Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A remembrance: Jesse Winchester

Jesse Winchester / A songwriter with a sweet Southern heart.

Jesse Winchester was a songwriter with a sweet Southern heart. His songs were covered by an eclectic group of singers: Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, the Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello, among many.

I was saddened by the news over the weekend that Winchester, Louisiana-born who was raised in northern Mississippi and the city of Memphis, Tenn., and established himself in Montréal after dodging the Vietnam War, had passed away at age 69. He died "peacefully" at his home in Charlottesville, Va. last Friday.

Word of Winchester's death spread prematurely on social media a week before he succumbed to cancer when singer Janis Ian posted this tribute on Facebook: "RIP Jesse Winchester. As underrated a singer as Chet Baker. As underrated a guitarist as Willie Nelson. A man who held the audience in the palm of his hand without moving an inch. One of the best songwriters on earth."

However, it was because of this that I reconnected with Winchester, whom I had the pleasure of seeing perform in a solo show in the early 1980s at the intimate, old Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis one winter's evening during my college youth. Through Facebook, I reminisced about the humility of Winchester and of his music, both on my page and through a college friend's page, too.

I read about Winchester's death in the New York Times while eating Saturday morning breakfast at home. Music critic Jon Pareles wrote a wonderful remembrance of Winchester, born James Ridout Winchester, which I encourage you to take the time to read.

Nothing But a Breeze 
Winchester's 1977 album Nothing But a Breeze remains a favorite of mine and just last week, I listened to it from beginning to end, delighting in the singer's bonhomie and the joy of his sweet honey voice. Some of his best-known songs were: "Mississippi You're On My Mind," "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz," "Biloxi," and "Say What." While Winchester's songs were rooted in country, soul and gospel, his poetic lyrics reminisced about the South of his long-ago youth.

Earlier this week, PopMatters music columnist Colin McGuire wrote in tribute of Winchester: "There was something that separated him from his contemporaries, an amount of levity, an amount of intellect that brought his tales of heartbreak, innocence, youth and romance to life."

Because Winchester couldn't tour in the U.S. for many years while living in exile in Canada, few Americans knew about him. Yet, Winchester honed his songwriting skills and was nurtured by The Band's Robbie Robertson. It was while in Montréal that he found his poetic, musical voice, too.

Winchester finally returned to the U.S. to live over a decade ago, long after during the presidency of Jimmy Carter that he and other draft dodgers of the Vietnam War era were given amnesty in 1977.

The last time I saw Winchester perform was in 2009 on Elvis Costello's "Spectacle" TV show that aired in the U.S. on the Sundance Channel. He shared a New York City stage one evening with Costello and fellow singer/songwriter guitarists Neko Case, Sheryl Crow and Ron Sexsmith. His poignant song "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding" brought Case to tears and humbled Costello. At the song's conclusion, the misty-eyed host remarked: "That's it, Jesse. The show's over. You finished me off. It happened at rehearsals and it happened now."

The revered Winchester, pitch-perfect and always accompanied by a lightly-plucked acoustic guitar, was one of the best at his craft of songwriting. He was a songwriter's songwriter and he will be sorely missed.

Bless his loving heart.

Photos of Jesse Winchester courtesy of Google Images.
Video courtesy of YouTube.

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