Duncan Fremlin's Stories & Songs of Stompin' Tom
On the eve of their sixth 6th annual birthday celebration honouring the Canadian legend, Whiskey Jack's leader and his bandmate Douglas John Cameron sit down to discuss the event and the enduring legacy of STC.
By Bill King
The big night is closing in - Thursday, Jan 31 @ 7:30 pm, Zoomer Hall, 70 Jefferson Ave, Toronto.
This is the 6th Annual Stompin' Tom Birthday Celebration and, as with previous years, it is pulling out all the stops. Special guests will be Gordon Lightfoot, The Good Brothers and Murray Foster. For the first time, one hour of this show will be broadcast live on AM740 radio, 96.7FM in Toronto. Canadian rock and roll legend Robbie Lane will be the host. It will also be streamed on the internet.
Whiskey Jack leader (and author) Duncan Fremlin and partner Douglas John Cameron dropped by CIUT 89.5 FM for an early morning chat about the annual event and life on the road with Tom. Portions of that conversation appear below and it’s a blast!
Bill King: The book is wonderful. When I read a book about an artist, I really want to know who that person is and I've found that some of the best books are written by sidemen or roadies. If you're playing behind a Ronnie Hawkins, once off stage and back in the band room, it can be pure insanity. And the madness is something you want to capture for people who aren’t privy to that private arena.
Duncan Fremlin: And often it is more interesting than if the actual guy was writing the book. You know their version is going to be a lot of fluff. They’ll paint a nice picture.
B.K: And then there’s the fear of getting sued for this. Did you have to scrub the book in any way?
D.F: No, because all I did was tell my stories. These are my stories.
B.K: So, there are no legal issues writing from your recollections?
D.F: I was there, man, I was in that room - so no. And certainly, it’s my perspective on what happened. As I say in the book, everybody else has their own memory of what happened that day, but I know when Tom almost punched me in the nose. I was there.
B.K: What was the infraction?
D.F: Oh God, it's a long story. It's the longest story in the book, and it started in Regina and ended up in New Brunswick. It took a while to piss him off. After this exchange, we ended up becoming best buddies and I'm convinced it was because I stood up to him. He pissed me off. I told him, and I told him why. He seemed to like that, and we became way better friends after that.
B.K: You’ve got to hold your ground.
D.F: I find benign dictatorships work best in bands.
Douglas John Cameron: I can attest to that. I've never wanted to punch Duncan. But I've seen Duncan in action and maybe you experienced this with Tom because I think Tom might have been a little more of a dictator. I think Duncan is a kind of benign dictator because you know what he says goes. If you have a band or any group of people, you need leadership. As a result, Duncan not only has command, but he also has responsibilities. I find it very easy to work with that - because he's very straight with me. On occasion, I've had to modify my behaviour. I guess that's a good way to say it.
B.K: But he doesn't look like somebody who’d ever modify his behaviour.
D.F: When you have a guy in the band like Douglas John, who's been nominated twice for Juno Awards and you can only pay him fifty bucks at the end the gig, we all have to modify our behaviour.
B.K: What's the story behind “Gumboot Cloggeroo”?
D.F: Tom recorded it a few times. We open our show with "Gumboot" every night because it's kick ass.
B.K: It sounds even better with Whiskey Jack behind it.
D.F: On this version, the late Graham Townsend plays fiddle. You must have done some sessions with him over the years. If I listen to the early stuff Tom recorded back on CKGB in Timmins, which was just him and the boot and the guitar, I think of a Bob Dylan, back when he was seventeen just sitting in front of a mic. That voice was pure. Cigarettes hadn't done their damage yet. And the energy, man, the energy. I so admire these guys, how hard they worked and what they had to go through to be successful. We have no idea. We didn't have to drive the roads in a 1949 Chrysler with an oil leak on bad tires.
We got in a conversation earlier about selling tickets. Tom had a guy who went a day early to the other towns. If he’s going to do a show in Brandon, Manitoba, the night before, he'd be in Kenora or something. So, he’d send the guy ahead with some posters and get on the radio or whatever. That's how they did it. That’s how he built his career.
B.K: It's pretty much how those small circuses operated in towns during the 60s’. There'd be an advance team of maybe two people who would put up a poster and hit up the radio stations - sort of stir things up a bit and a day or so later the circus would arrive, and it would be the only event. What about the upcoming show?
