Charles Thomas "Stompin' Tom" Connors, OC (February 9, 1936 - March 6, 2013) was one of Canada's most prolific and well-known country and folk singer-songwriters. Focusing his career exclusively on his native Canada, Connors is credited with writing more than 300 songs and has released four dozen albums, with total sales of nearly 4 million copies. Connors died at age 77 in his home in Ballinafad, Ontario on March 6, 2013, of renal failure.
His songs have become part of the Canadian cultural landscape. Three of his best-known songs, Sudbury Saturday Night, Bud the Spud and The Hockey Song, are played at various games throughout the National Hockey League; the latter is played at every Toronto Maple Leafs home game.
He was born Charles Thomas Connors in Saint John, New Brunswick to the teenaged Isabel Connors and her boyfriend Thomas Joseph Sullivan at midnight, February 9, 1936 at the General Hospital in Saint John, New Brunswick.
Isabel's family were Protestant, and his maternal grandfather, John Connors was a sea captain from Boston, Massachusetts who had died before Stompin' Tom was born. Stompin' Tom's father was a Catholic of Irish and French ancestry, and "may have been Métis or ... Micmac." Isabel Connors and Thomas Joseph Sullivan didn't wed until 30 years later, probably because Sullivan's family were devout Catholics and didn't want him marrying a Protestant; they later divorced. Sullivan's mother gave him $10, and was told to leave home. Connors was also cousin of New Brunswick fiddling sensation, Ned Landry.
Connors' first home was on St. Patrick Street in Saint John, in the "poorest and most rundown part of Saint John". He lived there with his mother, his maternal grandmother, Lucy Scribner and his maternal step grandfather, Joe Scribner When Connors was three, Lucy and Joe died within weeks of each other. This forced his mother, Isabel to move to a two-bedroom apartment. Around this time Isabel got pregnant again by Tom's father, when he returned briefly. It was at this time that Tom got a taste of hitch-hiking when he and Isabel went to visit relatives in Tusket Falls, Nova Scotia, and on this trip he got his first taste of his mother stealing to feed the two of them, when she stole food from a Chinese restaurant in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. When they returned to Saint John, they moved in with a family who had been friends of Tom's mother. At this time, Isabel gave birth to Tom's sister, Marie, who had to stay in hospital to have a birthmark removed. Later, Isabel and Tom moved in with her new boyfriend, Terrence Messer at the corner of Clarence and Erin Streets. While they did not marry, the family would take on his surname. Terrence and Isabel had to pretend to be married at the time to find a place to live, due to moral standards of the time. The family was quite poor, and Terrence was a neglectful step-father, who spent most of the family's money on wine. When they missed paying rent, the family was evicted and moved to a house on St. Patrick Street. At this time, Marie finally came home from the hospital. However, she died when Tom was four, following more surgery to remove another birthmark. To make ends meet, Isabel got a job scrubbing floors, while Terrence did odd jobs. Following a spat with the landlord (when Tom started a fire in their apartment), the family would once again be evicted. The family's next home would be on King Street East, in a basement apartment.
Connors spent a short time living with his mother in a low-security wom penitentiary before he was seized by Children's Aid Society and was later adopted by Cora and Russell Aylward in Skinners Pond, Prince Edward Island.
At the age of 15 he left his adoptive family to hitchhike across Canada, a journey that consumed the next 13 years of his life as he travelled between various part-time jobs while writing songs on his guitar, literally singing for his supper. He worked in the mines and rode in boxcars, and, in the coldest part of winter, he welcomed vagrancy arrests in order to have a warm place to sleep. At his last stop in Timmins, Ontario, which may also have been his big "break", he found himself a nickel short of a 35 cent beer at the city's Maple Leaf Hotel. Tom told the bartender to put the cap back on the bottle and he'd head for the Sally Ann, but the bartender, Gaëtan Lepine, said the 30 cents was okay and later offered Tom a second beer if he would open his guitar case and play a few songs. These few songs turned into a 14-month run at the hotel, a weekly spot on CKGB in Timmins, eight 45-RPM recordings, and the end of the beginning for Tom Connors.
During his career:
Connors' marriage to Lena Welsh took place on November 2, 1973, being broadcast live on Elwood Glover's Luncheon Date on CBC Television. They chose to get married on television in order, he said during an interview on the show, to share the happiest moment with his fans across the country, whose support had rescued him from a difficult life before show business.
Connors was never part of the Canadian musical establishment, and his style was quite different from other Canadian icons such as Leonard Cohen or Gordon Lightfoot. He could, however, be characterized as a passionist poet within Canadian culture, similar to Milton Acorn and Stan Rogers. As the National Post characterized him:
Typically writing about Canadian lore and history, some of Connors' better-known songs include "Bud the Spud", "Big Joe Mufferaw", "The Black Donnellys", "The Martin Hartwell Story", "Reesor Crossing Tragedy", "Sudbury Saturday Night" and "The Hockey Song" (often incorrectly referred to as "The Good Old Hockey Game"); the last is frequently played over sound systems at National Hockey League (NHL) games.
