By Kaitlin Wainwright
Last Wednesday, Canada lost its “national troubadour”, an “icon”, and “one of [its] most prolific and well-known country and folk singers”; a man who ranked 13th in CBC’s The Greatest Canadian list. Stompin’ Tom Connors is credited with writing three hundred songs, many of which are loudly and proudly Canadian. Upon his death, online tributes poured in from the CBC, politicians of all stripes, and even Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s fake Twitter account. NDP Members of Parliament paid tribute to Stompin’ Tom outside the House of Commons with their rendition of “Bud the Spud”. The Globe and Mail suggested that the mainstream media “patronized him as a novelty singer” and questioned whether he was given enough attention during his life. Everyone seemed to have a different story of their experience with Stompin’ Tom, but they were all general positive and “pro-Canadian”.
Let me tell you my Stompin’ Tom story: I grew up in a non-musical family. My earliest experience of his music was when I was twenty, in a second-year Canadian history course, where Big Joe Mufferaw and the NFB’s Log Drivers’ Waltz were used as part of lessons on logging. The lens that I was given to look at him through was one of myth and memory, and the building of nationhood. I never made an emotional connection with his music, and in his death my recollection of his life’s work is maybe, therefore, more easily critical in nature.
John Doyle wrote a piece in The Globe and Mail, “How Stompin’ Tom made me a true Canadian.” Doyle is far from alone in giving credit to Stompin’ Tom for building a Canadian identity. The McGraw-Hill textbook, Understanding Nationalism, geared towards grade 11 social studies students in Alberta, references Connors as an “individual who promotes national identity” by drawing on national myths for inspiration in his work. It refers to “The Hockey Song” as a non-official national anthem of Canada. There are a few things that struck me about the way that Canadians talk about this national icon in his death. For starters, while his catalogue is staunchly Canadian in its content, it is also very regionalist. Those in Eastern Ontario remembered him for “Big Joe Mufferaw” – based on the story of Joe Montferrand, a logger in the Ottawa Valley – while “The Ketchup Song” is an ode to the town of Leamington, Ontario, and ‘Bud the Spud” accounts the tale of a trucker hauling potatoes from PEI.
It’s also interesting to look at how, within these regionalisms, there is a focus on the resource economies within them. Canada’s people rely on their farms and forests. Tobacco fields, tomato greenhouses, potato farms, logging. This is what Canadians know about their environmental history from Tom Connors.
Connors also wrote about both well-known and little-known episodes of Canadian history, including the myth of Joe Montferrand. He wrote about the Black Donnellys, about pilot Wilfrid “Wop” May, about the collapse of the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge in Vancouver, the Hollinger Mines fire in Timmins, the Reesor Siding Strike of 1963, and the Algoma Central Railway.
Lesser known, and without parallel elsewhere in his catalogue was “The Blue Berets”, his song about Canadians’ role as peacekeepers. General Romeo Dallaire wrote that he played this song during the bombardment of his headquarters in Rwanda in 1994.
The subject matter of his songs reads like a list of Heritage Minutes. They are interesting hooks, often based as much in myth as in historical fact. This is far from a bad thing. It did a lot to make his music, accessible and relatable. But, in light of his death, I think it’s unfortunate that our reflections of Stompin’ Tom and his music have simplified what it was that he did and have failed to acknowledge the potential complexity of his stories and their themes. For example, the chorus of the famous song “Sudbury Saturday Night”, recognizes the importance of working-class leisure for the Inco miners:
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.
One of his best-known songs featuring a female protagonist, “A Real Canadian Girl” describes an ideal Canadian woman who is depicted as having the best of the nation’s traits. She is from “Miramichi by the old Atlantic sea”, an “all Acadian, northern lady” who enjoys hockey and curling and is “fond of the great outdoors.” On the one hand, it shows how Canadian identity is an amalgam of symbols and regionalisms. On the other hand, part of its popularity is that it reads a bit like Molson’s “I am Canadian” commercial, by listing off a collection of things that we have somehow collectively decided belong to us. Not only is more Canadiana not “more better”, but I would put forward the argument that identity is not a magic pill that can be swallowed as a capsule, through which we automatically make ourselves better as a nation. While bite-sized stories are useful as a hook to take us into understanding ours pasts and ourselves , we need to – as a country – be able to think critically about our myths. I would not necessarily argue that Connors’ catalogue was an overly-simplistic illustration of Canadian identity (though some individual pieces are), but the collective memory of his music, in light of his death, lacks any serious reflection.
Connors was outspoken about the importance of myth-making and storytelling to national identity, once saying that “the people of this country are starving for stories and songs about themselves. If we don’t have it, we’re gone. We won’t have a country anymore.” One of his songs, “Believe in Your Country”, speaks to this staunch nationalism:
Goodbye Jim & Jackie, goodbye John & May
We hate to see you leaving, bound for the USA
But if you don’t believe your country should come before yourself
You can better serve your country, by living somewhere else.
Unsurprisingly, he took issue with sharing those stories beyond the geographic borders of this imagined nation and was a protectionist of Canadian culture. In 1978, he was awarded six Junos. He famously returned them in protest of the Canadian artists who resided and conducted most of their business in the states.
While I don’t agree with Stompin’ Tom’s ideas about nationhood, there is little question that he successfully made a life’s work of it. What remains to be seen is whether his music and its symbolism will stand the test of time in his passing.
Kaitlin Wainwright is a graduate of Carleton University’s Public History program. She’s currently the Plaques and Markers Program Coordinator at Heritage Toronto.