Stompin' Tom Connors: An alternative appreciation

| March 13, 2013
Stompin' Tom Connors: An alternative appreciation

"Because I believe in my country and because I write and sing about it, many people consider me a hero to Canadians and especially to the working class, but to me I'm only doing what I feel each proud citizen of this country should be doing. And that is to try and put in as much as he takes out. I guess it’s to the hard knocks of life that I attribute this conclusion." - Stompin' Tom Connors

There is a lot more to Stompin' Tom Connors (1936 – 2013) than his brash patriotism, foot stomping stage antics, his famous boycott of the Canadian music industry, and his popular tunes such as “Bud the Spud,” and “The Hockey Song.” Stompin’ Tom is a controversial and complex figure; he is more complicated than recent popular celebrations of his life have suggested (see here and here). Stompin' Tom Connors is worthy of an alternative appreciation.

A 'Man of the Land'

 On the afternoon of June 20, 2000, Stompin' Tom received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Toronto. In a letter sent to Connors months earlier outlining the reasons why he had been chosen for the honour, University of Toronto President J. Richard S. Prichard explained:

In your long career, you have given voice to the common people of Canada in a way unmatched by any other composer or performer of your generation. Your songs tell the stories of working Canadians who form the backbone of this country. Our prosperity is owed to the millions of Canadians who have seen themselves in your songs that have created heroic portraits of ordinary people, from truck drivers to farm workers. In each song, people can see themselves, their friends, or their neighbours. (Stompin’ Tom and the Connors Tone. Toronto: Viking, 2000. 631).

Connors was understandably thrilled with the news: "Wow! What a letter, eh? I must have read that one over about ten times. And did I accept the offer? You bet your boots I did." Indeed, Connors, wearing his famous black cowboy hat and iconic leather boots, was conferred with the degree to a standing ovation and "a lot of foot-stomping."

After the ceremony Connors stated, "It's wonderful that the University of Toronto would give a feller like me a degree … I was brought up with … little opportunity for a good education or a good job or anything else … there's an awful lot of people out there in the country today who were brought up the very same way." Connors hoped that "people will see what's happened to me today and they'll say to themselves, 'Damn it, if Stompin' Tom can do it, we can do it too.'"

Connors' compassion for the daily struggles of everyday Canadians illustrated in his response typifies why he was selected for the honorary degree in the first place. Stompin' Tom Connors is arguably one of Canada’'s most successful working-class troubadours.

However, much of the coverage of Connors since his death has focused on his patriotism and iconic cultural status while downplaying Connors' working-class roots and the critical content of many of his songs, particularly his early work from the mid-1960s to his well-known, self-imposed exile from the Canadian music industry in 1978.

Although Connors' songs may fit awkwardly into the dissident folk tradition forged by such artists as Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Joe Glazer, and Pete Seeger who often sought to inspire radical social change through song, Connors was, apparently, a proud member of the Toronto Musicians Union for over 50 years, and his songs shed important light on Canadians' working-class experiences and vigorously defended the dignity of everyday working people.

 Connors' vision for what Canada could and should be, in his songs, embraced a working-class perspective on the country's past and present. Connors advocated for a society in which the voices and stories of everyday people were listened to, respected and understood -- even celebrated.

To be clear, the aim of this "alternative appreciation" is not to anoint Stompin' Tom Connors as Canada's working class hero; his politics were not necessarily progressive and he was certainly not promoting radical, systemic change. In addition, Connors' gender and racial analysis (or lack thereof) in songs such as "My Little Eskimo" is cringe-worthingly problematic, to be sure. Yet, many of Connors' songs can still be listened to and appreciated; they highlight the often ignored stories about the doldrums and dangers of work as well as the possibilities for fun, love and leisure that make working life more bearable. The songs of Stompin' Tom Connors are significant, then, because they reflect the experiences of many working people.

