Travellin on with Stompin Tom Great travel writing from a great Canadian traveler
Cleo Paskal at home
I have often (OK, twice) been asked who my favourite travel writers are. I know I am supposed to answer with a soliloquy on the comparative merits of Bruce Chatwin and Bill Bryson, perhaps throwing in something about how the genre has not been the same since Homer. (The Homer, not the yellow fellow on television). But I cant.
I thing the greatest living travel writer is Stompin Tom Connors. How can anyone compete with The girls are out to Bingo and the boys are getting Stinko / And we think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday Night. These lyrics sum up a weekend in a hardworking town better than P.J. ORourke ever could. It is fun, spare, pointed, loving and it rhymes. If you have heard the song even once, you can already sing along.
Stompin Tom is my hero. I am not alone. He is a best-selling author, Governor Generals Lifetime Achievement award winner, and Officer of the Order Of Canda, and Honourary Goodwill Ambasador for Prince Edward Island, a multiple Juno winner, a recipient of two honourary doctorates (prompting him to name one album Dr. Stompin Tom, Eh?), he had his own TV show and put out dozens of albums. His songs are funny without being cruel, proud but not prejudiced, honest but gentle. They are what Canada wishes it could be. Above all, they are great travel writing from a great traveler.
Stompin Tom, was born in Saint John, N.B., to a mother who could not afford to keep him. He was eventually adopted by the Aylward family of Skinners Pond, P.E.I. After a few attempts, he finally succeeded in running away when he was 15. He worked his way across Canada, picking tobacco in Ontario (Tillsonburg, Tillsonburg / My back still aches when I hear that word) and working the coal boats of Nova Scotia (My father was a Blue Nose, and his dad through and through / My mother, shes a Blue Nose, and her mothers mother too).
Finally, in what was possibly the most Canadian moment ever, the bartender of the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ont., offered Stompin Tom a beer to play a few songs. Those songs turned into a year long engagement. To add even more Canuckness, he was eventually signed to Dominion Records. There followed years of cross-Canada touring, and countless songs written to celebrate and bring attention to the folklore, legends, events, people and places that make up Canada. Think Robert Service with a railpass and a guitar.
If you can name a corner of Canada, chances are Stompin Tom has written a song about it. Rumour has it, the first ditty he composed (at the age of 11) was Reversing Falls Darling. From that followed She Called from Montreal; Red River Jane; Alberta Rose; Long Gone to the Yukon; Okanagan Okee; My Home in Newfoundland; The Peterborough Postman; Roll on, Saskatchewan; A Real Canadian Girl and several hundred more.
But it is not just geography that makes Stompin Tom Connors Canadian. He writes about local events with the passion of a latter day Williams McGongall. He covers industrial accidents, murders, strikes, the Confederation Bridge and even frozen babies. Once heard, who can forget his ode to Canadas Miracle Child, inspired by Erika Nordby, the Edmonton infant who crawled out into the snow and almost died. From her head to the tips of her toes / There was no way to give intravenous / All the veins of her body were froze / But after some gradual heating / And much to their learned surprise / Her faint little heart started beating / While doctors had tears in their eyes.
Stompin Tom even writes about international events, albeirt from a very Canadian point of view. Yes, we are the Bleu Berets / Were marking on our way / With another U.N. Flag to be unfurled / Til the factions are at bay and peace is on its way / Well display our blue berets around the world.
Stompin Tom knows and loves Canada and Canadians. There is only one sort of Canuck he cannot stand. Goodbye Jim and Jacqui / goodbye John and May / We hate to see you leaving / Bound for the U.S.A. / I know the times are changing / Factories closing down / But if you stay and help us / We can turn these things around / And if you dont believe you country should come before yourself / You can better server your country by living somewhere else.
The thing about Stompin Tom is, he walks the walk. Disgusted at the Americanization of the Canadian music industry and Canadian artists, he retuned his six Juno and retired from touring for several years in 1970s. Lucky for us, he eventually went back on the road.
So, if you are broke and cannot afford to travel, if you are stuck in a tiny cubicle even though you live in one of the largest countries in the world, I suggest you get a hold of a Stompin Tom tape. It may bring back the smell of a campfire and a roar of a hockey game. It might remind you of that boy from Newfoundland or taste of a cold beer after a long day. It might help you travel, back home to Canada.