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Stompin' Tom was a true original

Canadian musical icon remembered

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TORONTO -- Stompin' Tom Connors was remembered Thursday as a true Canuck icon and a prodigious songwriter who cared so fiercely about representing his vast country in song he never saw fit to chase riches outside Canada's borders -- despite worldwide respect.

The tireless songwriter -- who once told The Canadian Press that he'd written 260 songs in his career, "all about Canada" -- penned tunes about "gettin' stinko" in northern Ontario mining towns (Sudbury Saturday Night), about Manitoban heroes of the First World War (Wop May) and about prospecting for riches in the deep North (Long Gone to the Yukon).

He was the rare homegrown star who stayed home. And he doggedly urged his fellow Canadian songwriters to continue chronicling the stories tucked in each corner of this sweeping land, even if it meant a diminished place in an industry that often has its eye toward the U.S.

"He was a true original," said former EMI Canada president Deane Cameron. "He was a storyteller-troubadour and a tremendous promoter of the Canadian identity in a very down-to-earth, storyteller kind of way."

The death of Connors on Wednesday at age 77 touched off a flood of remembrances across the country, including public tributes from the likes of k.d. lang, Bryan Adams and Margaret Atwood.

From hockey coaches to friends and cherished musical peers, scores of Canadians took a moment to pay tribute to the one-of-a-kind songwriter.

"Stomp on Stompin' Tom," wrote lang on Twitter. "May you have a swift rebirth. Thanks for shedding some light on our selves and our Canadian culture."

Folk singer/songwriter J.P. Cormier met Connors back in 1990. A fledgling musician, Cormier was 19 years old at the time and completely broke.

Cormier had grown up "really, really poor," just like Connors, who lived hand-to-mouth as a youngster, begged on the street at age four and hitchhiked across Canada at the ripe age of 12, snapping up odd jobs as a gravedigger, tobacco picker and fry cook.

The multi-instrumentalist Cormier was hired by Connors as the utility man on his comeback tour. Starstruck, Cormier went to Connors' house and the country legend sized up his duds over the kitchen table.

"He said: SSLqGo to town and get some clothes for the tour.' And he handed me $500 in cash. When he put it in my hand, I started crying. And his wife looked at me and said, SSLqWhat's wrong?' I said, SSLqThis is the most money I've had in my hand in my life.' SDRq

Eventually, Cormier says Connors "became like a father to me." He said Connors' insistence upon writing about Canadian cities and people, rather than chasing riches Stateside, was a sadly unique position for a marquee Canadian artist.

"He tried so hard to get us to embrace our own country and our own ways and not take on the ways of the Americans and the American industry. He tried so hard to get us to do that. And frankly, nobody has. Nobody's done it," said Cormier.

"He was so unique -- he could have easily been a (Grand Ole) Opry character. There's no question that he could have done that. He could have went down and written about America and about the same things that they wrote about. He chose not to do that."

Nova Scotia folksinger Dave Gunning's relationship with Connors dates back to 2002, when he was hired to play upright bass on his tour.

But his history with Connors goes back longer than that.

When he attended Saint Mary's University in Halifax in the early '90s, the two most popular bands to soundtrack floor parties were Connors and the Tragically Hip.

He learned about Canadian history through Connors' music, listening to the black-hatted performer's gritty voice hum about the Frank Slide disaster in what is now Alberta or tobacco farming in Tillsonburg, Ont.

"Remove Stompin' Tom from the equation, and Canada would be a much more boring place," Gunning said in a telephone interview.

"He's truly ours, and only we can truly understand it. He never really left the borders too often. He loved Canada."

In an interview with CTV, another Canadian icon -- Gordon Lightfoot -- remarked on Connors' astonishing output, singling out The Hockey Song in particular.

"It really is a powerful song to hear onstage, although it is a very light-hearted song," said Lightfoot.

"He was a powerful entertainer and he had a powerful voice. He was a great player. He always had great musicians working with him."

Cameron, meanwhile, noted Connors was an inspiration to other musicians because of his commitment to his musical vision.

"He was a man of conviction. Everybody knew that he stood for certain things, Canadianism being at the top of that list."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2013 A14

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