In a sublime act of radio footwork, Jian Ghomeshi replayed his 2010 interview with Stompin’ Tom Conners on CBC Radio 1 on Thursday morning. The traveling troubadour, who saw this country ‘blade of grass by blade of grass,’ passed away on Wednesday at the age of seventy-seven. Dyed in the wool Canadian, Stompin’ Tom bled the Maple Leaf, and told the stories of those making lives above the 49th parallel with unapologetic vigour. It’s tempting to describe him as a Canuckian blend between Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, but his legacy transcends comparisons to familiar figures south of the border: he was thoroughly himself.
“We have our heroes too,” he told Jian, “and they deserve to be honoured.” Stompin’ Tom understood the power of storytelling, knew the importance of seeing broader narratives that reflect our lives, and embraced those who Stayed Home — home being Canada — to fight their fights with destiny on these shores. Listening to him speak through the CBC’s airwaves, not even a day since he had passed, reminding Canadians that is, in fact, okay to be Canadian, was remarkably fitting. He told of the strings of hotels he had played before making his big break, of setting up shop in small town Saskatchewan where locals thought “Stompin’ Tom” was a wrestler, to ultimately — years later — watching New Brunswick, PEI, and Ontario all ‘claim him’ as theirs. Indeed, most of parts of Canada would like to claim him as theirs.
What is most important about Stompin’ Tom’s words, both in his interviews and in his songs, is that between the lines resides not a dormant nationalism, not a constructed patriotism, not an artificial attempt at identity construction, but a stubborn acknowledgement that the lives experienced in Canada matter. And that those lives are not authentically represented by Hollywood, or in the silky folk voices drifting from Tennessee, Montana, or wherever else.
Fiercely fought political battles in PEI, which may not have an audible bark on the national scene but has formidable bite were we to pay attention, matter. Weekend dance floors in rural Manitoba, filled with a quirky mix of hard-drinking farmers and conservative young Mennonites tentatively dabbling in the fray, matter. The Saskatchewan individualistic small businessman that derides tax increases but nevertheless expects the government to step in for the public good should economic times get too rough (try find that parallel in the American south) matter. The thousands of immigrants that make Canadian cities some of the most multicultural places on this planet matter. And how those immigrants relate, do not relate, are alienated by, or are apathetic to a country-singing legend who just passed away; that matters too. The immense power Canadian provinces have to make policy compared to other ‘substate units’ across the globe, the troubled history this country has had with the First Nations who had made a home here centuries before the parliamentary system saw the light of day in North America, the wide open north which looms above us but which many of us have never seen; it all matters.
Stompin’ Tom may not have explicitly sung about some of the above, but the vision of his music celebrates this sort of gazing at our backyard. Even if that backyard is fairly new to many of us. Even if that backyard does not even know if it is a backyard. He fought his fight with destiny here because he saw the stories that live in this country, but more importantly, because he saw how many stories were not being told in this country. His songs, and his voice replayed by an array of insightful CBC Radio hosts, will continue to tell those stories, and so should we.
Johanu Botha is a student of public policy and political philosophy. His hobbies include the mandolin and intermittent bouts of existential angst. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org