The lyrics are loosely based on a character Mark Twain created in his first novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
. The book was published 1876.
In Twain's book, Tom finds his way into different sorts of adventurous mishaps. Throughout the novel, Tom matures and experiences many rites of passage. Due to cultural and social changes, some public school copies have been edited, removing certain parts that were deemed offensive.
Pye Dubois, who is the lyricist for the band Max Webster, collaborated on this song as well as "Force Ten
" and "Between Sun And Moon
." This song began life as a Max Webster song titled "Louis The Warrior."
In the December 1985 Rush Backstage Club newsletter, drummer and lyricist Neil Peart said: "Tom Sawyer was a collaboration between myself and Pye Dubois, an excellent lyricist who wrote the lyrics for Max Webster. His original lyrics were kind 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 man in myself, and the difference between what people are and what others perceive them to be - namely me I guess."
During the first instrumental section of this song, the time signature changes to 7/8. The unusual choice in time signature is consistent with other songs by Rush, such as "Limelight," "The Trees," "Distant Early Warning," and "Freewill," among others.
This song was used in an episode of Cartoon Network's Futurama
when Fry (the main character) plays a video game while listening to his "All Rush Mixtape."
Some of the movies that have used this song include The Waterboy (1998), Halloween (2007), and I Love You, Man (2009). TV shows include Freaks and Geeks (2000), The Sopranos (2007), Chuck (2008), and Fringe (2010).
The band chose this song as their concert opener for their 2002 Vapor Trails
tour, something they had never done before. After all the trauma and tough times endured by the personal loses of Neil Peart (wife and daughter dying within a year of each other) and the possibility of the band being done for, they believed "Tom Sawyer" would send the message that they were back to stay. They usually introduced the song with a 1 to 4 count, but for Vapor Trails, there was no count, at least not in the usual sense. Peart gave the signal: he simply closed his Hi Hat cymbal pedal with his foot, and this gave the band the signal to silently count the start of the song. This can be seen in the Rush In Rio
DVD - before the concert starts you hear a muted cymbal sound that starts the count.
In a Family Guy
clip, Chester Cheetah is seen snorting Cheetos while listening to this song. After he finishes, he yells, "There is no f--king drummer better than Neil Peart!"
In 2008, Rush performed this on The Colbert Report, making a rare US television appearance. Before the performance, host Stephen Colbert interviewed the band and asked if some of their songs were so long that they actually influenced themselves by the end of them. The "Rush plays long songs" bit became a joke on the show, and when Rush played "Tom Sawyer," Colbert acted like he had to go to commercial because they were going to keep playing. When they came back from commercial, Rush was still playing the song. The next night, the show opened with Colbert asleep at his desk while Rush was still playing. While Rush does have some epics, this is actually one of their shorter songs, clocking in at a mere 4:33.
Artists to cover this song include The String Cheese Incident, Deadsy and Mindless Self Indulgence.
On their 2006 tour, just before Rush played this song, the jumbotron above the stage played an animated short in which the four boys of South Park try to play this song, only to argue and get the lyrics wrong. After the short was complete, the band would come out and play the song the way it was meant to be played.
Frontman Geddy Lee said the band hated this classic track when they first recorded it. He explained: "I remember being disappointed in the studio, thinking we really didn't capture the spirit of the song. We thought it was the worst song on the record at the time – but it all came together in the mix. Sometimes you don't have the objectivity to know when you're doing your best work."
Geddy Lee told The Plain Dealer newspaper the band never foresaw the success of the song: He said: "The one song that we have to play for the rest of our lives. When we wrote it, we had no idea that it would touch such a nerve with people. In many ways, it's the quintessential Rush song."
On their 2007 Snakes & Arrows tour, Rush played a video leading into this song showing the characters from South Park rehearsing it with their band Lil' Rush. When Cartman makes up lyrics to the song ("Modern day warrior today's Tom Sawyer, floated down the river on a raft with a black guy"), Kyle interrupts him, informing him that he's recalling the plot of Huckleberry Finn, not Tom Sawyer. The video was made specifically for Rush and was not broadcast.