The lives of Stompin' Tom Connors.

Photo of Stompin' Tom Connors

Yesterday, Canadian country singer Stompin' Tom Connors passed away at age 77. Connors' made Canada central to his identity as he sang songs that celebrated its working men and women in songs deliberately dotted with specific geographic references. One of his most famous songs, "Bud the Spud," was about the trucker who brought potatoes from Prince Edward Island to market in Ontario, while "Sudbury Saturday Night" was about what happens in a nickel-mining town in Central Ontario when the weekend comes. "TTC Skidaddler" personified the guy who utilized public transit in Toronto. Most were tailor-made for a sing-along with a slightly beery enthusiasm.

When his concert film, Across This Land with Stompin' Tom Connors, came out in 1973, these songs had one sort of currency. Together, his songs created a slightly mundane but charming set of Canadian heroes, and he was one of them. The source of his name is documented in the movie as he stomps his bootheel on a sheet of plywood to keep time, and by the end of his set, he had stomped his way through it. 

Within 10 years, times had changed so much that his songs came to sound not like folk music but like folk art. The language that once helped his songs connect dated quickly and comically, and the characters were so one dimensional that they could have come out of '60s sitcoms and comic strips:

It's Bud the Spud from the bright red mud
Rollin' down the Highway smiling-
The spuds are big on the back of Bud's rig
And they're from Prince Edward Island
They're from Prince Edward Island

Connors' strong Maritime accent and earnest positivity further marked the songs as things that likely came from an alternate universe, one that seemed quaint and odd next to punk rock and new wave.

But hang around long enough and the context will change again. As far as I can tell, the impulses behind his work - his patriotism and desire create a distinctly Canadian body of work - came to be recognized and valued, and the details that dated the songs became charming pieces of yesteryear. He and his songs were endearing in the way that grandparents' idiosyncrasies become eventually drift from maddening to lovable. 

Right now, I'm working through a review of Roger Knox's Stranger in My Land, and it can't be a coincidence that Connors and Knox - an Aborigine in Australia - found country music as the way to speak to the cultural realities they confronted. It gives Knox the tool to address love, pride, prejudice, and alienation, just as it provided Connors with a popular framework that he could fill with the populist icons he thought were missing from Canadian popular culture. The two artists are a reminder that what country music has lost is not its sound but its connection with working class life as it has become suburban, and thinking about Connors' work as "Canadiana" helps give the label "Americana" some definition.