Throughout his years, Tom never lost touch with Gaëtan Lepine, the bartender he befriended in Timmins and the two co-wrote many songs together. These songs are featured in 250 Songs by Stompin' Tom: Including All the Words and Chords.
During the mid-1970s, Connors wrote and recorded The Consumer, an ode to bill-paying that became the theme song for the popular Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) consumer affairs program, Marketplace. For the first few seasons, Connors appeared in the opening credits of the program, before "The Consumer" was replaced as the theme -- initially by an instrumental background version and ultimately by another piece of music entirely.
In 1974 Tom had a series running on CBC Television in which he met and exchanged with folks from all across Canada. Stompin' Tom's Canada was co-produced with the CBC, and consisted of 26 half-hour episodes.
The song that Tom wrote the fastest was "Maritime Waltz", which was completed in 12 minutes.
His character was rough but genuine. As the National Post noted:
Connors' habit of stomping the heel of his left boot to keep rhythm earned him the nickname "that stompin' guy", or "Stomper". It wasn't until Canada's 100th birthday, July 1, 1967, that the name "Stompin" Tom Connors was first used, when Boyd MacDonald, a waiter at the King George Tavern in Peterborough, Ontario introduced Tom on stage. Based on an enthused audience reaction to it, Tom had it officially registered in Ontario as Stompin' Tom Ltd. the following week. Various stories have circulated about the origin of the foot stomping, but it's generally accepted that he did this to keep a strong tempo for his guitar playing -- especially in the noisy bars and beer joints where he frequently performed. After numerous complaints about damaged stage floors, Tom began to carry a piece of plywood that he stomped even more vigorously than before. The "stompin' " board has since become one of his trademarks. After stomping a hole in the wood, he would pick it up and show it to the audience (accompanied by a joke about the quality of the local lumber) before calling for a new one. It was reported that when asked about his "stompin' board", Tom replied, "it's just a stage I'm going through". Stompin' Tom periodically auctioned off his "stompin' boards" for charity, with one board selling for $15,000 in July, 2011.
Tom's favourite guitar was a Gibson Southern Jumbo acoustic that he purchased in 1956 while on his way through Ohio to Nashville, Tennessee and Mexico. He discovered it in a furniture store, hidden in a case on top of a shelf and, after some haggling, purchased it for $80 (he had $90 with him). The guitar was used to audition in 1964 at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, as well as for writing Bud the Spud four years later. Although retired in 1972, it remained in his possession. It has subsequently been refurbished (a birthday gift from his wife, Lena). The serial # inside the guitar reads 2222 in red stamped numbers and the actual age of the guitar is still unknown.
Connors released music on no fewer than seven different labels. His earliest foray into recording was on the CKGB Timmins radio station label. These 45 RPM singles were pressed by Quality Records in Toronto, and distributed (and paid for) primarily by Tom. His first two albums (and two subsequent 45 RPM singles) were released on the Rebel Records bluegrass label, under the name "Tom Connors". These two albums were subsequently re-released on Dominion Records under the Stompin' Tom moniker and had to be totally re-recorded due to a dispute with Rebel Records owner John Irvine.
Most of Connors' well-known albums were released on Dominion Records (1969-70), and after 1971 on the Boot Records label that he co-founded with Jury Krytiuk and Mark Altman. His releases on Dominion (and all subsequent releases) were done under the name "Stompin' Tom Connors". Most of the Rebel and Dominion albums would be reissued (and in some cases, re-recorded) under the Boot label, and would represent the bulk of his recorded material. It was released on 33⁄3 RPM record albums, 45 RPM record singles, 8-tracks, and cassette tapes.
After his retreat from the music business in the late 1970s, he started the A-C-T (Assisting Canadian Talent) label in 1986, and released two albums: Stompin' Tom is Back to Assist Canadian Talent and his comeback album, Fiddle and Songs in 1988. A-C-T also re-released Tom's back catalogue on cassette tapes only.
All of his subsequent releases (and re-releases) have been through Capitol Records / EMI. Most of this work is now available on Compact Disc. In recent years, many of his album releases have included at least one re-recording of one of his earlier songs.
