Let’s be honest: Stompin’ Tom’s music was pretty awful.
It was hokey, simple and fun in a beer-swilling, sing-along way, but every tune, delivered in that boot-thumping, nasal monotone, sounded the same.
Musically, Tom Connors couldn’t match the guitar-hero wizardry of, say, Alvin Lee of 10 Years After, who also died Wednesday.
Yet it was Stompin’ Tom whose picture was on the front of Thursday’s papers, and that’s awesome.
For he was a rarity in a country without much cultural commonality, not at ground level. Tim Hortons. The Canadian Tire guy (though he’s gone now). A general loathing of Gary Bettman.
Few Canadian singers write about Canada. Gordon Lightfoot used to, and the Tragically Hip still do, but our most successful artists sing about and for someone else, something Connors himself was known to lament. “This country is the most underwritten country in the world as far as songs are concerned,” he was quoted as saying. “The people in this country are starving for songs about their homeland.”
Instead, we live in silos. Ours is a nation divided by language, climate, geography and 4-1/2 hours worth of time zones, something that was driven home Wednesday when I called a federal department in Ottawa at 2:30 p.m. Victoria time, only to have the woman who answered the after-hours pager explain to me that “everything’s closed here in Cana…”
She caught herself, quickly changing the last word to “Ontario,” though apparently in Ottawa the two places are synonymous. (B.C., is that one of the flat ones near Saskatoba?) It’s this sort of attitude, along with having the freaking Maple Leafs jammed down our throats every Saturday night, that occasionally makes us feel like strangers in our own land. Isn’t it great living in a country where you can only reach your government before lunch?
No, it isn’t — but it is good to live in a place where you can tell the same in-joke from coast-to-coast and get the same reaction. In the 1980s, Bob and Doug McKenzie were a national hit because every one of us recognized them, thought they came from our hometown. Later on, the Trailer Park Boys looked all too familiar, too.
That was Stompin’ Tom’s Canada, the one we all know. The Hockey Song comes on the radio and you can immediately smell a junior A arena, the pungent admixture of french fries, vinegar, cold air and sweat, with undertones of ice-plant ammonia.
Even more than being something we shared, Stompin’ Tom was exclusively ours, a phenomenon that we alone could understand. His death made me think back to a day in 1981 when, on a packed British Rail train, I stood in the aisle with a fellow Canadian, swapping news from home.
A girl from Quebec joined us, didn’t speak English but overheard us mention Terry Fox. Sorry, I told her in my bad high school French, but Terry died. She started crying, hard, the tears running down her cheeks as the train rocketed through the English countryside. Other passengers stared, but there was no point trying to explain. You had to be Canadian.
Same deal with Stompin’ Tom. We felt attached because nobody else did. He was popular in Canada in part because he could be popular nowhere else.
Unvarnished, not flashy, everything a star isn’t supposed to be, he was as real and comfortable as an ugly dog. (It’s no coincidence that he was embraced in the same country that deemed Rex Murphy to have a face fit for television.) Connors was decidedly grassroots in a country that, from Stephen Leacock to Rick Mercer, has a vigorous tradition of gleefully pricking the balloons of those who presume to rise above the herd. (Thursday, after Stephen Harper used Twitter to ask Canadians what questions they wanted him to pose to astronaut Chris Hadfield in an online chat, the replies included such gems as: “Commander Hadfield, does the federal government require you to filter all your communication through their PR staff?” “How are the ice caps doing, Chris?” and “From space, can you tell where Senator Mike Duffy lives?”)
Stompin’ Tom might not have been the best singer in Canada, but from Sooke to St. John’s, we all know the tunes.
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