Stompin’ Tom Connors died yesterday (March 6, 2013) and the world lost a great voice and a great songwriter, one whose body of work is at least equal to most of his contemporaries in any musical genre. And that brings me to The Stompin’ Tom Syndrome, which is what I call the tendency to self-marginalization, a trap of localism or regionalism…parochialism, in fact—an artificial construction or emphasizing of boundaries and limits in order to define an identity for oneself or one’s group. This a problem that is not restricted to music, of course, or even to art, though it’s from that perspective I’m approaching it today.
The roots of the problem lie in our species’ evolutionary history. We are a species evolved to exist in social groups; social groups of a size such that we can recognize all members of that group, and be aware of the hierarchy of that group. And there is always a hierarchy, whether formal or not, whether oppressive or not, because for a group to be cohesive there must be a system allowing them to coexist, a recognized, even if unspoken or unformalized division of tasks, benefits, entertainments etc. Hierarchies are not inherently evil, they exist because groups are collections of individuals and individuals are exactly that—individuals, each with their peculiar aptitudes and predilections as determined by the stew of experience, genetics and environment—and for any type of task presented to a group there is always some individual or combination of individuals within the group best suited to tackle it.
Between hierarchies of the familiar and the concomitant urge to thereby define and preserve the identity of the group (as its existence and sharing of resources and tasks provides most individuals with a better chance of surviving and passing on at least some of their genes than they would have on their own), and to defend the territory of the group, we have what we can see to be the basis of cultural identities. It is from cultural identities in turn that such things as nationalism and patriotism arise, as well as all religious claims of exclusivity. These things differ only in scale, not in their nature, from the insularity observable in small villages, towns, provinces, countries (this could also be called The North Korea Problem).
It is this approach to the world that kept Stompin’ Tom from being as widely appreciated as he could have been, to the detriment of his own music and of music in general, and it is sad that in his case it was very much his own doing. He was afraid of and opposed to a metaphorical musical miscegenation of Canada and the U. S., afraid that a pure strain of Canadian music would be lost in the mix. I’m not saying that his love for his roots and for Canadian music was wrong—it wasn’t. I am saying that his fear that he and Canada’s music culture would be subsumed by our neighbour to the south was wrong—that it was a blind fear. And so his career was crippled by fear, his audience was limited by fear, he was even arguably musically handicapped by his decision to self-marginalize, to be parochial.
The thing is that even in Stompin’ Tom’s parochialism and patriotism and self-image as a rebel he was not substantially different than some singer-songwriters of similar bent south of the border. Just listen to the following two songs of his and two songs of Merle Haggard covering both nationalism and local identity.
Stompin’ Tom—Believe In Your Country
Merle Haggard—The Fightin’ Side Of Me
Merle Haggard—Okie From Muskogie
The above songs cover the same basic sorts of things and, in an important sense, differ only in that they are individual interpretations of themes—which is how art proceeds in any medium, and we are only enriched by a wider access to interpretations.
The problem with parochialism is that in its stated urge is to preserve something what it actually does is encourage stagnation. It interrupts a flow of information and influences between populations, which the limits the chances of them learning from each other’s mistakes or building on each other’s successes.
In a philosophy of art—and art I define as the individual exploration and expression of human universals—there should be no national or patriotic or ideological boundaries, no insularity. There should be no parochialism other than our acknowledgement of the existence of its parents—in-group biases and territoriality—as human universals.
Unfortunately, it often turns out that we fall into the trap of parochialism when our stated purpose is only to promote art in general. This is, I think, currently especially and sadly true in Canada as arts organizations and small publishers, etc., are ever more frightened of their ability to fund artists and concentrate more and more trying to protect their “territory” by resorting to parochialism. Even the Canada Council of the Arts is tied up in finding/promoting some sort of mythical Canadian artistic ideal. It needs to stop. We need to acknowledge and use all of our influences so that we can make from them the best art we can. It’s time to end The Stompin’ Tom Syndrome.