“Tom Sawyer” is a song by Canadian rock band Rush, originally released on their 1981 album Moving Pictures as its opener. The song relies heavily on Geddy Lee’s synthesizer playing and Neil Peart’s drumming. Lee has referred to the track as the band’s “defining piece of music…from the early ’80s”. It is one of Rush’s best-known songs and a staple of both classic rock radio and Rush’s live performances, having been played on every concert tour since its release. It peaked at #25 on the UK Singles chart in October 1981, at No. 44 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and at No. 8 on the Billboard Top Tracks chart. In 2009 it was named the 19th-greatest hard rock song of all time by VH1. “Tom Sawyer” was one of five Rush songs inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on March 28, 2010.
The song was written by Lee, Peart, and guitarist Alex Lifeson in collaboration with lyricist Pye Dubois of the band Max Webster, who also co-wrote the Rush songs “Force Ten”, “Between Sun and Moon”, and “Test For Echo”. According to the US radio show In the Studio with Redbeard (which devoted an entire episode to the making of Moving Pictures), “Tom Sawyer” came about during a summer rehearsal vacation that Rush spent at Ronnie Hawkins’ farm outside Toronto. Peart was presented with a poem by Dubois named “Louis the Lawyer” (often incorrectly cited as “Louis the Warrior”) that he modified and expanded. Lee and Lifeson then helped set the poem to music. The “growling” synthesizer sound heard in the song came from Lee experimenting with his Oberheim OB-X.
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.”
Alex Lifeson describes his guitar solo in “Tom Sawyer” in a 2007 interview:
“I winged it. Honest! I came in, did five takes, then went off and had a cigarette. I’m at my best for the first two takes; after that, I overthink everything and I lose the spark. Actually, the solo you hear is composed together from various takes.”
Used as entrance music by professional wrestler Kerry Von Erich. He used the ring name “Modern Day Warrior” early in his career, a reference to the song.
The 2007–2008 Snakes & Arrows Tour included a video intro for the song featuring characters from the TV series South Park. The sequence shows Cartman, Kyle, Stan and Kenny, referred to as “Lil’ Rush”, attempting to play the song, which Cartman sings incorrectly. He is told to start the song over, at which point Rush would begin playing the song.