"Stompin' Tom and I were fifteen when we hitched across the country together. But Tom, even at that time had one heck of a repertoire of his own stuff and a whole lot of the old cowboy things. I didn't figure I had any talent - until I took to writing. By the time I was about eighteen I started writing some songs. Some weren't too bad - at least the ability to phrase was there. Also, for years I'd been a painter, an artist, everything from oils to water colours and pencil sketches, sculpting, moulding - everything from clay work to wood, leatherwork - everything going."1
When Steve and Tom began
their travels which would last for the better part of 16 years, they only
wanted to see and experience the world through the romantic eyes of the
"hippy" hobos of depression. They didn't have to do much to experience
the pains of hunger and cold, or the warmth of Canadian hospitality. They'd
hitch-hike, hop freights or walk to the next place without a care in the
world, without knowing where their next meal would be or when it would
be. They glamourized the hobo existence.
"Occasionally we would jump a fast-moving freight train, grabbing at the ladder of the handiest car. Sometimes luck was with us, and we would ride in style in an empty box-car. I do remember one occasion, though, when we rode all night in a slatted cattle-car. The "air-conditioning" of the spaces between the slats left us so stiff with cold that we could hardly jump off in the morning."2
Sometimes they would arrive at whatever destination dark as coal or smelling like manure, with straw bits in their hair and clothes, startling the folks of a sleepy small town when they walked down main street to a restaurant.
"... there is one more train ride that I would like to mention" said Steve. "It was a very hot summer day, and with a full three day's hunger gnawing at our vitals. We had ridden a long way in a box car with a piece of wood jammed between the door and the casing, (to keep the door from slamming shut and consequently locking us in), when the train slowed and finally came to a stop. After waiting quite a while, (we thought we had come to some central rail yard) we jumped out. We were wrong. Our empty box-car had simply been shunted into some siding in the middle of nowhere, and the rest of the train was long since gone! With no highway near, we had only one choice - to walk the tracks.3"
Foote goes on to explain that later that afternoon they found a small trickle of water coming out of a rock. He found a packet of Freshie (remember, the crystal powder you add to water for that refreshing, unsugared drink?). But without a cup, they took turns sprinkling the Freshie into the pool and slurping it up while laying on their bellies.
"But, good times or bad; cold or comfortable; bone-tired or rested; two buddies, closer than brothers, one tall, lean and tough; the other, short, stocky and rugged, made it through, side by side!"4
They'd go anywhere that a ride would take them, even if they had just come from there. It really didn't matter. Their travels took them from St. John's on the Atlantic to Vancouver Island on the Pacific. They'd work odd jobs, anything they could get to put a few dollars into their ragged pockets to take them some place else. They entered towns with names they had never heard of to find some kind of job, cutting wood, digging a grave, working on a road crew or loading up a lumber truck.
(from Stompin' Tom - Before The Fame, Viking Press 1995, Toronto)
According to Tom Connors: "I remember once, in the Montreal bus terminal, we were recovering from the severe cold without a cent between us, wondering what we were gonna do next. Just a cup of coffee to ward off the hunger would be alright. So I went up and asked a guy if he could give us a dime or two for some coffee and when I returned I found Steve with un unrapped chocolate bar in his hand. 'Where'd ya get that from?' I asked. He'd been saving it for a while, just for an occasion like this when we were really down and out. I mean, a normal guy would have just eaten the damn thing, which he could have done. But Steve, the true loyal friend that he was, saved it to share with me. That's how close we were."5
Connors was the real travel hound. Escaping extreme poverty and feeling like a complete orphan, he had nothing to go back to anywhere. For the longest time he knew nothing about the whereabouts of his mother from whom he had been separated since he was a young child. Except for a brief meeting with her in Saint John when he was about 14, he had no knowledge of where she was staying. His new home was on the road where he thrived. With his stubborn strength of character, always the scrapper, he was able to get by even in the roughest of places.
