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Saturday March 9, 2013

Canada's troubadour sang of everyday lives

From his Prince Edward Island home to Vancouver Island, the hard-living patriot was a true original who could relate to anyone

Back in the days when posses of cowboys galloped across the duotone television screen, you could always tell the good guys because they wore white hats. That's only one of the anomalies about Canadian troubadour Stompin' Tom Connors. He wore a black Stetson, not to side with the bad guys, but because he liked the colour. Besides, he didn't want to give the impression, which a white hat might have conveyed, that he was sissified or pumped up about himself.

Still, there was plenty of dark in the cantankerous outsider who rambled the country, carrying his 3/4-inch plywood stomping plank, the way other musicians might pack a keyboard into their luggage. And when he performed, usually in a black shirt and jeans stretching up from his pointed black cowboy boots, with the hat planted firmly on his head and a guitar slung over his shoulder, he stomped his left foot to keep the beat and stared straight ahead as though hoping a ride would materialize from over the next hill on the highway.

Most entertainers long for international fame and try to write songs that are universal, but Mr. Connors celebrated the particular and shunned the monolithic American musical bandwagon. He'd been told that he was never going to get anywhere singing songs about backwater places, and he agreed that might be true. But as his bandmate Tim Hus, the cowboy singer, once heard him tell an audience, "When you put them all together, we call it Canada." His manager Brian Edwards said, "he could relate to anybody whether you were a doctor, a lawyer, or a homeless person with two cents in your pocket."

Tall and lanky with an aquiline nose and a square jaw, Mr. Connors loved the nooks and hamlets of this country, and the ordinary girls who "are out to bingo" while the boys "are gettin' stinko" on a Sudbury Saturday Night.

A committed drinker and smoker, Mr. Connors, 77, died of renal failure in his home in the Halton Hills northwest of Toronto on March 6. He hadn't sought treatment, according to Mr. Edwards, preferring to succumb to mortality rather than submit to the often dubious miracles of medical technology. As he grew weaker in his last few weeks, he made his farewells, helped plan a memorial/fundraiser for the homeless and wrote a final letter to his fans, imploring them to "keep the Maple Leaf flying high" and reminding them that "this great country kept me inspired with its beauty, character, and spirit ..."

Musician and songwriter Murray McLauchlan thinks Mr. Connors was loved because he "wrote songs for the simple working people of Canada about the things in life they recognized," which "no one else was reflecting." Then there was the music itself. "He was heavily influenced by early Johnny Cash and that 4/4 chugging sound of the Tennessee Three," said Mr. McLauchlan in an e-mail message. "People loved that because they recognized the sound." Of course, he had his detractors. "Urbanites and intellectuals mostly," according to Mr. McLauchlan. People who "appreciated him in an ironic way by lauding him and at the same time laughing at his style and simplistic music."

The part of the country Mr. Connors called home was Prince Edward Island. "It's Bud the Spud, from the bright red mud/ Rollin' down the highway smilin,'" he sang in the song that made his name back in the late 1960s. In fact, like the fictional Anne Shirley, another talismanic figure from PEI, he was born on the mainland, dumped in an orphanage and then sent across the Northumberland Strait to a farm family looking for cheap labour in the potato fields.

That's where Anne of Green Gables, the novel about a feisty, imaginative girl, diverges from the hardscrabble reality of Mr. Connors's life. Skinners Pond was no Green Gables; and Cora and Russell Aylward were deficient in the human kindness that permeated the characters of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. Mr. Connors represents the underside of that much beloved coming-of-age story and that perhaps is also part of his appeal - the loner who survives adversity, damaged but upright.

He was 13 when he managed to evade the police waiting at the ferry dock and escape back to Tormentine on the mainland in one of many attempts to run away from his adoptive parents and reunite with his mother. The two did reconnect, eventually, but it never worked well or for long. "She couldn't treat me as a son, and I couldn't treat her as a mother, because you've lost all that touch and contact and warmth that the average person would have with their mother," he told Robert Everett-Green in a profile in The Globe in 2008.

He wrote his first song, Reversing Falls Darling, when he was 11, and bought a cheap guitar three years later with money he earned shovelling snow and setting up pins in a bowling alley.

From then on the self-taught musician found solace and companionship in his music. He made his own success, hitchhiking and riding freight trains from place to place and digging graves and picking tobacco among other bone crushing jobs to earn his keep. "Tillsonburg, Tillsonburg/My back still aches when I hear that word," he wrote about this period of his life.

