Tom Sawyer

Background and Commentary

“Co-written with fellow Canadian rock band Max Webster’s lyricist Pye Dubois (originally he called it ‘Louis the Warrior,’ [and also “Louis the Lawyer”]), this song, widely recognized as the quintessential Rush song with its familiar dynamics, is about a detached streetwise rebel with mean, mean pride, partly inspired by Mark Twain’s character.”—Robert Telleria, Merely Players

When Dubois presented the lyrics to them, the band was at the home of rock legend Ronnie Hawkins, who first made his mark in the late 1950s with Marylou” and then put together the back-up bands for Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, among others. He was born in Arkansas but moved to Ontario early in his career and remained there.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault

“Pye Dubois is an excellent lyricist. His original lyrics [for the piece that became ‘Tom Sawyer’] were of a portrait of a modern day rebel, a free-spirited individualist striding through the world wide-eyed and purposeful. I added the themes of reconciling the boy and the man in myself and the difference between what people are and what others perceive them to be. (Backstage Newsletter, 1985) There are parts of the song that I don’t necessarily understand. But I like the arrogance implied. But it’s a mistaken arrogance. There are . . . little games you’re expected to play that Tom Sawyer and I don’t have time for. (Sounds) The instrumental section grew from a little melody that Geddy had been using to set up his synthesizers at sound checks. (A Rush Newsreel) I’m playing full strength through the entire song and it took about a day and a half to record. I remember collapsing afterwards with raw, red aching hands. I had been playing the bass drum so hard that my toes were all mashed together and very sore. Physically, this was certainly the most difficult track, and even now it takes as much energy to play properly as my solo.”—Neil in Merely Players

“I remember when we layered the opening [Oberheim OB-X ] keyboard thing on top [of the other elements], how cool it sounded, and what power and punch the opening had. And the toughness of the way Neil played in that opening, where it’s just basically the drums and Geddy with this synth rasping away in the background, then the rest of the band diving into it and screaming all the way through. I always thought that we had really, again, achieved what we set out to with that song, of having that real punky kind of rebellious attitude to it.”—Alex in Merely Players

“‘Tom Sawyer’” was in many ways the most difficult song to record on [the album]. I remember even though the writing of the song came together pretty quickly, putting it down on tape was a little difficult. We were trying different sounds, and going with a whole different approach to lyrics—the kind of spoken-word thing, getting the right sound for Alex’s guitar, and so on. It was kind of a dark horse. And then in the mixing, it all came together. When we finished it, we were so pleased with what happened, because we kind of had the least expectations of it, because of the difficulty we had [with it]. I think a lot of musicians probably go through a similar thing, where they have this one song that they beat themselves up over, and then the next thing you know, it’s their biggest song.”—Geddy in Rolling Stone

The piece, “swirling into the camera eye with vortextual sounds cycloning a slow and deliberate 4/4 beat, propelled Moving Pictures to lofty heights. Its ebbs and flows are legion, its totality Rush’s ambassador of a song. ‘I love that song and I never get tired of playing it,’ says Geddy. ‘The fact that it is so popular still just confuses the hell out of me. I love the fact that it begins with such a great backbeat, and there’s this kind of faux rap part. To me, the song is just about innocence more than anything, and I think that comes through. And it still holds through somehow; the slightly inscrutable lyrics still deliver that message to people, and people identify with it, and they dig it. And it’s got this weird middle part. And if you can get away with that in a popular song . . . geez, it’s a major victory.'”—Martin Popoff, Contents Under Pressure

The piece is one of five songs for which Rush was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010. The other four are “Closer to the Heart,” “Limelight,” “The Spirit of Radio,” and “Subdivisions.”

VH1 in 2009 named it the 19th greatest hard rock song of all time, and gaming site 411 Mania in 2012 ranked it third on its top 10 list of songs about guys. Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” was second and Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey, Joe” was first.

Eight tribute versions of “Tom Sawyer.”

South Park’s version of “Tom Sawyer.”

“Tom Sawyer” in 30-second spot promoting 2013 football game between Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders:

“Tom Sawyer,” acoustic version, makes brief appearance in NBC’s “Revolution” (2013)


A modern day warrior
Mean, mean stride
Today’s Tom Sawyer
Mean, mean pride

Though his mind is not for rent
Don’t put him down as arrogant
His reserve, a quiet defense
Riding out the day’s events
The river

What you say about his company
Is what you say about society
Catch the mist, catch the myth
Catch the mystery, catch the drift

The world is, the world is
Love and life are deep
Maybe as his skies are wide

Today’s Tom Sawyer
He gets high on you
And the space he invades
He gets by on you

No his mind is not for rent
To any god or government
Always hopeful, yet discontent
He knows changes aren’t permanent
But change is

What you say about his company
Is what you say about society
Catch the witness, catch the wit
Catch the spirit, catch the spit

The world is, the world is
Love and life are deep
Maybe as his eyes are wide

Exit the warrior
Today’s Tom Sawyer
He gets high on you
And the energy you trade
He gets right on to the friction of the day


Excerpted from Fretplay.

The key is E.

| = not a standard bar line; just used to separate music
~ = vibrato or held note
x = percussive note with no pitch; muted note
h = hammer on
p = pull off
s = slide
b = bend string up to indicated pitch/fret
r = release bend to indicated string/fret
/ = slide up from infinity
\ = slide down into infinity
[5] = artificial harmonic (use thumb to follow through the pick attack)
o \_
o / repeat sign (always look for these!)
[x35553] = fret box; this is a C chord – this is the same as standard
tablature, only turned on its side. Tilt your head clockwise to read.

Chord legend:

Csus2 : [x3x03x]
G/B : [x2003x]
A7sus4 : [x0203x]

[Riff 1]
E5 D5 A7sus4 Csus2

[Riff 2]
E5 D


[Riff 3]


[Riff 4]
Asus2 Bsus2 A5 A5/G
B A A5/G A5 E5

For complete tab, go to Fretplay.


“Tom Sawyer” guitar cover

“Tom Sawyer” bass cover

“Tom Sawyer” drum cover

Back to Rush Vault

~ by rvkeeper on February 5, 2011.

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