It is incredibly difficult to produce memorable language.
I don’t speak from experience. For years, I’ve failed, despite taking to pen or keyboard, pounding out what’s in my head, usually because someone was paying me.
After all, “no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” Wish I’d written that. Sadly, English writer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) got there first.
That’s what made Stompin’ Tom Connors, who died a few days ago at age 77, so remarkable. He did it with an apparent ease that perhaps only those who have spent a lifetime trying can truly appreciate.
Consider this refrain:
It’s Bud the spud from the bright red mud
Rollin' down the highway smiling-
The spuds are big on the back of Bud’s rig
And they’re from Prince Edward Island.
True, it’s not likely to end up in The Norton Anthology of English Language, all 3,024 pages of it – the paperback edition is on sale for $59.99 online. But it is memorable language. It sticks. It burrows into your brain and refuses to leave.
And that, according to my one and only English professor from my undergraduate days – Albert Furtwangler – was a pretty good, working definition of poetry. Memorable language.
Granted, the good professor was likely more given to John Milton and Paradise Lost – all 10 books of it published in 1667 – than Stompin’ Tom. But he’d be wrong if he failed to recognize the remarkable gift Connors had with the language.
Hello out there, we’re on the air, it's Hockey Night tonight.
Tension grows, the whistle blows, and the puck goes down the ice.
The goalie jumps, and the players bump, and the fans all go insane.
Someone roars, “Bobby Scores!” at the good ol’ Hockey Game.
In just four lines, Stompin’ Tom managed to do so many of the things all good storytellers try to do. He makes a movie run in our head. We can see what’s happening as if it’s on a screen right in front of our eyes.
He uses – to cite the rather technical jargon of my profession – description and dialogue to create the scene. And he understands what we, his fans and listeners, bring to the story.
We’re Canadians. We understand cold weather, the frustration of being looked down upon by our American cousins as if we are some sort of country bumpkins. And we know hockey.
Connors knew, instinctively, how to tell us our own stories. He was our minstrel. That’s what made him so special. He was one of us. He got us. He wasn’t trying to be anything other than what he was. And he encouraged us to do the same.
The girls are out to bingo and the boys are gettin' stinko,
And we think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday night.
The glasses they will tinkle when our eyes begin to twinkle,
And we'll think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday night.
That’s working class. The cadence is simple, at least it seems simple enough to someone without so much as a musical bone in his body. And the images it conjures up, of a bunch of hard hats enjoying a night on the town, rings with truth.
Stories about Stompin’ Tom’s kindness to fans - and let’s be frank, his crankily eccentric, contrarian nature at times – are legion. He had a rare talent. He wrote memorable language.
And every year, for years, as a young child, his talent helped remind me, and my parents, what 1-800 tourism number to call when it was time to start planning for summer vacation…
Eight, double-zero - five, six, five - seven, four, two, one.
Rick MacLean is an instructor in the journalismprogram at Holland College in Charlottetown.