His real professional career began in the mid-1960s at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ont., according to Mr. Connors's autobiography, Before the Fame. He was five cents short of the price of a glass of beer, and the bartender pointed to his guitar case and said, "Do you play the guitar, or is that just where you carry your clothes?" Standing in the corner of the bar, singing to slake his prodigious thirst, was the beginning of a longstanding gig that put him on the musical map in Canada.

More than 40 years and nearly 300 songs later, he was still recording and touring. The performances hardly varied, nor did his routines. With a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, the irredeemably nocturnal Mr. Connors quizzed potential bandmates on their own diurnal rhythms before signing them on. Canadian singer/songwriter Dave Gunning, who was his bassist during a seven-week tour in 2002, remembered the following exchange with Mr. Connors.

"Do ya drink?"

"Yes, I do."

"Good. Because we're not a bunch of preachers out on the road. But before you get the gig: Can you handle your liquor?"

"Yeah, pretty good," Mr. Gunning said, promising he wouldn't miss a show.

"That's what I wanted to hear, boy. I just wanted to make sure you're not one of those fallsy-downsies."

Besides requiring a hollow leg, Mr. Gunning willingly promised to stay up late - sometimes until 5 a.m. - every second day on the road. "He liked the company and he was so incredible to talk to in those late-night chats."

Mr. Hus agreed to the same routine after he began playing with Mr. Connors in 2009. At 34, the same age as one of Mr. Connors's sons, Mr. Hus began as a fan, never dreaming he would one day play with his idol. The phone call inviting him to go on tour with Mr. Connors was "the most thrilling" conversation of his life. In retrospect, "the veteran singer from the East Coast and the young singer from the West Coast" made a good pair, said Mr. Hus, because they were both "proud" to write songs about this country.

He "really liked hanging out with the band," said Mr. Hus, a non-smoker. He never minded sitting "in the haze" and "exercising the elbow," while listening to tales of his mentor's rugged life, ferocious patriotism and unwillingness to compromise. "He was the ultimate indie artist before that term even existed."

Mr. Connors was never part of the musical establishment - not a poet like Leonard Cohen or a lyrical balladeer like Gordon Lightfoot - but he held true to the patriotic values he had honed on the road. He sent back his Juno awards in 1978 along with a letter deriding the organizers for honouring minstrels who found their audiences, their material and their incomes abroad. For the next decade he sulked in a self-imposed exile and later refused to be inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.

He agreed to accept the Order of Canada in 1996 and to have his image printed on a postage stamp in 2009, but there were some concessions he wouldn't make: Taking off his hat was one of them. When former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson invited him to lunch with the Queen at Rideau Hall during a royal visit in October, 2002, he said he would be happy to attend, but not if it meant arriving bare-headed.

The guest list included 50 celebrated Canadians, one for each year of Her Majesty's reign, with Mr. Connors representing 1971. There was a flurry of messages back and forth between Ottawa and London to find a diplomatic solution to the protocol dilemma posed by a subject refusing to remove his hat in the presence of his monarch, according to Mr. Edwards, his manager. Buckingham Palace smoothed the way by likening Mr. Connors's black Stetson to a religious headdress such as a nun's habit or a Sikh's turban. Even Mr. Edwards, who has been a friend for more than 40 years, rarely saw Mr. Connors without his trademark black hat. When pressed, he allowed that Mr. Connors was thinning on top, but was definitely not bald.

Late in his career, Mr. Connors connected with the quintessential Canadian audience: hockey fans. "Oh, the good old hockey game/ Is the best game you can name," runs the chorus of The Hockey Song, which became an unofficial anthem for the Ottawa Senators and, later, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It served a different and more sombre purpose at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Wednesday evening: breaking the news that Mr. Connors had died. Among the first to tweet their condolences was Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a fervent hockey fan. "We have lost a true Canadian original. R.I.P. Stompin' Tom Connors. You played the best game that could be played." Not even the opposition parties could argue with that statement.

Charles Thomas Connors was born on Feb. 9, 1936, in Saint John, N.B. His birth certificate listed his teenaged mother's name as Isobel Connors and his father as "unknown." Years later, he met his father, Thomas Joseph Sullivan and learned why his parents hadn't married. She was Catholic and he was Protestant, a formidable barrier in those days. When Mr. Connors fell in love, he made certain to marry his girlfriend, Lena Welsh, another Maritimer. And just so everybody knew, the couple made their vows in 1973 on Luncheon Date, the popular television show hosted by the late Elwood Glover. Forty years later, she was by his side when he breathed his last.

Stompin' Tom Connors is survived by his wife, Lena, four children and several grandchildren.

With files from James Adams

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