Promoting Canadian artists:
Connors founded three record labels, which promoted not just his own work, but that of other Canadian artists:
Boot Records, together with its budget label Cynda, which were active in the 1970s and 1980s,
A-C-T, active from the late 1980s,
Among artists who were featured on these labels were Liona Boyd,Rita MacNeil, The Canadian Brass, Dixie Flyers, Charlie Panigoniak, among others. Liona Boyd recalled in 2013 about the time Connors signed Boyd to Boot for her first record, 1974's The Guitar, and two more:
Cultural and historical references:
In the book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general who led the UNAMIR peacekeeping force in Rwanda during that country's 1994 genocide reported that he played a recording of Tom's song "The Blue Berets" (about United Nations peacekeeping forces) to keep up his troops' morale while their headquarters was under bombardment.
The Les Claypool Frog Brigade mentions Connors in the song "Long in the Tooth" on the album Purple Onion, while Corb Lund references him in the song "Long Gone to Saskatchewan" and Dean Brody references him in the song "Canadian Girls".
Tim Hus also wrote a song titled "Man With The Black Hat" about Connors.
Songs referencing Canadian historical events:
The following is a list of events in the history of Canada which have been the subject of a song by Connors, who is widely renowned for singing about both well-known and little-known episodes in the country's past.
"Reesor Crossing Tragedy"
1969 song about the Reesor Siding Strike of 1963 which saw three union workers murdered.
When Stompin' Tom worked in the tobacco fields of Tillsonburg, Ontario.
About the Canadian pilot Wilfrid R. "Wop" May.
"The Bridge Came Tumblin' Down"
1972 song about the 19 men killed in the collapse of the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing.
"The Curse of the Marc Guylaine"
1973 song about the fishing trawler Marc Guylaine which saw two sister-ships and two identical ships all sink under inexplicable circumstances.
"Big Joe Mufferaw"
About the French-Canadian logging legend Joseph Montferrand.
"The Martin Hartwell Story"
About the bush pilot Martin Hartwell who survived 31 days in the Northwest Territories, after resorting to cannibalism (Connors' song does not reference this last fact, instead focusing on the efforts of David Pisurayak Kootook in helping keep Hartwell alive at the cost of his own life).
"Algoma Central 69"
About the historical Algoma Central Railway.
"The Black Donnellys' Massacre" and "Jenny Donnelly"
Both about the Black Donnellys
"The Last Fatal Duel"
1973 song about Robert Lyon.
"Fire in the Mine"
About the Hollinger Mines fire that killed 39 miners in Timmins, Ontario.
Colour and controversy:
He was a heavy smoker -- being estimated to consume 100 cigarettes a day -- and an equally heavy drinker. On tour, he had to drive the lead truck, and could never be the last person to go to bed, and that often meant that his fellow musicians had to keep up with his pace.
Connors always wore his black Stetson in public, and refused to remove it for any reason, even when meeting Queen Elizabeth II at a dinner in Ottawa in October 2002. Buckingham Palace smoothed the way by likening Mr. Connors's hat to a religious headdress such as a nun's habit or a Sikh's turban.
Retirement and nationalist protest:
As the 1970s progressed, he retired to his farm at Ballinafad, near Erin, Ontario, to protest the lack of support given to Canadian stories by the policies of the Federal government, particularly the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). He also boycotted the Juno Awards in protest of the qualification guidelines set by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) for possible nominees who were being consistently nominated and awarded outside of their musical genre. He strongly opposed artists who conducted most of their business in the United States being nominated for Junos in Canada. Connors, who referred to these particular artists as "turncoat Canadians", felt that in view of the fact that they had chosen to live and work in the U.S., it was only fair that they competed with Americans for Grammy Awards, and left the Juno competition to those who lived and conducted business in Canada.
His protest caught national attention when he sent back his six Junos accompanied by a letter to the board of directors.
He remained in retirement for 12 years, only returning to the studio in 1986 to produce a new album to promote Canadian artists. That year, Tim Vesely and Dave Bidini of Rheostatics crashed his 50th birthday party and published an article about it in a Toronto newspaper, initiating a resurgence of public and record label interest in his work which resulted in the release in 1988 of Fiddle and Song, his first new album since 1977.
Guest of honour on Late Night:
Connors' music is rarely heard outside Canada, with the possible exception of his anthemic The Hockey Song which has been recorded by many artists. It has been suggested that Connors refused to allow foreign release of his material, although a more likely reason is that the very Canadian-specific subject matter of many of his folk songs has resulted in limited demand in foreign markets. When Late Night with Conan O'Brien taped a week's worth of shows in Canada in 2004, Connors was one of the guests of honour, leading the Toronto audience in a rendition of "The Hockey Song"; this was one of the few times Connors performed on American television. Another Canadian-taped installment of Late Night featured a segment in which Triumph the Insult Comic Dog visited Quebec; a parody of Connors' "Canada Day, Up Canada Way" is heard during the segment.