Across this land: The songs of Stompin' Tom and Canada's working class experience

 It is impossible to separate the life of Stompin' Tom from his songs. Tom Charles Connors was born to Isabelle Connors in Saint John, New Brunswick, on February 9, 1936. Tom's father abandoned Isabelle early on and, after spending a short time in a low-security female prison, she took her son and hitchhiked across the Maritimes and central Canada.

After spending six years on the road with his mother, a young Connors was taken by Children's Aid and placed in an Orphanage in Silver Falls, New Brunswick for two years. Following an escape attempt in 1944, he was taken into foster care at the farm of Russell and Cora Aylward in Skinner's Pond, Prince Edward Island.

In 1949 he was moved to a vocational school in Saint John where he bought his first guitar from his then roommate and started writing songs in the style of Canadian country singers like Wilf Carter and Hank Snow. In 1952 Connors ran away for good and found work on a coal boat making runs between New Brunswick and Newfoundland. For the next decade he hitchhiked across North America carrying out a number of different jobs while writing songs about his experiences.

 In his travels across Canada in particular, Connors developed an awareness about the toil of working people. He wrote "Tillsonburg" about one of the jobs he hated most: picking tobacco in the fields of southern Ontario. The song describes a period in Connors' life when he "never had a nickel or a dime to show" and was subsequently asked to work in the tobacco fields of Tillsonburg, southeast of London. He was attracted by the promise of seven dollars a day and the possibility of a raise if he was good at picking tobacco. However, the lure of working in the fields soon wore off:

We landed in the field that was long and wide,

with one ol’ house and five more guys.

I asked them where to find the cigarette trees,

when he said “bend over,” I was ready to leave!

With a broken back bendin’ over there,

I was wet right through to my underwear.

And it was stuck to my skin like glue,

From the nicotine tar on the morning due of Tillsonburg.

Connors soon had enough of the inadequate housing and physically demanding labour of tobacco picking and left as soon as he could make his escape, "I was down the highway and over the hill from Tillsonburg." Connors concludes:

Now there’s one thing you can always bet,

if I never smoke another cigarette;

I might get taken in a lot of deals,

But I won’t go workin’ the tobacco fields of Tillsonburg.

Tillsonburg. My back aches when I hear that word!

("Tillsonburg," 1971 -- video available here).

The hard labour of working Ontario's tobacco fields left a strong impression on Connors that formed part of his awareness of the hardships of manual labour.

While songs like "Tillsonburg" illustrate Connors' disdain for hard, exploitative work, many of his songs also talk about the dangerous conditions at work faced by people daily. For example, Connors' "Fire in the Mine" tells the story of a 1965 fire in the McIntyre Mine located north of Timmins, Ontario:.

There's a fire way down in the mine.

It was February 2nd in the year of sixty five.

A miner's life was taken in the carbon monoxide.

The gas had been created, way down a mile or so,

in the McIntyre hell fire, six thousand feet below.

There's a fire way down in the mine.

The smiles of hope now faded, many faces wore a frown.

Must we see our children hungry, must we have to leave the town?

Will they have to close the mines up, bringing trouble, strife, and woe,

or will they beat that gassy hellfire six thousand feet below?

Luckily, the McIntyre mine fire 1965 was not as destructive as the 1928 Hollinger mine fire which claimed the lives of 39 miners in Timmins. Indeed, Connors does not end his song on a sour note:

There's a fire way down in the mine.

Then at last it was all over, and the world may pass it by,

but the people up in Timmins, will always hear that awful cry

There’s a fire way down in the mine…

("There's a Fire in the Mine," 1968 -- watch the video here).

Yet, "Fire in the Mine" provides a critical perspective on how the livelihoods of mining families were constantly being threatened by the dangers inherent in mining work.

 Connors also wrote about the collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge, later renamed the "Iron Workers Memorial Bridge," in Vancouver and the death of nineteen steelworkers in 1958. In the "The Bridge Came Tumblin' Down," a song that went to number 2 on the Canadian country charts in 1971, Connors told the story of industrial disaster:

There were seventy-nine men working

to build this brand new bridge

to span the Second Narrows

and connect up with the ridge.

