as a rock star — wasn’t everybody back then in the wake of the Beatles? — I used to hang around Drouin’s Music Bar plucking electric guitars our band couldn’t afford.

One day, we entered the store to find a lanky, raw-boned guy in a black cowboy hat jawing with Mr. Drouin. He introduced himself as Tom Connors and asked, did we want to buy one of his records? Sure enough there was a stack of 45s on the counter going for a buck apiece or something.

Even though he had a whiff of the town drunk about him, the vinyl disks were for real, and none of us had ever met anyone who had actually cut a record. I can’t remember if I bought one or not — if I did it’s long gone — but the memory sticks with me of the man who would emerge from my hometown of Timmins, Ontario, and become a national superstar.

This is a belated tribute to Stompin’ Tom Connors, who died recently at age 77. He was called Stompin’ because he would pound a piece of plywood with his cowboy boot during his shows, and that become one of this trademarks.

But his real legacy was his almost fanatical patriotism.

It might have been easy to dismiss Tom Connors in his early years as a bit of a relic, with his corny tunes about everyday places in Canada. But the more he wrote about a Sudbury or Saskatoon or Rouyn or Tillsonburg, the more his reputation grew.

One particular song of his might indeed be considered an unofficial national anthem. “The Hockey Song” is a catchy, clever ditty that gets blared from arena PAs from coast to coast to coast, whether its the swanky Bell Centre in Montreal or some beat-up barn in rural Alberta.

Hello out there, we’re on the air, it’s Hockey Night tonight.

Tom Connors hung around Timmins for about a year, recording his songs — including several about the place where he got his start — at the local radio station, which in those days had a full recording studio.

That radio station building, which also housed the newspaper where your scribe got his start, no longer exists. The majestic Art Deco monument was demolished to make a parking lot for cars that no longer come to the desolate downtown.

Just down the street, the Maple Leaf Hotel, where legend has it Connors tried out his tunes in exchange for free beers, fell victim to the same fate not that long ago. Even the fact the tavern was also the launch pad for an underage Eileen — later Shania — Twain didn’t spare this shrine of Canadian country music from the wrecking ball.

Connors was such a patriot that in the late 1970s he returned his Canadian music awards to protest the Americanization of Canadian airwaves. He was upset that local artists who had gone to the States to seek fame and fortune — “border-jumpers,” he called them — would be rewarded at home.

He withdrew from the music scene for years as he lamented the lot of home-grown artists. But he emerged in 1988 with a recording of new tunes, including some patriotic favorites like “Up Canada Way,” followed later by a cross-country tour that established him as a national musical treasure.

Still, he bemoaned the fact that he seemed to be the only one writing songs about the country he so loved. In 2011, he told an interviewer, “Country music today is love stories: I love you, you love me, you left me and I got a heartache. Where are the trucks, the trains, the factories, the fishing boats and the mines?”

The Canada that his songs chronicled has changed — my hometown not the least — but Stompin’ Tom’s legend lives on as perhaps the closest thing this country has had to a Woody Guthrie.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at