Foote, however, was always lured back home to Saint John. After a few years on the road he would end up there, working for a year till a call from Connors persuaded him to hit the road again. "Meet me in Montreal," was all that it would take. Or, "Hey Steve, I've got wheels. Are you coming?" Sometimes Connors would actually knock on his door. Steve would open it to the biggest grin in the world knowing that his comfortable existence, such that it was, was about to be ended.
One of Tom's schemes was to hitch-hike down to Mexico. They crossed the US border and made it down to Texas on one trip, whence they parted: Tom returning back to Canada and Steve crossing over into Mexico.
They would often check into local jails asking the cops if they could spend the night in a cell. Tom would pull out his guitar and sing to the desk sergeant which would usually get them a breakfast to boot.
Their road trips resulted in hundreds of stories, many of which have ended up in both Steve's and Tom's songs.
Connors once told me the tale of Lucky Jim: "Well, there was this fellow, we used to call "Lucky Jim", because he was always lucky in a game of pool. Many a times we'd send Jim into a pool hall to get into a game with one of the better players. Steve and I would soon follow him in to watch and of course we would bet on Lucky Jim. We could always count on Jim winning us a few bucks."6
Connors went on to tell another little story that included Lucky Jim:
"Often we'd be walking down a dirt road past a farm and we'd take turns to go up to the farm house and ask for a sandwich or something to eat. This time it was my turn, so I walks up to the farm house, leaving Steve and Lucky Jim sitting by the ditch. I just happened to notice a couple of lemon meringue pies cooling by an open window so I figured I'd just take 'em. Well, when I returned to the road carrying those two pies, you should have seen the looks on their faces! We went down to a stream and ate the pies when Jim picked up one of the plates and was gonna throw it across the river like a Frisbee. Just then I got an idea:
"Jim, it wouldn't be right breakin' those plates; the lady was good enough to give us the pies and I did promise that we'd return those plates."
So we set Jim up to return the plates. Steve and I watched from the side of the road as Jim knocked on the door holding the pe plates. All we saw was a mop slap around his face. It was pranks like those that got us through the rougher times when we could laugh at ourselves."7
It was on one of those trips back home, away from Connors, that Steve started learning how to play the guitar. Right from the start, said Tom, "Steve's style of writing and playing was different from my own. That's why I've only ever recorded one of Steve's songs (Log Train), because they're just not my style. They're unique to him."8
Accordingly, Steve comments:
There's Scaler Jake from Elliot Lake, Pike McGraw from Mattawa,
and you name off some towns, which was his thing at the time.... I guess with Tom and myself there's just no comparison between our writings at all. I'm not saying that he can't write well. I just mean that there's a helluva difference between our styles"9
When Tom heard Steve pick
the guitar he was impressed. He thought Steve could pick a lot better than
he could. Sometimes when back in Saint John Steve would pick up a few dollars
Back in Saint John in the early 1960s Steve got hired on as a stevedore where he worked for the better part of two years.
"I remember the fist place I played. It was in a waterfront bar down in old Saint John, a real cut-and-shoot sort of joint. I knew all the lads in there. I'd been going in there for quite some time. Of course, I was working on the docks at the time - as a stevedore, longshoreman, etcetera.
(Steve's union membership card)
"One night somebody said we should have some music. I only lived couple of blocks from there, so I beat it on home, grabbed my old guitar, and came back and thrashed out a few songs. The boss came over and said: "Listen, like a job in here?" Oh boy, I was happy! Now, on the Saint John waterfront, the summer trade usually comes up the lakes, say from Toronto or wherever, and we get the winter trade because it's either that way, or ship it by rail. Well that's only good for three months or so. So we were just coming to the end of the winter port activities, and here was a job playing in a real honest-to-goodness bar, see. To me at that time, this was real glory."