D.F: My 2019 Stompin’ Tom Birthday Show is the sixth annual, so every year it's been a little bit different. We've had amazing guests over the years. Adrienne Clarkson, JP Cormier, Kim Stockwood, and Sean Cullen. I'm never quite sure who's going to show up. But this year, we know for sure that The Good Brothers are going be there and sing Tom's great song, “The Don Valley Jail”. Murray Foster from Great Big Sea and Moxy Fruvous, who also runs North America's most successful songwriting school, will also perform. He's also a playwright; an amazing talent. He's going to sing one of our favourite songs, “The Bug Song”.
Gordon Lightfoot will also be there this year. He's come before on a couple of occasions. The show will be broadcast live on AM740 from 8 to 9 p.m. on Robbie Lane's Show - Robbie Lane and theDisciples. He's going be our host that night. We'll play a little bit before 8 p.m. and play a little bit after. We'll have a cake because it would have been Tom's 82 birthday. We sing happy birthday, and we feel Tom’s presence in the room, Bill. He's looking over our shoulder making sure we don't screw up the “Hockey Song”.
The very first show we played with Tom was on July 1, 1993, on Parliament Hill. He played “The Hockey Song” and mixed up the verses. It was in front of 500,000 people and broadcast coast to coast on CBC. I can't say he was nervous, but he was excited. We sang that song at the Canada Walk of Fame induction ceremony a couple of years ago. Brian Mulroney was in the audience. I asked the crowd to sing the chorus, and I urged them on saying, “Tom's up there, he can hear you.” I look out, and there's Brian Mulroney belting it out with his Irish baritone. He knows the words - “it’s a good old hockey game.”
B.K: Politicians want to be entertainers. The eight years Obama was in office, it was like the world of music travelled through that White House. Every day there were concerts in the atrium and since Individual #1 walked through the doors - the music has stopped.
DJC: Speaking of politicians and music and Stompin’ Tom Connors, it's interesting that someone like Stompin’ Tom writes a song about hockey, which you know is in the lifeblood of the country and most of our own lives as well, and that becomes something that defines the identity of the nation. Politicians are hard-pressed to come up with anything that even resembles that. The only thing I can think of is when I was quite young, and the elder Trudeau was the prime minister, and there was a kind of surge of Canadian nationalism and some sense of identity.
Stompin’ Tom did it by travelling town to town with his plywood and his boot and his guitar. He has forged a kind of identity for the nation in his songs, which are right in our zeitgeist. It’s gone beyond our country because they use the “Hockey Song” in all the NHL arenas around North America. I don’t know what the Americans hear when they sing “The Hockey Song”. Do they understand what it says about our nation?
B.K: "Algoma 69?"
D.F: That was released on the fiftieth-anniversary compilation CD by Ole - Tom's new record label. That song was our contribution, and it's one of our more popular songs.
B.K: I love that sound. It reminds me of when I was a kid. The backboards of pickup trucks on a Saturday afternoon, the foot stomping, fiddles soaring, and all those people gathering around.
D.F: It's not like Tom's version. We added a couple of things and gave it more of a train feel. I played it at his house on his 70th birthday party. He used to invite us up to play for his parties. He'd get up and sing with us. But that night I played him this version and I was a little nervous because I wasn't sure if he was going like it. But he loved it.
B.K: How did he first react to having a band surround him and fill in the spaces?
D.F: We were on tour in 1993 with Graham Townsend, the great fiddler, and Stompin’ Tom. We would play our segment, and then Graham would come on stage and play with us for a few songs. Tom would come on later. Graham knew how to work with the band. Tom did not. With Tom, we had to play to him. When he’d start playing a song, we had to watch his right hand and listen closely to find out first of all, what key he's playing in - then what song he was playing and where the tempo was. He wouldn't change chords the way you and I would change. We had to sort of learn that rhythm.
So, I can't say Tom actually played with a band. He always loved to have a band. But Graham knew how to work with a band. After three months of playing with Graham Townsend, Whiskey Jack never sounded so good. We had never been as tight as we were with Graham. He’d tell us to “hop on boy and it’s a whole lot of G.”
