Connors, Stompin' Tom
Origin: Saint John, New Brunswick - Skinner's Pond, Prince Edward Island
Born Charles Thomas Connors on February 9, 1936, in St. John, New Brunswick; son of Isabel Connors and Thomas Sullivan; married Lena; children: one son, Tom.
Stompin' Tom Connors is a troubadour of the Trans Canada and champion to spuds everywhere. In his signature black cowboy hat and cowboy boots just made for stompin', Connors sings about average people in average towns across Canada. A committed nationalist, he holds strong opinions around about what Canada should look and sound like. At his concerts, university students loudly chant "Stompin' Tom for Prime Minister."
Tom Connors had humble beginnings, and the fact that he survived his early life seems nothing short of a miracle. His mother was a poor, unwed teenager who had to put Connors into foster care when he was very young, after she was jailed for theft. He started hitchhiking with her when he was three and was skilled at begging in the streets by the age of four. At one point in his early childhood, both he and his baby sister spent a month in jail with their mother, while she served time. Connors's health was threatened when they had little, if any, food to eat, and he was stricken with impetigo and also with diphtheria, which put him in a coma for nine days. Later, he nearly died by drowning.
Soon the young Connors was taken away from his mother by the Children's Aid Society and placed in an orphanage, where life didn't get much better. He was beaten for bedwetting, hospitalized when a bottle was broken on his head, and emotionally neglected and abused. At the age of nine, Connors was adopted by a family from Skinner's Pond, Prince Edward Island, a place that appears in many of his songs. Here again, life was a matter of survival. He attempted to run away no fewer than eight times, and each time the Mounties brought him back home. Henry McGuirk quoted Connors in Country Music News as saying, "It's damn hard to run away when you live on an island. All the Mounties had to do was wait at the boat for me to arrive in someone's car, on the back of a pick-up or even walking."
Connors ran away for good when he was 13---already going on 30---as he wrote in his autobiography, Before the Fame. When he was a small child he learned songs and rhymes very quickly, and could sing well. He bought his first guitar when he was 14, and began to move around the country, working odd jobs, occasionally landing in jail for a few nights ("the beds were free"), and falling in love with small towns and people. He was moved by the myths of Canada, the remoteness of the landscape, and the lights of the cities. He listened to the stories of people that he met and turned them into songs. He told McGuirk about this fascination with the lives of different people: "I can remember sailing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and seeing some land way off in the distance which a shipmate told me was the Magdalen Islands. I wondered what kind of people lived there and what they did for a living."
Connors worked on fishing boats, and as a grave digger, tobacco picker, short order cook and a host of other occupations. In 1964, at age 28, after many long and eventful years on the road, Connors stopped hitching for good. His career formally began at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ontario. Finding him a nickel short of a beer, the bartender, noticing his guitar, told him to sing a few songs to make up the difference. Connors, soon to be nicknamed Stompin' Tom for the way he stomped the floor with his boots while singing, sang those few songs and stayed on as a performer at the Maple Leaf Hotel for 14 months. In the process, he became a Canadian hero.
Stompin' Tom made his first album in 1967 and released one or two per year through 1978, when he stomped off into self-imposed exile. He sent all of his Juno Awards back, declaring that the Canadian music industry was too much under the control of American performers. In 1971 he and Jury Krytiuk started their own record label, Boot Records, in order to promote Canadian artists. Their company put out early works by such artists as guitarist Liona Boyd and the Canadian Brass---both very unlike Connors in style.
Connors's cornball bar songs and ballads were a staple nutrient in Canadian music throughout the early 1970s, even though he never received much airplay from radio stations, whose programmers indicated that his style was not what people were listening to, and that he was too extreme for mainstream tastes. In the industry, executives called him polarizing, stating that people either loved him or hated him.
After nearly 12 years away from the music industry, Connors returned to the active life of a performer in 1990, stating that to his regret, things were getting worse instead of better, and that his boycott had not made a difference. Earlier, in 1989, Connors had poked his head out of exile to perform with another polarizing force in the Canadian music industry, k.d. lang, on her TV special, k.d. lang at the buffalo café. Stompin' Tom even wrote a song in her honor, and she joined him for a rousing foot-stomping duet.
In 1995 Stompin' Tom published Before the Fame, the heart-wrenching story of his life. Connors wrote the entire book himself, and the style is as straightforward as the style of his songs. Country Music News critic Larry Delaney wrote that "this is a book that is a must for any Canadian country music fan's library!" Also in 1995, Connors released his 39th album, Long Gone to the Yukon.
Throughout his career, Stompin' Tom has written simple songs---"C-A-N-A-D-A," "Sudbury Saturday Night," and classics like "Bud the Spud"---that have, in the course of history, become patriotic anthems. Lyrically, his patriotism is direct and he doesn't mince words.
His voice, at its best, sounds like an old gramophone recording from the 1930s, but it has still become a national treasure. A review of Before the Fame in Maclean's summed up his career: "Connors' story is most interesting when it focuses on his songs and his habit of writing about the towns in which he performed. ... And, ultimately, his search [has] resulted in both his deeply-rooted patriotism and a rich catalogue of songs that are pure Canadiana."
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Connors continued to tell stories of Canada and its people. The title track of his 1997 Confederation Bridge paid tribute to a new bridge linking Prince Edward Island to the Canadian mainland, and in 2001 his Stompin' Tom Sings Canadian History brought to life a variety of well-known and not-so-well-known Canadians from various eras. Connors released Stompin' Tom and the Hockey Mom Tribute in 2004.
That wasn't the first time Stompin' Tom had sung about Canada's national sport. "The Hockey Song" was one of his perennial favorites, known to nearly all Canadians who are fans of the sport. He has remained almost completely unknown in the United States, his sole visit to that country having come to an end with his deportation as an illegal alien after he and a friend hitchhiked to Nashville, hoping to meet Canadian-born country icon Hank Snow. But in 2004, American audiences got a taste of Connors when he performed "The Hockey Song" on The Conan O'Brien Show when the show visited Toronto in February of 2004.
Connors continued to tour Canada much as he always had, but by the early 2000s he could fill a venue the size of Toronto's Massey Hall rather than the simple barrooms where he had started his career. Two events in 2004 and 2005 illustrated the place he has continued to hold in the hearts of Canadians. Voters in a 2004 "Greatest Canadian National Survey" held by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ranked Connors the 13th-greatest Canadian of all time, the fifth-greatest living Canadian, and the top Canadian performing arts figure, popular musician, and Atlantic Canadian. And the following year, a disc jockey on Ottawa rock radio station CHEZ was taken off the air after playing Stompin' Tom's music nonstop, as a protest against the artist's omission from the bill of the Live 8 hunger-relief concert held that year. "I went on a rant about how we have Celine Dion representing Canada via satellite from Las Vegas and how true Canadian icons were being overlooked, namely Stompin' Tom," Jeff Brown, the DJ, told Canada's National Post.
At 28, started singing at the Maple Leaf Hotel, Ontario, Canada, 1964; recorded his first album, Northland's Zone, 1967; started own record label, Boot Records, to promote Canadian music, 1971; went into self-imposed exile and returned all six of his Juno Awards, 1978; began to record again, 1988; performed on k.d. lang's TV special k.d. lang at the buffalo cafe, 1989; actively returned to the music business, 1990; published his autobiography, Before the Fame, and released his 39th album, Long Gone to the Yukon, 1995; released Confederation Bridge, 1997; released Stompin' Tom and the Hockey Mom Tribute, 2004.