Steve goes on to explain:
"The guy who owned the bar also owned a taxi service. And I sang for the first week or more - no microphone, no nothing. Just me and the guitar. And I'd stand on this little raised part where he was going to remodel the place. However, he had not yet fully remodelled. There was this kind of a balcony with a little rail around it. This was my spot. So then I told him: "Look, I can't keep this up. There's too much shouting, shouting all around." I didn't know enough to do a half hour set and sit down. I played steady, hour after hour. So he got it all fixed up: speakers, microphones, the whole works. He dangled a little cab microphone, a little radio microphone, dangled it down on its own wire in front of me from off the ceiling or off a beam or something, and he had these two Japanese speakers stuck up in the two far corners of the enormous big tavern. That was my first PA system. That was my start.
"My next break came when a total stranger, one night, asked me for a novelty song. When I was through he said: 'I just called Cunningham, the guy that owns The Flame. He wants you out there for a couple of weeks.' Well, this was the biggest night spot in Saint John at that time. Strictly a dress-up place, you know."
"They played a lot of country. A lot of country groups went in there, and well-established ones too! such as Hal Lone Pine and Jeannie Ward. So I was out at the Flame, and I was there for twelve weeks. I knocked it off myself. I figured I was getting stale. After all, a guy has only got so many songs. And again, I didn't know enough to sit down and take a break. I just kept right on playing all night - night after night.10"
During those years Connors
found himself working in diners in Montreal or Toronto during winters,
then voyaging out on the road for the warmer months. He was picking tobacco
in Tilsonburg or tomatoes in St. Thomas. He usually had an old car and
made his way around Ontario from job to job.
According to Connors, Steve's nickname at the time, was "The Duke". The Duke would often travel around by himself, sometimes finding his old buddy washing dishes in a greasy spoon.
Soon Connors was off to Northern Ontario, getting his first real job in music at the Maple Leaf Hotel.11 While there he recorded several 45s for the CKGB radio station which eventually lead to his signing with John Irvine of the Rebel Records label in 1967. Irvine produced Tom's first two albums: "The Northland's Own Tom Connors" and "Tragedy Trail". After a couple of years Connors signed on with Dominion Records who re-released his first two albums. It was there that he first met a young hot-shot producer from Saskatchewan, Jury Krytiuk. It was during this time that Connors had adopted the moniker Stompin' Tom, which explained why he used a sheet of plywood to stomp on to keep from ruining stages. Connors had proven, by expanding out of Timmins, onto the Northern bar circuit and beyond, that there was charm in his songs and stage presence, that he could hold any audience put before him with his deeply Canadian themes. As his popularity increased, so did his record sales, and thus his presence at Dominion. After developing a close, personal friendship with Krytiuk, Connors was able to get Steve Foote in to record his first album called Songs of the Stevedore.
1. From Singing About Us, edited by Bob Davis and compiled by Bruce Burron, James & Lorimer & Company, Toronto 1976 - ISBN 0-88862-108-6 pa
2. From Stompin Tom, Story & Song by Stevedore Steve, Crown-Vetch Music Ltd, 1975
3. From Stompin Tom, Story & Song by Stevedore Steve, Crown-Vetch Music Ltd, 1975
4. From Stompin Tom, Story & Song by Stevedore Steve, Crown-Vetch Music Ltd, 1975
5. From a Great North Wind interview with Stompin' Tom Connors, April 1989.
6. From a Great North Wind interview with Stompin' Tom Connors, April 1989.
7. From a Great North Wind interview with Stompin' Tom Connors, April 1989. When I later played back this interview with Connors for Stevedore Steve, he chuckled and wondered whose turn it was to return those plates. Apparently, this story was an in-joke between the three partners, always told at another's expense.
8. From a Great North Wind interview with Stompin' Tom Connors, April 1989.
9. From Singing About Us
10. From Singing About Us
11. For a great deal of information about Tom Connors and Steve Foote during these formative years, read Stompin' Tom - Before The Fame, Viking Press, Toronto, 1995
To go read about the first phase of the career of Stevedore Steve, click HERE
© 1999 & 2010 by Steve Fruitman for Back To The Sugar Camp ®