THESE BOOTS... STOMPIN' TOM, MAN OF MYSTERY, MAN OF SONG
By Dave Bidini
Nerve, No. 29, Oct. 1986
Going down Highway 16 Johnny Crackle in the back seat of a 1962 Ford plays and sings sad songs riding ten years ago to a neon hamburger. Here I am, thought Johnny, and all I can worry about is mustard and relish."
Matt Cohen--'Johnny Crackle Sings'
Chew on this, hipsters: If you're lucky, your car will break down in the wilderness, you'll use the hayseed's community hall to phone a tow truck, and you'll hear a chorus of 'Squid Jiggin' Grounds' just as you're leaving. But wait: You want Skinny Puppy! You want Max Webster! You want Aldo Nova! Fine. But in this young country where popular music is dictated by businessmen with bad chemicals in their heads, there is a musical heritage that binds us no matter who is at the top of the charts. Even though it may seem as faraway and buried as the song sheets thal sit in your grandmother's basement, it is here and we must try to learn it.
Sure we're repelled, because each year it seems as if the JUNOs are handing some damned award to Rompin' Ronnie Hawkins. This tokenism makes me sick too, but we must overcome.
Don't lie to me: You know just as well as I do that in 20 years your Skinny PUPPY records will be gatherint dust on the shelf and some kid will come over and ask: Whatever happened to them? Like Hank Snow and Stan Rogers, today's Canadian bands will have split before we have a chance to properly herald their music; whether we admit it or not, we never show enough initiative to put them over the hump. We believe in the American process of starmaking: Wedon't make or break them, but we buy them. Stompin' Tom Connors, on the other hand, has alimys championed a different ethic, one that seems almost ludicrous to those who have been weaned on the media's nipple. Connors, through his incredible, 28 album career, thought that Canadians-yeah, you-could do abnost anything if they tried, perhaps even more than those damned Yankees. He believed so fiercely in this ethic that he stmpped his guitar on his back, rode the rails from East to West, and touched every comer of the nation until he became this country's biggest star. That's right-the biggest. Then he quit. You want to talk about heritage, you talk to Stompin' Tom Connors. Hell, no one gives him awards.
Every day, at least three callers ask the lady who sits at the front desk of Boot Records whether Stompin' Tom win ever perform again. "I have to tell them: Stompin' Tom Connors is retired. He no longer gives interviews. I had people from Lions Clubs call me and try to book him for appearances. It gets a little tough breaking their hearts all the time." Many of us have vivid memories of Stoinpin' Tom; a lot of us have never heard of Stompin' Tom; some of us don't even care, but it doesn't matter. Unlike countless other musicians and groups, Stompin' Tom has maintained a powerful presense in our minds, even though he hasn't stepped on stage in nine years.
Tom left his mark in many places. He was named the Goodwill Ambassador to PEI; he got married on Elwood Glover's "Luncheon Date"; he made a classic feature film about one of his tours; he wrote 'Bud the Spud', 'Algoma Central 69', and the theme to 'Marketplace'; he sold-out the Horseshoe Tavern on a record amount of occasions; and he hosted his own television series, Stompin' Tom's Canada. Maybe we remember him just because we studied the words to 'Sudbury Saturday Night' in our Grade 9 history texts. Maybe it's our Canadian guilt complex, trying to recoup something we indirectly let go.
In any case, Tom's lingering impact is just now being gauged. Last winter, Peter Gzowski of Morningside pleaded with his listeners to submit any information regarding Tom's whereabouts. He came up empty, but he proved that the popular media, which had once chastised Tom for his goofy Canadian persona, was willing to go out on a limb to find him. Since Tom walked into self-imposed exile in 1978, campus radio stations have recharted his records and First Choice has added his film to their schedule. Everywhere I turn, someone has a story about Tom. So far, I've been told: Stompin' Tom committed suicide and is buried in a Skinners' Pond graveyard; Stompin' Tom is living on a trailer park in Burlington where he performs only for his friends; and Stompin' Tom is living up North as a hermit: He hates talking to people.
All this makes for great folklore, but it doesn't solve the mystery, Stompin' Tom's out there and someone has to find him.
"I'm 41 years old today with a message for the young:
This country has a song to sing and that song must be sung.
Do a deed that will make your country great as a favour to yourself,
And there won't be no greener grass in a pasture somewhere else."
