Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

His songs echoed his love of Canada

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Canadian country-folk legend Stompin' Tom Connors, whose toe-tapping musical spirit and fierce patriotism established him as one of Canada's strongest cultural icons, has died. He was 77.

Connors passed away Wednesday from what a spokesman described as "natural causes."

Brian Edwards said the musician, rarely seen without his signature black cowboy hat and stomping cowboy boots, knew his health was declining and penned a message for his fans a few days before his death.

"I know Tom loved the fans more than anything. He's probably one of the few artists that built his whole life around fans and nothing else," Edwards said.

"The man stood for everything that Canada stood for and he was very adamant that he stayed a Canadian and made it very apparent that he never left the country to advance his career and stayed very, very true to who he was."

In the letter posted on his official website, Connors issued a final thank-you to his fans, to whom he credited his entire career.

"I want all my fans, past, present, or future, to know that without you, there would have not been any Stompin' Tom," Connors wrote.

"It was a long hard bumpy road, but this great country kept me inspired with its beauty, character, and spirit, driving me to keep marching on and devoted to sing about its people and places that make Canada the greatest country in the world."

The musician said he hoped his work would continue to "bring a little bit of cheer" into people's lives even after his death and called on his fans to continue to bring Canadiana to the world.

"I must now pass the torch, to all of you, to help keep the Maple Leaf flying high, and be the patriot Canada needs now and in the future."

Connors is survived by his wife Lena, two sons, two daughters and several grandchildren.

Dubbed Stompin' Tom for his propensity to pound the floor with his left foot during performances, Connors garnered a devoted following through straight-ahead country-folk tunes that drew inspiration from his extensive travels and focused on the everyman.

Although wide commercial appeal escaped Connors for much of his four-decade career, his heritage-soaked songs like Canada Day, Up Canada Way, The Hockey Song, Bud the Spud, and Sudbury Saturday Night, have come to be regarded as veritable national anthems thanks to their unabashed embrace of all things Canadiana.

As word spread of his death, Canadians from across the country began mouring his loss.

On Twitter, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said "We have lost a true Canadian original. R.I.P. Stompin' Tom Connors. You played the best game that could be played."

At the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, many fans took to their feet as The Hockey Song was played after Connors' death was announced.

Despite status as a Canadian musical icon, Connors often complained that not enough songs were being written about his homeland.

"I don't know why I seem to be the only one, or almost the only one, writing about this country," Connors said in a rare one-on-one interview at his home in Halton Hills, Ont., in 2008.

"It just amazes me that I've been going so long I would think that somebody else (would have) picked up the torch a long time ago and started writing tons of songs about this country. This country is the most underwritten country in the world as far as songs are concerned. We starve, the people in this country are starving for songs about their homeland."

Connors' fervent patriotism brought controversy when his principles put him at loggerheads with the Canadian music industry.

In 1978, he famously returned a handful of Juno Awards he had amassed in previous years, complaining some artists were being awarded in categories outside their genre while other winners had conducted most of their work outside of the country. He derided artists that moved to the United States as "border jumpers."

"I feel that the Junos should be for people who are living in Canada, whose main base of business operations is in Canada, who are working toward the recognition of Canadian talent in this country and who are trying to further the export of such talent from this country to the world with a view to proudly showing off what this country can contribute to the world market," he said in a statement at the time.

The declaration marked the beginning of a 10-year self-imposed exile from the spotlight.

From Connors' earliest days, life was a battle.

He was born in Saint John, N.B., on Feb. 9, 1936, to an unwed teenage mother. According to his autobiography, Before the Fame, he often lived hand-to-mouth as a youngster, hitchhiking with his mother from the age of three, begging on the street by the age of four. At age eight, he was placed in the care of Children's Aid and adopted a year later by a family in Skinner's Pond, P.E.I. He ran away four years later to hitchhike across the country.

Connors bought his first guitar at age 14 and picked up odd jobs as he wandered from town to town, at times working on fishing boats, as a gravedigger, tobacco picker and fry cook.

Legend has it Connors began his musical career when he found himself a nickel short of a beer at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ont., in 1964 at age 28.

The bartender agreed to give him a drink if he would play a few songs but that turned into a 14-month contract to play at the hotel. Three years later, Connors made his first album and garnered his first hit in 1970 with Bud The Spud.

Hundreds more songs followed, many based on actual events, people and towns he had visited.

"I'm a man of the land, I go out into the country and I talk to people and I know the jobs they do and how they feel about their jobs," Connors has said.

In 1988, Connors emerged from his decade-long protest with the album Fiddle and Song, featuring a new fiddle style and the songs Canada Day, Up Canada Way, Lady kd lang, and I Am the Wind. It was followed in 1990 by a 70-city Canadian tour that established him as one of the country's best-loved troubadours.

But his strong convictions about the music industry remained. Connors declined induction into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993.

Accolades he did embrace included an appointment to the Order of Canada in 1996, and his own postage stamp.

"Whatever I do, in my writing, I do it for others," Connors said in the 2008 interview.

"I do it for my country and I do it for my countrymen and that's the only value that I really have. If there was no money in this, I'd be doing it anyway. I've always been that way. Because it's what I am."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 7, 2013 A13

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