Till a big wind hit the bridge,

and the bridge came tumblin' down,

and nineteen men were drowned,

and the medical corps couldn’t be too sure

of the rest of the men they found.

In telling the story of one of Vancouver's most deadly industrial disasters, Connors spoke highly of the strength, courage and determination of the steelworkers:

It often makes you wonder

in strength, who has the edge?

The longest steel-beam structure

that spans the highest ridge,

or the men that built the bridge.

For the bridge came tumblin’ down,

and nineteen men were drowned,

but the other men came back again

to lay the new beams down.

While Connors celebrates the courage of the Vancouver steelworkers, he also offers a critique of the bridge-building project and asks commuters to remember the price paid by workers and their families for the convenience of a bridge:

Now if you're ever crossing

this mighty bridge sublime

and nineteen scarlet roses

Pass before your mind.

Remember and be kind.

The bridge came tumblin’ down

and nineteen men were drowned

so you could ride to the other side

of old Vancouver Town.

("The Bridge Came Tumblin' Down," 1968 -- watch the video here).

Connors wrote many songs about the dangerous conditions faced by workers but he also sang about working-class culture and of the ways people found to live life to the fullest outside of work. Perhaps Stompin' Tom's most famous song, "Sudbury Saturday Night," is a good example of how he commented on the ways in which workers dealt with the pressures of working life:

Aw, the girls are out to bingo and the boys are getting stinko,

and we think no more of INCO on a Sudbury Saturday night.

The glasses they will tinkle when our eyes begin to twinkle,

and we'll think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday night.

Sudbury, of course, was a booming mining town run by Inco Limited and many workers were organized in the Communist influenced Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers local. Thus, references to "we'll think no more of INCO" speaks to workers' needs to go out and get drunk, or "get stinko," to forget about the dangers of mining but also to talk and socialize. Connors also mentions women, presumably the partners of the miners (many women in Sudbury played crucial political roles in the community), as being out on the town, playing bingo, drinking, and having fun, probably escaping the pressures of their own work lives. Connors continues to paint the scene of the temporary escape of a Saturday night in a Canadian mining town:

Now when Mary Ann and Mabel come to join us at the table,

and tell us how the Bingo went tonight, we’ll look a fright.

But if they won the money, we’ll be flappin’ up the honey, boys,

‘cause everything is funny, for it’s Saturday tonight.

 

We'll drink the loot we borrowed and recuperate tomorrow,

‘cause everything is wonderful tonight, we had a good fight.

We ate the Dilly Pickle and we forgot about the Nickel,

and everybody’s tickled, for it’s Saturday tonight.

 

The songs that we'll be singing, they might be wrong but they'll be ringing,

when the lights of town are shining bright, and we're all tight.

We'll get to work on Monday, but tomorrow's only Sunday,

and we're out to have a fun day for is Saturday tonight.

("Sudbury Saturday Night," 1967 -- watch the video here).

Again, "Sudbury Saturday Night" is both an amusing song about the momentary break from work as well as a subtle critique of life in a mining town, a combination making it a Stompin' Tom classic as well as a fan favourite.

That "Sudbury Saturday Night" embodied a dissident element was made clear by what happened to Connors upon arrival in Thompson, Manitoba for a concert in 1972. When Connors got to the arena there was "a car with three of four important looking gentlemen sitting there waiting." The men approached Connors and welcomed him to Thompson on behalf of the mayor's office. They gave Connors some souvenirs before stating, "We sure like your song ‘Sudbury Saturday Night,’ Tom and we would like to ask you a small favour?" The men continued, "Well, this being an INCO town, nice and quiet, you understand, and knowing how considerate you've always been in not wanting to stir things up and all, we would appreciate it if you wouldn't sing that song tonight.” Tom responded, "Just a minute … I do understand you gentlemen correctly? You're asking me to not sing 'Sudbury Saturday Night' on my show tonight?" Not really looking for an answer, Connors stated, "Look boys … This is a free country, even in Thompson, Manitoba. And if the INCO workers or anyone else in this town want to hear 'Sudbury Saturday Night' then this is the night they're going to hear it."

