The art and poetry of Stompin' Tom Connors

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Stompin' Tom Connors, who died on Wednesday at 77, had a romance with Canada, not just its people and features -- even its place-names. You gotta start somewhere. In the 1960s, when he began, that had a certain defiance: to treat Canadian sites as seriously as other nations treated theirs, and so did we. Poet Dennis Lee wrote kids' verse flinging Casa Loma in the face of Banbury Cross. Stompin' Tom took Hank Snow's "I've Been Everywhere" and replaced U.S. names with Canadian ones. Snow was born in the Maritimes, like Connors, but he went south and glorified "their" map. Stompin' Tom brought it home and kept it here, where Mike Ford, recently, unfolded it further ("Thompson, Brandon, Picton, Shawinigan/ Lost my map so I had to begin again.")

In fact, the song itself has been everywhere (man). It began in Australia. It has Czech, Vietnamese and other versions. It's about the joy and privilege of being part of a particular society with its people and traits, especially for a kid, like Connors, who grew up without much family ballast.

But was it art? Poet Al Purdy once said a great poet produces five or six imperishable poems in a lifetime of work. We were talking about Milton Acorn, another Maritimer. Purdy cited Acorn's poem: "Knowing I live in a dark age before history I watch my wallet and/am less struck by gunfights on the avenue/ than by the newsie with his chapped face/ calling a shabby poet back for his change." It's set on Spadina Avenue in Toronto but it's universal enough to keep you going in the face of death and other injustices, anywhere, anytime.

Putting Stompin' Tom in the poetry category, which songs are, he qualifies. The first lines of "Sudbury Saturday Night" ("The girls are out to bingo/The boys are getting stinko/We think no more of Inco") are immortal. The relations between the girls -- and calling them girls -- the rhymes and off-rhymes, bingo jibing with Inco, which is the gamble of a working life in a resource-dependent economy (still), and stinko, with its contempt for the company and the job you're tied to yet take great pride in, along with the utopian hints of Saturday night in the bar, where he's probably singing. I'd say the same of his song on tobacco-picking in Tillsonburg though it really needs the music and his voice: "Tillsonburg, Tillsonburg, my back still aches when I hear that word."

In the same conversation, Al Purdy talked about passionists versus ironists in Canadian culture. The great passionists were Acorn, Connors and Stan Rogers. You could call them unabashed Canadians. Not that irony is absent among them, there's loads, it's a Canadian mode. But the irony never undermines the passion (as it sometimes did in Purdy's own work, which I think is why the notion struck him). Passion always trumps irony for them. Stan Rogers, who also had Maritime roots, died at only 33, in 1983. Stompin' Tom's "The Good Old Hockey Game" is a great hockey drinking song but Rogers' "Flying" is hockey's anthem: "And every kid over the boards listens for the sound/The roar of the crowd is their ticket for finally leaving this town." It has that utter specificity yet universality; it covers the entire human experience since embarking into the realm of culture.

All had working class roots. Acorn sold his carpenter's tools to support his poetry. That quality makes them a bit distant in this era.

Where is their constituency now? I think you see it in beer ads, the last redoubt of unabashed Canadian culture. In a current version, travelling, partying Canadians inspire awe among people who meet them in other lands. They'd have worked at Inco in the past; now they'll go to university or community college and probably hope to insinuate themselves into film, music or software.

It's nice that Stompin' Tom didn't go unrecognized. He sang his hockey song at centre-ice after the last game played at Maple Leaf Gardens and got a stamp of his own in 2008, though you wonder how many generations will still know what a stamp is. Never mind, "Sudbury Saturday Night" won't ever die, even though Inco, in name, is already gone.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Georgetown Vault/Flickr

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