Long before "The Hockey Song" propelled him to Canadian earworm status, I was an apostle of Stompin' Tom Connors and a fierce advocate of the late, great Prince Edward Islander's elevation to poet laureate.
In my files I have a letter from Stompin' Tom himself for a piece I wrote in the Calgary Herald arguing strenuously that the "Connorian oeuvre" should be properly recognized as authentic folk poetry, and recognized as far more meaningful to Canadians than any dot or dash Margaret Atwood ever put to paper.
"Most people just like to laugh at old Stompin' Tom but you took me seriously and I appreciate that," he wrote. "I thank you very much."
In fact, the gratitude goes the other way for a lifetime of marveling at his lyrical gifts and, perhaps most importantly of all, for the being able to share them with my son. He discovered his own taste for Tom at a very young age and independently of me, but our mutual love of Connors' music quickly became a touchstone for us.
We would listen to, and sing, the lyrics around the house. We invented a quiz game where we would test each other on missing lines from some of the more obscure songs such as "A Horse Called Farmer". We eventually graduated to posting, on a Stompin' Tom fan site, a lengthy mock ideological battle based on contrasting hermeneutics for "Sudbury Saturday Night".
My son assumed the position that the song was cleverly constructed neo-liberal propaganda to mask the exploitation, oppression, and ultimately obliteration of identity, suffered by workers who must get "stinko" in order to "think no more of Inco" while the hegemony of capital crushes their bodies and alienates them from the fruits of their own labour. I countered that "Sudbury Saturday Night" is really a song celebrating Christian redemption through the means of worldly work, noting the crucial articulation of Sabbath renewal in the lines:
"We'll drink the loot we borrowed, and recuperate tomorrow
Cause everything is wonderful tonight
We had a good fight….
We'll get to work on Monday but tomorrow's only Sunday
And we're out to have a fun day
For it's Saturday tonight…."
After a long run of such postings, a Connorian stalwart from, I think, Timmins posted the riposte: "Hey you show offs who think you're so smart with all your big words, it's only a f-----g song."
Mr. Timmins was right about us being show offs using pompous vocabularies. He was mistaken about SSN being "only" a song. In fact, it was a bright jewel exemplifying the artistic primitivism that was Stompin' Tom's musical genius. What is startling is to realize just how many such jewels there were in the canon he created during his career.
Most obituaries written after Stompin' Tom's death on March 6, 2013, contained the refrain that he "wrote about ordinary Canadians". He did not merely write about them. He wrote for them. And to them. He was not just a voice for ordinary Canadians. His voice was unmistakably an ordinary Canadian's voice.
Two primary things made him such a remarkable artist. The first was his power of observation to grasp the meaning of the myriad of casual rituals embedded in working and middle class Canadian life. The second was his utter fearlessness in his fresh approach to language—yes, the language of the Walmart crowd, if you will, but with a deliberately wall-eyed sense of humour and risk infusing every rhyme.
Think of the immaculate stanza from the moment in the classic "Gumboot Cloggeroo", when the narrator has returned in his "oil skin trousers" with a "tou'sand pounds of lobster" that has been sold so he can afford with the "money comin' outta me stockins" to take his beloved "Sue" out to the "whoop-dee-doo" at the local barn dance. He enters and notices around the hall that:
"Well there's Boots Bernard and the rough Richards
And the girls from way down Tracadie.
How many Blue Nosers and Herring Chokers
We just don't know exac-ally."
Short-story writer and poet Raymond Carver himself would have been envious of the compressive power in naming a character "Boots" Bernard, and matching that with the scene setting immediacy of having the "rough Richards" on hand as well. There is the wonderful ambience created by the Canadian idiomatic nomenclature of Blue Nosers and Herring Chokers. But it is Stompin Tom's sheer courage to rhyme the place name "Tracadie" with the street-rooted expressiveness of "exac-ally" that makes all the self-styled convention-breaking poets of the 20th Century look like pantywaists by comparison.
Perpetually in his work, we find this entirely unselfconscious drive to bend and re-shape Canadian language into startling rhyme schemes that make the majority of our literary lions look like purblind kittens. Disagree? Let me ask you this. Can you name one literary artist in Canadian history who would have the sheer guts—never mind the talent to pull it off—to find a rhyme, in the middle of the work no less, for the word "appendicitis"?
Yet Stompin' Tom seems to almost toss such a challenge in "The Martin Hartwell Story":
"Oh Mr. Hartwell," said the nurse, "I hope that you will guide us.
To save this mother with her child, and the boy with appendicitis."
Easy, eh? Yeah. Just try it. Stompin' Tom always would. And because of his inborn willingness to write in a way that veered toward, but never lost itself in, recklessness, he was able to craft perhaps the greatest song in Canadian musical history.
"Come on you muckin' slushers
You jack-legged drillers and blasters.
The price of uranium is up,
And there's money to make.
Come on you big rock bolters
Who answer to the name of miner.
This old damn town is still around
On the shores of Elliott Lake.
Time cards in and out
Up and down cages
Gonna make a Heaven
Outta Hell-earned wages.
Come on, Quirky, pay me now.
I got 18 holes a–goin' Pow! Pow! Pow!
And there ain't no music finer.
She's a damn good song for a miner.
One hell of a song for a miner."
Indeed she is.
And to my own dying breath I will argue that Stompin' Tom Connors was one hell of a writer about, for, and to Canada and her people, that it was a hell of a mistake when we did not make him our poet laureate.
If all you know of him is "The Hockey Song", plunge yourself into the Connorian oeuvre. His like will not pass this way again.