Bud the Spud, Sudbury Saturday Night, I am the Wind, The Good Ol’ Hockey Game, The Moon-Man Newfie, Sasquatch Song, Big Joe Mufferaw and the list goes on and on. Stompin’ Tom Connors writes songs that are true to the average Canadian and they just don’t fit with any radio format. This Canadian is a legend and he epitomizes what true patriotism is. He has led an eventful life as a grassroots musician that has in turn taken him all over Canada. After more than 30 years, he is still performing and Stompin’ Tom has outlasted many once celebrated musicians. Guts, perseverance, persistence and spirit are just some of the words that describe this man.
Tom had a tough childhood. He was born Charles Thomas Connors (known as Tommy Messer) in Saint John, New Brunswick on February 9, 1936 to an unwed teenager Isabel Connors, his father was unknown at the time. During the first years of his young life, he was living day-to-day with his mother and even begging on the streets when necessary. He performed his first stage show when he was only four and began hitchhiking at the age of three. At the age of eight, Tom was taken away from his mother by the Children’s Aid and placed in the St. Patrick’s Orphanage.
He stayed at the orphanage for a year, until he was adopted by Russell and Cora Aylward. He moved to Skinners Pond, P.E.I. to live with the family; however, this atmosphere was never what Tom truly wanted. He was a workhorse not a son and he never got along with Cora. The only way he could get her attention was to act as if he had a stuttering problem so that he could get sympathy from her. He always had this itch to keep moving and never knew what the next day held. He wanted to leave. There had to be something better out there. After a few attempts at running away, he succeeded when he was 13 by hitchhiking off the island. Little did he know then, this hitchhiking would be the beginning of a career in which he traveled everywhere in Canada. While working at the docks in Saint John, he was caught by the police and Children’s Aid. This time the authorities gave Tom a choice on his future – go back to the Aylward’s in P.E.I. or stay in Saint John.
He gladly chose to stay where he was and he was put up in a boarding house. This was when he bought his first guitar and learned to play. Tom tested his skills the following summer when he had returned to Skinners Pond. One night at a dance, the entertainment bailed so Tom was asked to play but was told that if he was going to play without electricity that he would have to stamp his feet in order to be heard. Tom would return to Saint John after the summer but at the age of 15, he bought identification with the intention of heading for the coal boats and tobacco fields of Ontario. Tom would soon hitch his way to thousands of cities and towns across Canada. This traveling man was a singer and songwriter by heart and with his guitar, he could conquer this space called Canada and speak to the average Canadian about the places he had seen and the people he had met.
Money was always tough to find, especially during the 1950s and early 1960s. It was a tough go. He would play at poor venues in front of lumberjacks, drunks, brawlers, miners and trappers. One of his main nightly shelters was a jail cell, not because he had committed a crime but because he knew it was free accommodation and he could leave in the morning. He also liked the Sally Anne (Salvation Army) but you had to be there early if you wanted a spot because the doors closed at 7 pm. sometimes he would simply sleep under the stars. When he found himself a nickel short of a beer at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ontario in 1964 it turned out to be the break he needed. The bartender (Gaet Lepine) let Stompin’ Tom have the beer as long as he played a few songs for the crowd. These chosen songs turned into a 13-month contract to play at the hotel, not to mention a weekly spot on the CKGB radio station in Timmins and the eight 45-RPM recordings. This would also mark the beginning of Stompin’ Tom Connors. He was a new man with a plan. On Canada Day 1967 when he was playing at the King George Hotel in Peterborough, Ontario a legend was born. The Saturday night show was about to start and the waiter (Boyd MacDonald ) came on stage with the following announcement
“Ladies and Gentlemen, It is my distinct pleasure to introduce to you a man who is not only more Canadian than the maple leaf, and more devastating to a piece of plywood than a hungry beaver, but he’s even stomped down more streets in this country than a Peterborough Postman. Ladies and gentlemen, make way for the one and only STOMPIN’ TOM CONNORS.”
It was the first time he was called Stompin’ Tom in public and it stuck.
In 1969, he signed a contract with Dominion Records and in the next few years, he released six original albums, a compellation album, and a 5-album set of traditional music. He would then leave to help start Boot Records and it was here that Stompin’ Tom would put out another 10 original albums and a number of recordings from other Canadian artists. This personal high would not last long.
In 1979, he released his last album, Gumboot Cloggeroo. Frustrated, disappointed, and as a statement of protest against the Americanization of Canada’s music industry, Stompin’ Tom would make a very bold move. After winning an extraordinary six consecutive Juno Awards as Male Country Singer of the Year, he began a self-imposed exile from the industry. Stompin’ Tom was angry with the Canadian artists who sold their souls across the border. The Canadian music industry did not support his down-to-earth and powerfully patriotic brand of music. There was an impasse; radio would not play his music so he would withdraw from the scene in a personal boycott against the industry by not performing live for a year. This strict patriotism hindered Stompin’ Tom’s career in Canada, he has yet to place a single song on a Canadian country music chart. Stompin’ Tom has said, “They told me in 1964 that I didn’t fit the format, they told me that in 1974, in 1984, they told me that again. I guess the format hasn’t changed that much!” The fact that his unique, proud Canadian music has survived over these many years is a statement to his talent, persistence, and the Canadians who love him. This personal boycott lasted more than 10 years. In 1986, through sheer persistence and spirit, he formed A-C-T Records and this would be a label that would record and promote Canadian music. He began touring and releasing records again in 1988 and by signing with EMI Canada his entire catalogue of music would be re-released. What else can you do, if you don’t cater to an American crowd and Canadian radio stations won’t play your music? Do it all yourself.
Stompin’ Tom Connors list of accomplishments are impressive. He has written more than 300 songs and his 40 albums have sold more than 3 million copies. His autobiographies (Before the Fame and Stompin’ Tom and the Connors Tonehave reached the best sellers list. He has even written children’s books. He has received the Order of Canada, an Honourary Doctorate of Law, the key to the city of Peterborough, a citation from Queen Elizabeth and a Governor General’s Award. Stompin’ Tom Road can be found in front of his old Skinners Pond School House that is now a Stompin’ Tom museum.
This man is a true Canadian through and through. He chose a life that he wanted to live no matter what other people thought and did not compromise his principles. In fact, if you live outside of Canada you may not have heard of this Canadian legend. His grassroots popularity kept this legend alive when times were tough and no one seemed to care if he exited the Canadian music industry. After many years in the business, Stompin’ Tom is finally getting some of the recognition that he deserves. His boots were made for walking; years of travel all over Canada have given this man a unique perspective on Canada and what it means to be a Canadian. He sings about his homeland with pride. In fact, he has never performed outside of Canada.
I leave you with these words from Stompin’ Tom, “I have traveled my country from coast to coast and I have considered it from top to bottom. And not through rose-coloured glasses. I’ve seen our good points and I’ve seen some bad. We have our strengths and we have our weaknesses. But when all is said and done, we have been blessed with one great big and beautiful country of which we can all be proud.”