Stompin’ Tom and the places he put in songs

John Geddes on why we love Conners


Darren Calabrese/CP

Some years back I was on a train heading down to Toronto from my home in Northwestern Ontario when a freight derailed on the track in front of us. As the conductor walked through the cars announcing that we would have to back up and detour onto the tracks of the Algoma Central Railway, I know I can’t have been the only passenger whose mind turned immediately to these lyrics:

She’s on a bar-hoppin’ spree back in Sault Ste. Marie,

Because of me she’s now fallen star.

She could have been true, but I left her in the Soo,

And I travelled north upon the A.C.R.

The great accomplishment of Stompin’ Tom Connors, whose passing has prompted such a remarkable outpouring of heartfelt memory, was to pluck the A.C.R., and so many other names of Canadian towns and roads and rivers and more, off the map and put them unforgettably into song.

The names of American places, especially those of the mythic South, have so often been sung and for so long that they strike our ears now as naturally at home in a tune.  Not so Canadian proper names. But Stompin’ Tom sang so many of them, and so proudly, that he amounted to a one-man folk corrective to this imbalance.

The reason we loved it so much was that he sang with such irrepressible good humour. Self-consciously nationalistic as he surely was, he never came off as forcing a lesson on us, geographic or otherwise. It was pure fun to hear him reference, say, “rippin’ the tar off the 401,” not just any old highway, in Bud the Spud. I live in Ottawa now, and can’t pass the turnoff to nearby Carleton Place without thinking that’s the town where, so Tom told us, they believe local bodies of water were formed by sweat dripping off the face of Big Joe Mufferaw.

My father had his 1971 LP Live at the Horseshoe (on which he tellingly covered I’ve Been Everywhere, into which Hank Snow dropped a few unexpected Canadian place names in with the auctioneer-paced listing of American towns and cities).  Back in the seventies, listening to Stompin’ Tom every now and then was somehow entirely acceptable for teenagers who fled the room when Tommy Hunter’s TV show came on (and I observe this now only to report on those times, and not out of any lasting lack of regard for Canada’s Country Gentleman).

So it was really no surprise later when hipsters of the cow-punk and alt-country varieties embraced Stompin’ Tom—he’d never seemed square—and he hugged right back, memorably rhyming “twang,” k.d. lang”  and “rangytang” in one of his funniest choruses.

But that sort of downtown credibility was of secondary interest. He’d long since sealed his deal with such a wide swath of the Canadian public that he defied easy pop-culture categorization. I saw him back in the late 1970s in the packed gym of Red Lake District High School, and he was plainly there for everybody.

The gym was new and, as I recall, for the sake of the floor we all had to leave our shoes and boots in the hallway outside. Keeping the crowd sock-footed was just as well. When he got that black boot flying up on stage, the temptation to stomp along, to the detriment of the fresh hardwood, would have been irresistible, especially at moments like his Gumboot Cloggeroo evocation of an East Coast party:

There’s Boots Bernard and the rough Richards

And the girls from way down Tracadie

How many blue-nosers and herring-soakers

We just don’t know exactly.

You can imagine how the place was rollicking during that one and many more. The gym stilled down a good deal, though, when Tom sang Fire in the Mine to that crowd of miners and miners’ wives and their kids. I’d like to imagine they’ll get a bit quiet at some spare moment today, too, there and anyplace he ever mentioned in a song, or would have gotten around to if a troubadour’s life didn’t have to end.

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Stompin’ Tom and the places he put in songs

  1. Thank you for this. I’m sure his family will love it.

  2. I’m pretty sure Tommy Hunter put Stompin’ Tom on the map for many Canadians through some of his appearances on the show. He did for me. You missed some memorable performances.

    • Oct 2, 1970 – With Tommy Hunter, Stompin’ Tom Connors…Songs include: “Big Joe Muffara”; “Ketchup Loves Tomatoes”

      Oct 1, 1971 – With Tommy Hunter, Maurice Bolyer, The Allen Sisters, The Rhythm Pals, Stompin’ Tom Connors, and Al Cherny. Songs include: “Tillsonberg” ; “Big Joe Mufferah”

      Nov 2, 1973 – With host and singer Tommy Hunter. Special guests appearing are Stompin’ Tom Connors,_the/episode_guide/

      • Can any one say there’s not some place in Canada that the mere mention of hits ‘PLAY’ on a Stompin’ Tom song? RIP, I’ll hear ‘ Tilsonburg’ a million more times in my heart

  3. I also must announce the passing of SSSSSSSSSSSS. The autopsy was performed by a poacher, so we don’t know if a poison sandwich is culpable. He is survived by his 77777 kids: Slimy, Sammy, Slippy, Sneaky, Snappy, Sloughy, Simmons, Sampson, Swanson, Samsonite…I always get paid hourly at these gigs.
    Sweety, Stimpy, Sammie, Slimie, Sammy the II….

  4. A part of Canada died with Stompin Tom yesterday

  5. Tillsonburg. My back still aches when I hear that word.

  6. Sad to see Stompin Tom go. We just don’t seem to ever have enough of his kind – singing stuff about ordinary folks in way that reminds you just what binds this country together. Whose left now? Gordie’s getting up there too. Same for Joni and Buffy, and Stan Rogers is long gone now. Could use some more youngsters. But i don’t imagine they’re making any more Stompin Toms.

  7. “He’d long since sealed his deal with such a wide swath of the Canadian public that he defied easy pop-culture categorization.”

    Yes! Nicely put. I’ve been trying to express that sentiment all day.

  8. Stompin’ Tom is Canada. Canada lost itself yesterday and I was weeping last night when I heard the news.

  9. Thanks. A true Canadian treasure!

  10. Is it just me or did he sing particularly more about Northern Ontario than any other place? He has songs dedicated to the Soo, to Sudbury, more than one to Timmins (where he was “discovered”) and my personal favourite of his, Elliot Lake – Muckin Slushers.

  11. A humble man who held his country close to his heart and shared that love with us in his music , a true Canadian RIP Stompin Tom

    • I know what he meant about Tillsonburg. I lived there about 8 years and really loved it. “Course I didn’t work in the tobacco fields, but I saw a few of them. Fred Sabean
      Youngs Cove N’S.

  12. A sad Saturday night in Sudbury ….

  13. my back still aches when I hear the word Tillsonberg

  14. Forget “Tillsonburg”, “Bluenose”, “Sudbury Saturday Night”, etc., good as they are and as often played as they are. If you really want to know where Stompin’ Tom is coming from, go play his ” Believe In Your Country”, the finest and most patriotic song about what it should mean to be Canadian.

    My personal favourite in all his repertoire.

  15. I”On the river Ottawa the best man they ever saw was Big Joe Mufferaw, the old folks say, come and listen what the old folks say”.

    The man, his songs and lyrics transended generations–a pleasure and delight to all in the Ottawa Valley and most of Eastern Canada.
    I know because I was there.

  16. From drafty arenas of yesteryear to the behemoths in the big leagues, The Hockey Song will epitomize the sport, the man and the country.

  17. Thanks for quoting the lines
    “She’s on a bar-hoppin’ spree back in Sault Ste. Marie,
    Because of me she’s now fallen star.
    She could have been true, but I left her in the Soo,
    And I travelled north upon the A.C.R.”
    It brought back fond memories of my home town (the Soo) and those beautiful tours I’ve taken up the ACR to Agawa Canyon. Noboby can match Stompin’ Tom for Canadian content! God Bless him!