Dispute with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:
According to Connors' promoter, Brian Edwards, the CBC had expressed interest for Connors to do a music special since 1990. Connors shot and edited a live concert presentation at Hamilton Place at a cost of over $200,000 of his own money in September 2005. Edwards said that a copy was presented to the CBC's head of TV variety and that he received a reply the next day telling him that a decision would be reached within a few weeks. After 10 weeks another email was then sent to the newly appointed programming VP, and a prompt reply came back saying that the broadcaster was moving away from music and variety programming and that the Connors special didn't fit with its strategy.
Edwards says he received another letter from the CBC that reinforced its lack of interest in the concert special, but saying that Connors would have been a great guest to perform a song on the network's Hockeyville series or an excellent subject for a Life and Times project. In response, Connors said,
As far as I'm concerned, if the CBC, our own public network, will not reconsider their refusal to air a Stompin' Tom special, they can take their wonderful offer of letting me sing a song as a guest on some other program and shove it.
In 2014, the soundtrack to the unbroadcast special was released posthumously on CD by Universal Music Canada.
Stompin' Tom: Before the Fame is an autobiography detailing Connors' childhood years in an orphanage, and as a farm labourer. It was a runner-up for the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction in 1996 and became a bestseller in 1997. It details his life before becoming famous. In 2000 Connors wrote his second autobiography The Connors Tone.
Death and memorial service:
Connors died of kidney failure on March 6, 2013 at his home in Ballinafad. He refused to seek medical treatment, as he was skeptical of the benefits of medical technology. On March 7, flags were lowered to half-mast at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and also in Tillsonburg, in order to mark his death. On March 9, that following Saturday night, Hockey Night in Canada broadcast a special tribute to Connors at the opening of its broadcast.
Immediately after his death, the Globe and Mail noted:
In a 1995 interview, Mr. Connors offered the opinion that nobody should die happy:
I think people should die without their dreams being fulfilled, so maybe they can have an excuse for coming around again.
On March 7, several members of the federal New Democratic Party caucus, led by former musicians Charlie Angus and Andrew Cash, performed a group rendition of Connors' signature song Bud the Spud in the foyer of the Canadian House of Commons in tribute.
In addition to reports and obituaries published in the Canadian media, his death was also reported by the New York Times,BBC News and the Xinhua News Agency.
A memorial was held on March 13, 2013 at the Peterborough Memorial Centre in Peterborough, Ontario. Tommy Hunter attended, and the celebration included speeches by former governor general Adrienne Clarkson and Ken Dryden. Testimonials were given or read from others, including Roméo Dallaire, Rita MacNeil and Liona Boyd. Before his death, Connors had personally selected the artists who would perform:
Peterborough Postman, The Blue Berets, The Ballad of Stompin' Tom and The Hockey Song (videos)
Stompin' Tom Connors
Fiddle medley of traditional music (The Maritime Waltz)
Man in the Black Hat
Little Wawa and Gumboot Cloggeroo (medley)
J.P. Cormier and Dave Gunning
Farewell to Nova Scotia
Sylvia Tyson and Cindy Church
The Bridge Came Tumbling Down
Coal Boat Song
So Long Stompin' Tom
I am the Wind
At the end of the service, before Sudbury Saturday Night was played, Tom Connors, Jr spoke about his father, and looked to the future:
He was subsequently buried at Erin Union Cemetery in Erin, Ontario. The headstone contains these words:
The body has returned to sod,
The spirit has returned to God.,
So on this spot, no need for grief,
Here only lies a fallen leaf.,
Until new blossoms form in time,
The tree is where I now reside.,
But with this poem, as you can see,
They haven't heard the last of me.
Connors was also the subject of a video tribute at the 2013 East Coast Music Awards on March 10.
The following honours were conferred on him:
From the Juno Awards, Country Male Vocalist of the Year (1971-1975) and Country Album of the Year (1974, for To It And At It) -- all subsequently returned in 1978. He left instructions that the Junos were not to celebrate him after his death.,
In 1993, a Doctor of Laws degree honoris causa from St. Thomas University, which was the inspiration for his album titled Dr. Stompin' Tom Connors, eh?, released the same year.,
In 1996, Officer of the Order of Canada.,
In 2000, a Lifetime Artistic Achievement award for Popular Music from the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards.,
In 2000, an honorary LL.D. from the University of Toronto.,
In 2002, an honorary Litt.D. from the University of Prince Edward Island.,
In 2009, a SOCAN award for Lifetime Achievement.,
In 2014, it was announced that a commemorative statue would be located in downtown Sudbury, ON.,
In 1993, he declined to be inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.
In The Greatest Canadian list, he ranked thirteenth, the highest placing for any artist on the list. Connors was one of four musicians pictured on the second series of the Canadian Recording Artist Series issued by Canada Post stamps on July 2, 2009.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license