Living with choices. For many of us, making a decision requires us to weigh the options first. At other times, circumstances put their fingers on the scale to tip the direction. In the 1960's, military service was the “trickle down” theory. If you were an inner city kid or from a low income family, with no chance of college money, you were on a fast track to Southeast Asia. For college kids, you stayed in school.
Jesse Winchester graduated college in 1966, which made him eligible to be another body counted. To avoid the draft, Jesse moved to Canada in 1967, becoming a citizen in 1973. His status therefore precluded him from touring the US. The advent of FM in the early 1970's snuck his music across the border, but there were no south-of-the-Canadian-border gigs for Jesse until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter granted draft resisters unconditional amnesty. Jesse Winchester loved his country enough to leave it. His solo career did not take off until after his relocation to Montreal. With the support of Robbie Robertson, Jesse took the tunes he had been writing and performing in coffee houses throughout Eastern Canada, releasing his debut in 1970. The music is as haunting as the album cover, with a stark visage staring back. This is a vinyl release, so the head was close to being life size and if you held it right, you could see eye- to-eye. Very little was known about the musician. The self-titled release contains some Jesse Winchester gems, such as "Yankee Lady", "Biloxi" and "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz". The singer had a pained delivery, even while describing the beauty of his past. The aching was almost physical. The narrators come across like prisoners, locked into a sentence that will never allow them to see home again. "Yankee Lady" sees the birds heading south, bringing thoughts of leaving the decent folks of Vermont "with a hitch to Mexico", while an echo-y church basement piano pounds out a winter’s tale full of memories of warmer days in "Biloxi", watching as the sun sets and the "sky turns red from off towards New Orleans". He re-visits the past in both song name checking and seasonal cotillions in "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz". The south and the loss of homeland pour heavily from Jesse Winchester's pen , though the subject matter is a movable feast of emotions and situations. He gets his gospel on in "Looking For A Miracle" from 1978's 'A Touch on the Rainy Side', offering up a fair trade, his soul for their show. From the same album, on the traveling musician side of the fence, Jesse Winchester crafts a tune direct from road diaries, citing "no one told me about this part. They told me all about the pretty girls and the money and the good times. No mention of the wear and tear on an old honky-tonker’s heart" in "A Showman's Life".
His output continued strong throughout the 1970's, with seven studio and one live album released up until 1981. The themes and longing followed his debut with tracks like "Bowling Green" from 1974's 'Nothing But A Breeze" and "Mississippi, You're on My Mind" from 1971's “Learn to Love It". The 1971 release included "Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt", a track that takes the listener inside Jesse Winchester's life, citing his reasons for leaving. Though his release schedule has slowed, Jesse Winchester still puts out fine work, paring things down to some live releases and studio albums as they are ready.
Jesse Winchester's words and music are a thing of beauty. Exile made him more of a songwriter than a performer in the US. His songs have been covered by Buddy Miller, Patti Page, Wilson Pickett, Reba McEntire, The Everly Brothers, Elvis Costello, Jerry Jeff Walker, Anne Murray, The Indigo Girls, Jimmy Buffett, Emmylou Harris, Wynona Judd, The Weather Girls, Ronnie Hawkins, Nicolette Larsen and many others. The songs are worth hearing, no matter whose voice propels the words. What is missing is the perspective, the origins of the tales. Montreal winters in a new country written by a southern boy. What Jesse puts into his songs is the ability to see through his eyes. He provides a story so real that you can feel what was then and what is now. It takes a master songwriter to make you think about things that are missing while listening to descriptions of its beauty, its innocence. The early work of Jesse Winchester tells his story, and the tales of hundreds, maybe thousands of others. Their beliefs, their integrity was more important than what was expected. The 1960's were turbulent and triumphant times. Jesse Winchester stood by his beliefs, trading in the spotlight for a border sign that read Do Not Enter, You Are Not Welcome Here.
In 2002, Winchester moved back to the United States, settling in Virginia. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 2007. Accolades aside, there should be an award for standing up for what is right and doing it quietly, not using press or protests, soapboxes or stadiums. Luckily, we have the songs. Sound bites about what happens when you bite back. Danny McCloskey/RA