It goes something like this: Stompin’ Tom was a Canadian icon, who travelled the country for decades. A common man who reached out to the common people, wrote songs about the places he visited and stories he heard, and who succeeded despite being ignored by radio and the music industry.
It’s not that this story is untrue. But, like the history of Canada and our evolving views of our own country, it’s more complicated than that.
I have read Stompin’ Tom Connors extensive two-volume autobiography, so when I heard about Charlie Rhindress’ Stompin’ Tom Connors: The myth and the man—an unauthorized biography, I wondered how much more there was to say. But I had enjoyed Rhindress’ biography of Rita MacNeil, so I dove into the Stompin’ Tom book.
Rhindress relies on the autobiography, of course, but he also draws on many other sources, such as interviews Stompin’ Tom did with interviewers like Alden Nowlan and Peter Gzowski, and conversations with band members, including Nova Scotia’s Dave Gunning. He traces his subject’s life and career, from his painfully difficult childhood, to his travelling years, his remarkable run of hits, retirement, and a late-career renaissance after being embraced by a new generation of fans.
Rhindress points out inconsistencies in Stompin’ Tom’s stories—things that couldn’t have happened as he said—but The myth and the man isn’t a misguided “gotcha” of a book. Instead, it paints a portrait of two different people. One of them is the well-loved character of Stompin’ Tom. The other is Tom Connors, a well-read savvy businessman with an interest in literature and comparative religion, who carefully curated his image as the little guy. Connors makes this distinction himself, at one point asking a visitor not to call him Stompin’ Tom at home.
The two characters sometimes merge, as when Stompin’ Tom is a guest of honour at a Rideau Hall dinner (he was friends with then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson) and asks for a ham sandwich with mustard on white bread instead of the fancy cuisine on offer.
And one thing that is clearly not made up is Stompin’ Tom’s love for his fans and the personal attention he gave them. When she was in elementary school, my daughter went through a phase in which she absolutely loved Stompin’ Tom. So she wrote to him. He wrote back, sending a note he said he had typewritten himself, and including a pile of signed swag for her.
Stompin’ Tom’s love of Canada came from his endless travels (he got his first apartment at 35) and conversations, and one of his strongest passions was that Canadians should be able to make it at home. He was a nationalist and a populist, in an era in which nationalism and populism had very different connotations. His nationalism was one of celebration, and his populism was rooted in elevating working people, not in a politics of hatred and division.
Read Rhindress’ book in time for Canada Day, put on some Stompin’ Tom tunes, and celebrate a complex musician and country.