Canadian country-folk legend Stompin' Tom Connors, whose toe-tapping musical spirit and fierce patriotism established him as one of Canada's strongest cultural icons, has died. He was 77.
Connors died Wednesday at his Ontario home from what a spokesman described as "natural causes."
Brian Edwards said the musician, rarely seen without his signature black cowboy hat and stomping cowboy boots, knew his health was declining and penned a message for his fans a few days before his death.
"I know Tom loved the fans more than anything. He's probably one of the few artists that built his whole life around fans and nothing else," said Edwards, president of Rocklands Entertainment and Connors' promoter for the past 25 years.
"The man stood for everything that Canada stood for and he was very adamant that he stayed a Canadian and made it very apparent that he never left the country to advance his career and stayed very, very true to who he was."
In the letter posted on his official website, Connors issued a final thank you to his fans, to whom he credited his entire career.
"I want all my fans, past, present, or future, to know that without you, there would have not been any Stompin' Tom," Connors wrote.
"It was a long hard bumpy road, but this great country kept me inspired with its beauty, character, and spirit, driving me to keep marching on and devoted to sing about its people and places that make Canada the greatest country in the world."
The musician said he hoped his work would continue to "bring a little bit of cheer" into people's lives even after his death and called on his fans to continue to bring Canadiana to the world.
"I must now pass the torch, to all of you, to help keep the Maple Leaf flying high, and be the Patriot Canada needs now and in the future."
Connors is survived by his wife Lena, two sons, two daughters and several grandchildren.
Dubbed Stompin' Tom for his propensity to pound the floor with his left foot during performances, Connors garnered a devoted following through straight-ahead country-folk tunes that drew inspiration from his extensive travels and focused on the everyman.
Although wide commercial appeal escaped Connors for much of his four-decade career, his heritage-soaked songs like "Canada Day, Up Canada Way," "The Hockey Song," "Bud the Spud," and "Sudbury Saturday Night," have come to be regarded as veritable national anthems thanks to their unabashed embrace of all things Canadiana.
As word spread of his death, Canucks from across the country began mourning his loss.
On Twitter, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said "we have lost a true Canadian original. R.I.P. Stompin' Tom Connors. You played the best game that could be played."
Also on Twitter, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said "Today Canada has lost a true musical icon. Green Party leader Elizabeth May tweeted that Connors `'sang Canada's songs, our places, our lives."
The National Hockey League tweeted "Sad to hear that legendary Canadian Stompin' Tom Connors has passed. His legacy lives on in arenas every time 'The Hockey Song' is played."
That iconic song was played at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, where many fans took to their feet as Connors' death was announced during a game between the Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators.
Musician Raffi Cavoukian called Connors' "an original" on Twitter, while actor Mike Smith who played the character Bubbles on "The Trailer Park Boys" labelled the singer "a true Canadian legend."
Dave Bidini, a former singer for the Rheostatics whose account of Connors' 50th birthday party helped revive the singer's career for a time, said the musician changed his life.
"There's a huge vacuum in our land without him walking across it," Bidini said in an interview Wednesday night. "He's just one of those performers who's always been there."
The way Bidini sees it, Connors' most lasting legacy will be his ability to make Canucks feel proud of their vast country.
"He made Canadians not feel ashamed to talk about who they were and where they came from, certainly in music," he said. "He released us from ourselves in a lot of ways."
Despite his status as a Canadian musical icon however, Connors often complained that not enough songs were being written about his homeland.
"I don't know why I seem to be the only one, or almost the only one, writing about this country," Connors said in a rare one-on-one interview at his home in Halton Hills, Ont., in 2008.
"It just amazes me that I've been going so long I would think that somebody else (would have) picked up the torch a long time ago and started writing tons of songs about this country. This country is the most underwritten country in the world as far as songs are concerned. We starve, the people in this country are starving for songs about their homeland."
Connors' fervent patriotism brought controversy when his principles put him at loggerheads with the Canadian music industry.
In 1978, he famously returned a handful of Juno Awards he had amassed in previous years, complaining that some artists were being awarded in categories outside their genre while other winners had conducted most of their work outside of the country. He derided artists that moved to the United States as "border jumpers."
"I feel that the Junos should be for people who are living in Canada, whose main base of business operations is in Canada, who are working toward the recognition of Canadian talent in this country and who are trying to further the export of such talent from this country to the world with a view to proudly showing off what this country can contribute to the world market," he said in a statement at the time.
The declaration marked the beginning of a 10-year self-imposed exile from the spotlight.
From Connors' earliest days, life was a battle.
He was born in Saint John, N.B., on Feb. 9, 1936 to an unwed teenage mother. According to his autobiography, "Before the Fame," he often lived hand-to-mouth as a youngster, hitchhiking with his mother from the age of three, begging on the street by the age of four. At age eight, he was placed in the care of Children's Aid and adopted a year later by a family in Skinner's Pond, P.E.I. He ran away four years later to hitchhike across the country.
Connors bought his first guitar at age 14 and picked up odd jobs as he wandered from town to town, at times working on fishing boats, as a grave digger, tobacco picker and fry cook.
Legend has it that Connors began his musical career when he found himself a nickel short of a beer at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ont., in 1964 at age 28.
The bartender agreed to give him a drink if he would play a few songs but that turned into a 14-month contract to play at the hotel. Three years later, Connors made his first album and garnered his first hit in 1970 with "Bud The Spud."
Hundreds more songs followed, many based on actual events, people, and towns he had visited.
"I'm a man of the land, I go out into the country and I talk to people and I know the jobs they do and how they feel about their jobs," Connors has said.
"And I've been doing that all my life so I know Canada like the palm of my hand. I don't need a map to go anywhere in Canada, I know it all."
In 1988, Connors emerged from his decade-long protest with the album "Fiddle and Song," featuring a new fiddle style and the songs "Canada Day, Up Canada Way," "Lady kd lang," and "I Am the Wind." It was followed in 1990 by a 70-city Canadian tour that established him as one of the country's best loved troubadours.
But his strong convictions about the music industry remained. Connors declined induction into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993.
Accolades he did embrace included an appointment to the Order of Canada in 1996, and his own postage stamp.
"Whatever I do, in my writing, I do it for others," Connors said in the 2008 interview. "I do it for my country and I do it for my countrymen and that's the only value that I really have. If there was no money in this, I'd be doing it anyway. I've always been that way. Because it's what I am."
A public celebration of Connors' life featuring speakers and music will be held next Wednesday in Peterborough, Ont., the city where the musician got the name "Stompin' Tom."
In lieu of flowers, Connors' family has asked that donations be made to local food banks or homeless shelters, in memory of the musician.