'Ripped Off Winkle'
Stompin' Tom Connors
February 16, 1986: Greetings from this Great Highway, where the snow covered pavement yawns westward, pointing to a place where legends hide. We are fingering the road map in search of our slumbering hero. I grip the wheel firmly, trying not to swerve off the road while my friends smoke nervously in the back seat, hoping to figure out which way is north. One hour after leaving Toronto, we reach a parking lot that sits at the crest of a squat, wooden community hall. When we roll down the windows, we can hear the squeal of a fiddle that drifts like a siren into the wintertime air. We sit in the car, reciting our lines to each other, then gather up enough mustard to climb the building's few rickety steps.
We spy a fat Stetson perched on a wide, well-fed body, and when we see a man cross the floor with an armful of Labatts' 50s; we've come ot the right place. I approach an old woman at the entrance and ask her is he is here. Then, like an apparition guided through the door by the cloggin' behind him, Stompin' Tom Connors appears. His friends have thrown him a 50th birthday party and here I am, bewildered, in this Nowhere, Ontario town.
He extends his hand, slaps me on the back and a grin cracks across his stony face. He speaks: "You come all the way from Toronto?" Of course, we are speechless. "You might as well come in and have a few drinks!"
So we do, and enter Stompin' Tom Country.
"I have observed how many a foul step the inquisitive Traveller has measured to see sights and look into discoveries; all which, as Sancho Panca said to Don Quixote, they might have seen dry-shod at home."
'A Sentimental Journey'
Stompin' Tom Connors was born in New Brunswick in 1936 and was soon adopted to his home in Skinners' Pond, PEI, where he spent his first 13 years. Tom then headed for hte open road and 7 years later he had touched both coasts of Canada; to this day, he will attest to having been everywhere except the Queen Charlotte Islands.
In 1964, Connors found himself in Timtnins, Ontario, at the Maple Leaf Hotel, with only 35 cents in his pocket. Tom asked the bartender to spot him the extra nickel to buy one draft beer; instead, the bartender told him to play some songs to make up the difference. Gate Lepine, the manager of the hotel, heard Tom sing and hired him on the spot. Connors remembers: "No microphone, no stage; they just cleared away one of the tables in the corner and stood me there to sing. They gave me a bed and one meal a day. I stayed@for 14 months." Tom traversed the highways and sideroads of Canada until he adopted a legacy of songs that now stand up as the best kind of history and eography lesson. He is recognized as this country's Woody Guthrie because of his road and rail parables and he is perhaps the most reliable popular link between the songs of old Canada. His vision was becoming more focused as he travelled and learned and found out how far he could go. In 1973, Tom married his wife, Lena, on CBC variety show 'Luncheon Date"; among his wedding guests were David rombie, Richard Hatfield, and, Lepine, whom Tom hadn't forgotten. His popularity spread like wildfire through the country and into the city; Connors reached his commercial zenith after playing at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern and later, Massey Hall, as his records went gold and his reputation spread across the continent. He toured England and Ireland and his record company, Boot, which Tom had started to give young bands their start, was flourishing. That same year, after proposing to the CNE that he perform at the Grandstand on Labour Day, Connors rejected an offer by CNE officials to play at a lesser venue on the exhibition's Maritime Day. In fact, Tom outright refused to play at all until the Ex stopped treating Canadians as time fillers for major U.S. stars. In a written statement, he explained: "I feel it is my duty to enact this protest to help those entertainers who are being denied the opportunity to earn a decent living in their own ountry."
Tom tried to muscle the industry into waking up to his reality: that Canadians were being denied their own music. Connors became an outlaw whose flagrant patriotism was difficult for some weak-kneed Canadians to handle; they wanted the singing cowboy, but instead, they were stuck with the rebel.
Tom showed us that we were getting victimized. Some believed him, but some didn't and each September, Stompin' Tom was nowhere to be seen at the CNE. In 1978, the feud between Connors and the industry escalated. That year, Connors removed his name from a list of JUNO nominees and questioned the credibility of the industry as a whole. He wanted "a better method of determining people who are eligible for nomination of a Juno. It's not just this year but every year, there are 'Juno Jumpers' who jump into the country and then jump back out to their foreign jobs. In my opinion, all nominees should have their principal place of residence in Canada." Tom returned the awards he had won in 1970, 71, 72, and 73 and vowed to "Make myself unavailable for a period of one year from today for any joba this publicity might entitle me to."
