He was a Canadian icon who loved his country. This past Labour Day weekend a plaque was unveiled in Ballinafad for the late plywood thumpin’ super-star.
Tom Connors had a rough childhood, starting with his birth to an unwed New Brunswick teenager in 1936. He was shuffled from place to place with his grandmother, to and fro with his mother, in and out of orphanages, and finally in foster care with a couple at Skinner’s Pond, Prince Edward Island. It was revealed later that they only wanted cheap labor on their potato farm.
He was born to ramble. He tried to run away several times, but was always brought back. All the Mounties had to do was wait at the boat for him to arrive by whichever means his hitch hiking got him there. In Connors’ own words, “It’s damn hard to run away when you live on an island.” Later he did manage to escape and left his home to roam this great country called Canada.
As a young boy he already had a good voice and learned rhymes and songs quickly. He wrote his first song at age 11. He purchased a cheap guitar at 14 with money he earned shovelling snow and setting up pins in a bowling alley. He found comfort and companionship in that guitar.
Over the years young Connors wandered from town to town. He had no real destination in mind and worked wherever he could find a job. Often he wouldn’t have two nickels to rub together. At such times would literally sing for his supper. If he was desperate, he’d do something to land himself in jail overnight so he would have a bed, warmth, and a decent meal.
For 13 years he travelled back and forth across Canada, seeing it, as he quipped, “blade of grass by blade of grass.” As he moved around he would listen to people’s stories and was fascinated by the myths of Canada, the lives of its people, and the beauty of the landscape. All this is reflected in his lyrics. With his quirky bar tunes and ballads he amassed an inventory of over 300 songs and nearly 60 albums—ten of which were not yet released at the time of his death.
In 1964 he got his real break when hitchhiking in the far north. Knowing that Connors was destitute, the man who gave him a ride into Timmins handed him a dollar. Connors bought a hamburger and something to drink, then looked for lodging. He was kicked out of a hotel because they thought he was an ordinary tramp. While looking for the “Sally Ann,” he saw a flashing maple leaf on another hotel and made his entrance.
He sidled up to the bar and asked for a beer but ended up only having 35 cents left, a nickel short. Connors and the bar tender, Gaetan Lapein, got to talking. Lapein said he would throw in the nickel if Connors would play and sing a song. That led to another beer and a few more tunes. Lapein was also a songwriter, so he recognized the potential of this man who had a husky, gravelly voice and a style all of his own.
The bar tender went for the manager and the next thing Connors knew he had a bed and a meal ticket that lasted 14 months. For six of those months he made $35 a week – no mike, no stage, just standing in the far corner of a long smoke-filled room belting it out above the din of the crowd, thumping the heel of his boot to keep time with the beat of the music. During that period he had a weekly spot on Timmins CKGB radio and turned out eight 45 rpm recordings.
Connors left Timmins and headed for North Bay. He didn’t find anything there, so on to Sudbury where he landed a contract for three weeks. From there he went on to Chelmsford, Sault Ste. Marie, Wawa, and then back to Sudbury. It was continual travel. If no work available, just “keep on truckin’.”
His popularity increased with his travels. He composed a song for every burg he played in. Each province considered their song as a new provincial anthem.
Thumping his foot was to keep time with the music (and sometimes to be able to hear the beat above the din before he was able to hire a drummer). He thumped to keep a strong tempo for his guitar playing. Many times he clawed holes in stage floors or carpets, hence the birth of the infamous piece of plywood. He stomped his way through a few of those as well; when they were done he would auction them off. In 2011 one went for the hefty sum of $11,000. Connors was referred to as “the stomper” or that “stompin’ guy”. It was during Canada Day Centennial celebrations July 1st l967 when Boyd McDonald, a waiter at the King George Hotel in Peterborough, introduced the gent coming on stage, and asked a big hand for “Stompin’ Tom Connors.” The nickname stuck. Connors liked it, and registered it right away.
Connors married Lena Welsh, a Maritimer, on a television show in 1973. He wanted all the country to know “he had done it.” In 1975 they purchased a 10-acre parcel of land outside Ballinafad, Ontario. From then on that was “home.”
Over the years Stompin’ Tom Connors won many awards. However, in 1976, because he was disgruntled with the way the Juno awards were handled, he returned all six of his in protest. As his songwriter friend in Peterborough, Washboard Hank, said, “It angered him that you had to become a star in the U.S. before you were recognized for your talent in Canada.” Connors would not perform in the States. He did not want his music played in the States, and he did not think that the Junos, the highest Canadian music awards, should go to anyone who “made it big” south of the border instead of staying at home and being a true Canadian artist. To stand behind his objection, he went into a self-imposed exile from the music industry from 1977 until he began touring again in 1988.
Our vivid icon has always been recognized, not only by his stomping, but by his traditional black cowboy boots, jeans and shirt. Topping it off was the black Stetson which he wore all the time. When he was to attend a tea in the presence of Queen Elizabeth in 2002 (Golden Jubilee), Connors stated he would only attend if he could wear his hat – certainly not royalty protocol. After communications back and forth, Buckingham Palace smoothed the way by likening Connors’ hat to religious headdresses such as a nun’s habit or a Sikh’s turban. Thus, clad in his usual attire, he dined with the queen. He represented 1971 among the 50 celebrants chosen to symbolize each year of the monarch’s reign.
In 1995 Connors wrote his first book Before the Fame. This was a runner-up for the Edna Staebler Award for creative nonfiction in 1996, and became a best seller in 1997. In 2000 he authored The Legend Continues – Stompin’ Tom and the Connors Tone.
Tom and Lena Connors plus son Tom Jr. became well-known in their southern Ontario locale where Stompin’ Tom celebrated his 50th birthday in Ballinafad. True to form he penned the Ballad of the Ballinafad Hall. Thomas Charles Connors passed away at home on March 6, 2013. A legend gone, but not forgotten. Connors was 77. He is buried in the Erin Union Cemetery.
Ballinafad residents wanted a special project to commemorate Canada’s 150. A community group decided the best way to celebrate would be to honor a completely Canadian singer whose family has lived in the immediate area for over 40 years.
A plaque recognizing the stompin’ icon was unveiled at the Ballinafad Community Centre on Labour Day weekend. Mingling with the crowd, talking with nearly everyone and having pictures taken with many, were Connors’ wife Lena and son Tom Jr. During the afternoon local musicians entertained and Stompin’ Tom’s songs were played during any lull.
Because of the amount of text the cost of the plaque was considerably more than the group first budgeted. Word spread through social media that extra funding was needed. Donations came from as far as British Columbia. The Wellington County Historical Society was the first contribution they received.
The permanent bronze plaque wasn’t ready for the September unveiling. Thus for the celebration a display plaque was unveiled. When the permanent plaque is finished it will be affixed to the large stone in front of the building and the display plaque will be showcased inside the community centre.
As someone said at Connors’ memorial service in Peterborough “We didn’t ask for Stompin’ Tom – he just blew onto us like a wonderful wind.”