Rideau Hall prepares for Stompin'

Legendary Tom Connors, seven others awarded Governor General's arts prizes.
Paul Gessell
The Ottawa Citizen

Ditch the champagne and fetch the beer: Bud the Spud is headin' to Rideau Hall and it's bound to be a hand-clappin', foot-stompin' Sudbury Saturday Night. Their excellencies, being ever so gracious, will undoubtedly welcome Stompin' Tom Connors to their vice-regal salons of abstract art and philosophical debate.

But will the bejewelled Adrienne Clarkson and the tuxedoed John Ralston Saul allow Connors to place his square of plywood on the floor of the ballroom, just below the portrait of the Queen, so he can stomp and strum his way through a rendition of The Peterborough Postman?

Canada's quintessential small-town country singer has just been named one of six recipients of this year's Governor General's Performing Arts Awards, Canada's most glamorous honour for lifetime achievement by singers, actors, dancers, musicians and other entertainers.

The pride of Skinner's Pond, P.E.I., and composer of such tavern hits as Bud the Spud, Movin' On to Rouyn, Little Wawa and The Hockey Song, Connors will join such luminaries as film star Donald Sutherland and opera singer Teresa Stratas in receiving the annual awards -- and a $15,000 cheque -- Nov. 3 at the Governor General's residence.

A National Arts Centre gala honouring the recipients is held the next night and broadcast later on CBC and Radio-Canada. The three other winners are Janette Bertrand, a Montreal broadcaster, director and actor; Fernand Nault, a Montreal choreographer long associated with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens; and Christopher Newton, artistic director of the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Recipients of two other awards were, as always, announced at the same time during news conferences yesterday in Toronto and Montreal: Cirque du Soleil, the circus troupe that has become one of Canada's most famous exports, will receive the National Arts Centre Award for exceptional achievement in the past year; and philanthropist Walter Carsen, long associated with Toronto's National Ballet of Canada, will receive the Ramon Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism.

Connors is a down-home, flag-waving patriot who was born in Saint John, N.B. in 1936 but soon orphaned and later adopted by a P.E.I. family that, according to his autobiography, abused him. At 15, Connors started travelling the country, performing literally for nickels and dimes at times in country taverns and hockey rinks. In his early days, he was a regular at such Ottawa Valley watering holes as the Kemptville Hotel and Carleton Place's Mississippi Hotel and across northern Ontario, especially in Timmins. Eventually, he developed a large fan base, even in big-city, downtown Toronto.

Connors's songs are about truck drivers, farmers and uniquely Canadian small town characters and are always meant to be accompanied, grumpy bar owners notwithstanding, by rhythmically stompin' his foot on a small square of plywood.

The music has been popular among the masses, but initially, at least, not among radio stations, which seemed reluctant for many years to give Connors much airtime because of his corny lyrics and unpolished sound. Connors wasn't Nashville enough for the music industry. And the industry was not Canadian enough for Connors. Over the years, Connors developed a reputation for being mercurial, unpredictable and cantankerous, with his frequent high-volume criticisms of the music industry, the news media and the establishment in general. But he could also be humble, generous and would never forget a true friend, like Lorraine Lemay, who used to book him regularly into Ottawa Valley bars early in his career and was rewarded by being cited in Connors's Valley anthem, Mufferaw Joe, as "the little gal from Kemptville."

The six recipients of the Governor General's Awards are picked by peer juries in the categories of theatre, dance, classical music and opera, popular music, film and broadcasting. A winner from each category is not necessarily picked each year so as to allow, for example, mtwo winners from another category. With Montreal and Toronto being the country's two main centres for the performing arts, recipients are often from those two cities.

The awards highlight the bicultural nature of Canada: Recipients who are household names in English or French Canada are often unknown in the other half of the country.

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