These statements lingered in the press and made Tom an even bigger name. But Stompin' Tom needed his fans to stand up and face the hounds. Although his shows still sold-out, he continued his protest to the ultimate degree and dropped out of sight into exile. Connors recorded his greatest album, Gumboot Cloggeroo, then disappeared. These days, the albums are all that are left and I doubt if Stompin' Tom will tell me any more than what's been already documented.
Connors is wearing a tanned vest, a brown cowboy hat and noble knee high rodeo boots, as he escorts us to a bridge table where a group of old women are cackling at the notion of Tom as a national hero. We sit bewildered and order three beers, watching Connors stroll away towards another group of people who are pointing at him, making jokes, and laughing in loud, bombastic bursts. I'm feeling kind of inhibited: I drink more and listen to the band, who are playing on a flimsy stage that looks better equipped to serve as head table at a minor-hockey league banquet. They begin 'Apple Blossom Special' and, before I know it, a huge woman in flowery dress is dragging me around the floor to a vicious two-step. The party has started. Everyone can tell we're not regulars, so they go out of their way to make us welcome. Tom Connors hasn't granted an interview in ten years and his distaste for the media is one of the reasons he packed it in. When a Boot Record executive fingers me out of the crowd, I approach Tom and reveal my true identity. Tom tells me not to ask for an interview. I don't. So I stay.
But no interview. Later in the evening, Tom and a few friends perform 'Algoma Central 69,' 'Gumboot Cloggeroo,' 'Bud the Spud' and 'Green, Green, Grass of Rome.' During each number, the guests chant the choruses and slam their hands together on the off-beat. Tom dedicates the songs to his friends and thanks them 'by whacking@ his heel on the famed plywood board and insisting: "I really mean it, From the boot." Bud Roberts, the hero of 'Bud the Spud,' is then invited to play a few songs. Roberts strums away, we eat in the basement, and he opens his gifts. The women behind us are on their tenth beers and Tom's wife, Lena, is swaying her hips at the back of the hall. I have never been anywhere like this in my life.
The lights of the hill are soon dimmed as Tom's teenaged daughter wheels out out a gigantic cake that she has constructed in the shape of Canada. After drinking that crucial, final 50, everytbing becomes surreal; we are each given a square piece and I keep mine, shoving it underneath my trenchcoat so that I can prove to the people back home that this really happened. We are finishing up our beers as Tom strolls over.
"Now you're seein' how the country folk celebrate," says Tom. "You're probably used to the way things are done in the city. This is ho we do it in the country." Do you know that people are still listening to your records? Do you know how many friends I have who love your music? "I got all my good friends here. I want them to, represent the whole of Canada. Every bit of it. I don't now you that well, but I'm sure you represent somethin' here... Did you get a piece of cake? I been sick and tired of people not speakin' up, not standing up for what they believe in. Canadians got to get up on their own two feet and shout about what's right. They got to stop looking down there, over their shoulders. It's just the tip of the iceberg. They don't need me, but they need people to do the things that I did. To hell with what the media, or anyone else says. You call a spade a spade, or else people see right through you. It took me a long time to believe that I was Canadian. "How are you supposed to know what you are? I did my part - it was just a small part - then I got fed up. The interviews I gave all mentioned the board I used, and things like that. They didn't want to talk about my songs. They thought I was a joke. I hated lookin' at 'em. They'd talk to me one minute and laugh the next."
Have you really been to every part of Canada? "I'd get to where I was going any way I could. I was playing one night when I met these school teachers who asked me: 'Why aren't there any songs about Canada?' I knew they were right, so I started writing about them - places I visited and the people I met. I made all those records but, to this day, people still ask that same question! You got to remind them: These are Canadian songs."
Outside, in the calm Ferbruary evening, Stompin' Tom it standing at the door way, thanking us for coming. The singer is alive: He's a tough guy, and he'll call a spade a spade. The legend turns and swaggers, back to the party of commonfolk, where he is not the star attraction, - but merely the man who plays the guitar. Tom looks every bit the rebel. His strong, weathered face implies that he's too proud to ever be taken for a martyr, especially in his own country. People ask me if I think he'll return to the, business, but the problem is more confusing: Will he ever understand that he has infatuated his followers to the point that they may start doing what he tried to do, all over again?
If Tom ever discovers this, he'll probably brush them back, invite them over for beers and sing into the early morning. He'd rather talk about hockey than listen to your explination, but he's on our side, even though he doesn't come out anymore. But say he did. Wouldn't we all sleep a bit better at night?