When I was in Grade 2, I brought a Stompin’ Tom Connors album to school for show and tell.
Of the many items I brought to school for that purpose over my early school career, my father’s copy of “Stompin’ Tom Meets Big Joe Mufferaw” is the only one I remember.
With Connors’ passing last week, I’ve had the occasion to think on my relationship with the iconic singer-songwriter and his unflagging love for all things Canadian.
Born in the 1970s, I was of the generation, one of the first, that grew up steeped in media. I watched much more television than my parents ever did. I had a computer before it was cool. My Betamax VCR got a lot of use.
And while I had access to more media choices than any generation before, none of those choices really reflected me or my particular Canadian-ness, save for one: my father’s Stompin’ Tom album.
See, I’m from Deep River, deep down in the Ottawa Valley between Mattawa and Petawawa. My father’s from Italy, but my mother comes from old Valley stock going back a couple of generations.
The Ottawa Valley is a unique place in Ontario. Settled by wild Irish and Scotch in the 1800s, attracted by the towering timber and the Commonwealth’s willingness to pay handsomely those brave enough to risk logging the remote woods, it has its own unique music, culture and, even, accent.
My mother’s family, McCarthys from Chalk River, spoke their own language. They spoke Valley. Similar in many ways to the accent of the Maritimes, the Valley has a lexicon and lilt all its own.
When I listened to Stompin’ Tom sing “Big Joe Mufferaw,” I heard the Valley. When he sang about Mattawa and Arnprior and Pembroke, I was amazed: I knew those towns; I’d been to them, and here was a man who thought they were interesting enough to put on a record.
As a child, this was amazing to me, so much so that I wanted to share with my classmates. Stompin’ Tom’s interest in my small corner of Canada made us seem worthwhile. In a way, my love for the Ottawa Valley and its culture comes as much from Big Joe Mufferaw as it does from my own family.
As his work did for many Canadians, Stompin’ Tom reflected my culture back at me and in doing so, gave it a larger-than-life quality. In short, he made us feel important. By reflecting it, he helped define it.
That was his unique gift — to take our stories and weave of them a mythology.
Few artists have that effect on an entire culture. Stompin’ Tom is as much a part of the Canadian identity as universal health care and hockey.
And for that, we will always be in his debt.
Mark Gentili is the managing editor of Northern Life.