Two National Musical Icons, 10,000 Miles Apart
By Richard Flohil.
Canadians all know Stompin’ Tom Connors.
He’s still a national icon, nearly a decade after his passing. Tall, skinny and black-cowboy-hatted, hammering his heel on a plank of plywood, he was as Canadian as the Prairies, the towers of Toronto, and the smell of the sea in Newfoundland’s coves. Songs like “Sudbury Saturday Night”, “Bud the Spud” and “The Hockey Song” will always be part of the Canadian character.
After all, how Canadian can a song be?
Mind you, you couldn’t hear much of his music on country radio stations; the urban, grey-suited gatekeepers thought he was a hick from the Maritimes and that his music fitted their “formats” as comfortably as a bulldozer on a manicured lawn. Songs about Canada, potato-loaded trucks rippin’ the tar off the 401, getting drunk in a North Ontario mining town, Toronto streetcars or picking tobacco in Tillsonburg — well, that wasn’t country music, right?
I first met him in 1970, and I recall his boat-like Chevrolet parked outside the Horseshoe on Toronto’s Queen Street, with a bright red trailer emblazoned with the legend: “Stompin’ Tom Connors: The Pride of North Ontario.” I wrote the first cover story about him in a magazine called The Canadian Composer and it didn’t take long for him to become a national figure; other magazines followed suit, and he became a staple of CBC radio and television. Three years later, he was married on a CBC lunchtime TV chat show.
Rough and ready, I recall him telling me how much he hated policemen, how he’d hitch-hiked to Nashville to meet Hank Snow (and was rudely turned away), and how he’d been a short-order cook in a down-at-heel diner in a shabby part of downtown Toronto.
Years later, at a gala dinner at which he was being given a lifetime achievement award, I introduced him to my dinner companion. “Where are you from?” he asked; she mentioned a small island off New Brunswick, and the name of her uncle. “I remember him,” he responded. “He taught me my first three chords on the guitar.” He paused, and added: “Two of ‘em were wrong.”
Tom didn’t have much of a voice, but it was serviceable. His songs — and he wrote more than 300 — were banged out in a hurry, and one could hardly call them poetry. And he recorded his songs even faster. Once, he put together a three-album box set of classic country covers in a mere three days. And sometimes his songs hit a perfect place and told true stories, and sometimes they were doggerel — and he put the same effort and energy performing both.
Yes, he smoked 100 cigarettes a day, and his beer intake was legendary. A contrarian all his life, he attacked broadcasters for not playing recognizably Canadian music, returned his Juno Awards because Canadian “border jumpers” like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, who lived in the United States, were also Juno nominees or winners. And when he was invited to meet the Queen, he refused if he had to take his black cowboy hat off. (Buckingham Palace agreed, saying that Connors’ hat could be regarded as religious headgear.)
When he died, in 2013 aged 77, CBC’s National News paid tribute:
Tom certainly was a contrarian. A populist artist. Bloody minded. Stubborn. Difficult. Prolific. Talented. And able to touch millions of Canadians with his music.
Was he unique?
Oddly, he was not.
Ten thousand miles from Canada, meet Australia’s “Stompin’ Tom.”
A national icon. A man who played every Down Under town and city and every club, concert hall, outback cattle station and Aboriginal community from one end of the country to the other. A man who, every year, undertook a 30,000-mile tour of his homeland.
His name was David Gordon Kirkpatrick — but he was far, far better known as Slim Dusty. Like Tom Connors he remains, 18 years after his death, incredibly popular in his homeland, and — as always had been the case — practically unknown everywhere else in the world.
I sing about the things I see around me
The beauty of Australia that surrounds me
I sing about the people I know me and the places that I go
Like Tom Connors, Slim Dusty always wore a battered cowboy hat (a distinctly Australian ”bush” hat). Like Tom, some of Dusty’s songs were pertinent and powerful, others were simple ditties that could have been written by a six-year-old — but every one of them was as Australian as “Waltzing Matilda.”
Incidentally, if the lyrics confuse you, here’s a video that explains the song and its specifically Australian vocabulary:
Dusty’s most famous song (which he did not write) was a classic called “The Pub With No Beer” — it was the only one of his tunes which got interest around the world, and it spawned a bunch of prequels and sequels that capitalized on the success of the original. And what other Aussie song has been covered by The Dubliners, the Irish Rovers and Midnight Oil?
Almost all the songs he recorded were about Australia — narratives about heroes like Ned Kelly, Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson, or songs about sheep shearing, the beauty of the outback, long distance transport drivers, the railway that runs through the country or places like Gundagai and Murrumbodgee and Camooweal.
When Slim Dusty died in 2003, aged 76, there was a State Funeral attended by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and thousands of fans. Many of whom stood outside the Sydney Cathedral; the event was televised nationally. The Anglican Dean of Sydney, in mid-service, led the congregation — and the fans outside —in a rousing version of “The Pub with No Beer.”
A national hero had gone.
I’ve always wondered whether Slim Dusty had ever met Stompin’ Tom. If there is an afterlife I hope they’re comparing their similar careers, wondering whether they’ll be remembered in their respective countries, and sharing a few beers in a pub with a plentiful supply of beer.
Molson Canadian is on tap, and there’s some nice frosty Fosters…
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Richard Flohil is a semi-retired Canadian music business veteran, who tries to write something interesting every month for The Sound Cafe…