B.K: Doug, you never got punched out…
DJC. Truth be known, I'm a newcomer to this whole business. My experience with Stompin’ Tom is sort of one of discovery. I certainly knew Stompin Tom’ - I knew the hits, but I didn't realize the depth of the catalogue of his songs. We do a whole bunch of his material that is not familiar. As Duncan was just talking about with “Algoma 69”, we take the songs and we kind of make them our own. And, as a singer, I think its kind of funny because the thing I was saying as you were talking about Stompin’ Tom playing with the band, what I notice about Tom is that his musical thing is from the East Coast.
There's a lot of East Coast in the way that he plays. The idea that he wouldn't follow the chord chart the same way twice and he had his own idiosyncratic ways of doing things. What I've discovered is that he's an amazing songwriter. We know the “Bud the Spuds” - the stuff that's very familiar. But if you go a little bit past that, you find this wealth of songs that are quite beautiful, some of which are quite sensitive. That for me has been what's been so exciting about learning, plus also having to learn songs with eight verses. It is totally mind-numbing to try to sing a song that has eight or more verses.
When I first started doing them, I would have the lyrics on an iPad because I thought to myself, this is impossible. And finally, I realized that I wasn't connecting with the audience in the way I that I should. I began to learn the songs were stories and that if I could tell the story through eight verses, that would be the way I could propel myself through these incredibly long songs. Although he did write the more typical sort of country song - verse chorus, verse chorus or whatever, he also wrote these story type songs.
To me “Margo's Cargo” is a perfect example. A couple stops out in Newfoundland with a cow in the back of a pick-up truck collecting the manure so they can drive all the way across the coast - the Atlantic provinces through Quebec, come to Toronto and dump the manure at the corner of Queen and Yonge. This is the story. You've got to tell this story in a way the audience understands it. For me, this has been a great opportunity to expand as a singer and connect with audiences but also start to appreciate the songs that he wrote. He wrote how many songs? Hundreds. I have this big book at home that I think has two hundred and fifty songs. And as I say, some of them are quite beautiful. Some of them are melancholic. Some of them are the more traditional ones that we know and that we all sing.
B.K: He wrote songs about communities. Were the communities always accepting of a song about them?
DJC: The story of “Tillsonburg”.
D.F: It was one of his first hits. Early in his career, he arrives in “Tillsonburg” to play a show. As he drives down the main drag, he hears every storefront playing the song to the street. They have a speaker on the outside of the store, and they're playing “Tillsonburg” to the town. Imagine, this is a young songwriter who's just starting out really - hasn't really achieved the fame that he eventually achieved. It must have been an amazing thrill for him. I can't think of any instance where – oh, I shouldn't say that.
When he wrote “Sudbury Saturday Night”, Inco demanded it not be played on the local radio station because it was anti-Inco. He, of course, played it every chance he could. As soon as he received any pushback, he’d just say, screw you. I’m going to play it. The same thing happened in Timmins and Kirkland Lake when he wrote his songs about mining disasters. The mining companies didn't want him to sing those songs. The working man didn't have a voice on these issues those days, so they embraced the songs as their own.
DJC: There's something about when you hear yourself in the music of a performer. I think Stompin’ Tom did that for Canadians in a huge way. We did a show in Niagara-on-the-Lake to what was primarily a classical music crowd. The audience was not made up of your typical rural Stompin’ Tom fans, the kind of audience we encounter a lot. They were a sophisticated Niagara classical music bunch, and they stood up and sang the songs that mentioned their towns. When you hear yourself reflected back in some kind of art, music, movie or whatever, it speaks volumes of the artist. I remember Going Down the Road which was one of the first Canadian movies I saw. Even though it was about the east coast while I’m living in Toronto, I looked at it, and I thought 'this is me.'
This is the same thing that happens when you hear a song about your home town. There's one song that we sing, “Around the Bay And Back Again.” I come from Midland, and the closest mention of Midland in a Stompin’ Tom song is Penetanguishene. That’s really something. I remember Tom didn't play in Midland because Midland was dry, but he played in Penetanguishene. He played at the Commodore Hotel, and I was too young to go. But I remember when Stompin’ Tom would come there would be a buzz. It was all about how unique he was. But it was also about how folks would hear themselves in his songs, and I think it's still the same today.