Connors walked away and the men got in the car and drove off. Tom recalls that "the first song the audience shouted for me to do that night, and even before I stepped up to the microphone, was 'Sudbury Saturday Night,' I sang it immediately, and several times more before the show was over. There was absolutely no trouble at all, and the crowd loved it. And that was the record we sold the most of that night" (Stompin’ Tom and the Connors Tone, 220). Such an example illustrates how both Connors and his fans were aware of the fact that Stompin' Tom songs spoke to the experiences of working people.

"The Singer"

 Drawing on his own working experiences, Connors grew to love the land and appreciate the lives of the everyday people he met along the way. As an orphan and seasoned drifter, Connors developed a strong sense of community with those struggling to make a living. He shared food, booze, laughs, and stories with working people across Canada and eventually grew the confidence to write songs about his experiences, both good and bad.

He wrote songs about truck drivers from Prince Edward Island and tobacco pickers in the fields of Tillsonburg, about industrial accidents like the collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge in Vancouver and the Reesor Crossing tragedy in Kapuskasing, and about sharing drinks and laughs with friends and family after work. Throughout his career, Connors used music to create and project his own vision of Canada that would give working class people the opportunity live a life of dignity and relative happiness. Through his songs he constructed himself as a voice of everyday people. This is reflected in his song, "The Singer":

Oh singer you must search

for your place on the earth

while the same for your nation is true.

So lift up the soul of your country

and a place will be found here for you.

But don’t go and run until your song has been sung

and the words of your soul has be said.

For a land without song can’t stand very long

When the voice of its people is dead.

 

You may pile up your gold

but the pride of your soul

is the small bit of hope you bestow

on the children who come this way tomorrow

in search of the right way to go.

So singer sing on

like the first ray of dawn

with your promise of day just ahead.

For the land without song

can’t stand very long

when the voice of its people is dead.

("The Singer," 1977.)

Stompin' Tom Connors tried to "lift up" the "soul" of his country and, through upbeat and often humourous songs, he sang about the working lives of the people who make it run. As a result, Connors carved out a place, however controversial, for himself as a voice of working people in Canada.

 

Sean Carleton is a PhD Candidate in the Frost Centre for Canadian and Indigenous Studies at Trent University and is currently a visiting student at the London School of Economics and Political Science in London, UK.

This article was first published in Canadian Dimension and is reprinted here with permission. 

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Comments

Sean Carleton wrote:
Although Connors' songs may fit awkwardly into the dissident folk tradition forged by such artists as Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Joe Glazer, and Pete Seeger who often sought to inspire radical social change through song, Connors was, apparently, a proud member of the Toronto Musicians Union for over 50 years, and his songs shed important light on Canadians' working-class experiences and vigorously defended the dignity of everyday working people.

The big reason Connors doesn't belong in the same breath as that pantheon of folk singers is that no working person in Canada was ever enlightened or inspired in struggle (much less radicalized) by any of his songs. Moreover Connors, as a person, unlike the other singers named, was not part of working class political struggles, and did not seek to give voice to those struggles. To call him a "dissident" would be false.

The quote from the University of Toronto president (whose correct name is Robert, not Richard, BTW) about why Connors was selected to receive an honourary degree is nothing more than a patronizing nod to the great unwashed from an institution (and a one-percenter) that speaks for the corporate elites. Connors was a working-class guy, all right, but he was a tame and harmless one, a suitable token to receive acknowledgement from the rich and powerful.

As an artist and activist, I drew a lot of inspiration from Stompin' Tom's working class values and content. And his consistently pro-Canadian stance provided a strong antidote to what might have been called cultural imperialism in another era. Dissident enough for me.

If anyone thinks he wasn't ever overtly political, listen to "How Do You Like It Now"? Better yet, buy it or the album it's on. A refreshingly biting anti-Mulroney, anti-free trade song.

Thanks for writing this, Sean.

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