Jesse Winchester, 1944-2014

The broad outlines of Jesse Winchester’s life and work are pretty well known:

Born in Louisiana in 1944, raised in Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. Grew up playing music. Moved to Montreal after receiving a military draft notice in 1967. Met musicians there, including Robbie Robertson of The Band, who produced Winchester’s 1970 self-titled debut album. Became a Canadian citizen. Continued to record regularly into the early 1980s and performed regularly and recorded occasionally since. Moved back to the U.S. in 2002, settling in Virginia. Passed away last Friday, April 11, 2014.

In my brief post about Jesse Winchester Saturday, I wrote: “While regret and loss are part of any songwriter’s toolkit, they were perhaps sharper in Winchester’s toolbox than in the kits of most other songwriters.”

And where did those senses of regret and loss come from? Well, just as in literature, sense of place and a resulting appreciation of home are among the main themes of song, whether one is at home, going home or displaced from home. And in Jesse Winchester’s music I hear displacement – with those resulting senses of regret and loss – as a constant current. Part of that might simply have been his demeanor. A good portion of it is likely something Southern. And the largest part of that presence came, I would guess, from his status as an exile from his homeland.

Whatever the sources, that current runs true from his self-titled debut in 1970 to his last album, Love Filling Station, which was released in 2009. Here’s maybe the most overt expression of that displacement, “Mississippi, You’re On My Mind,” from the 1974 album, Learn To Love It.

For me, it was Winchester’s second album, Third Down, 110 To Go, that introduced me to his music. I remember liking the album a great deal when I heard it across the street at Rick and Rob’s house one evening in 1972. I thought I should maybe get my own copy, but I had other music in my sights at the time. Then Rob moved to Colorado, I went away for a while, and I saw the two brothers only sporadically for a few years. And I forgot about Jesse Winchester until the early 1990s when one of my twice-weekly stops at Cheapo’s brought me a vinyl copy of Winchester’s 1970 debut album. When I saw it and as it played it on my turntable, I thought about Third Down, 110 To Go and began to look for it and Winchester’s other work.

By early 1999, I had good copies of everything he’d recorded up through 1981’s Talk Memphis. I’ve since added his three last studio albums (but none of the several live albums). And listening to his work as a whole – as I have for a few hours over the course of the past weekend – I’m struck even more strongly by those qualities of regret and loss that seem to underlie even the lighter and sometimes humorous songs. (As an example, listen to “Snow” from 1970’s Jesse Winchester, which to me asks “How did I come to live in a place so different from my home?”)

Winchester might in the end be better remembered as a songwriter. There’s a long list at Wikipedia of folks who’ve recorded his work. And some of those covers are impressive. That especially holds true for the work on the 2012 album Quiet About It: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester, which includes covers from Rosanne Cash, Jimmy Buffett, Allen Toussaint, Vince Gill and others. But as good as those versions are – and I do enjoy Quiet About It – it’s hard to surpass Winchester’s versions of his own songs.

And we’ll close today with the gentle and lovely “Eulalie” from Winchester’s last album, the 2009 release Love Filling Station.

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