Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Jesse Winchester

An old friend and I have been exchanging newspaper articles and notes about the passing of Jesse Winchester, whose career had mostly escaped me but whose songs have been deeply imprinted in my memory for years. Now that he is gone, at such a relatively young age, I regret not having gone looking for his albums and concert dates more assiduously. And it frustrates me that his life was altered, like so many of the Vietnam era generation, because of that tragic misadventure. Although he had said that fleeing to Canada in 1967 was what created him as a musician, it must have been difficult not to be able to return to his native South or perform and record with peers in the United States until President Carter’s pardon in 1977.

Like so many others, I knew his music long before I knew him.  It was Joan Baez who introduced me to "Brand New Tennessee Waltz" on her 1971 double-album classic, Blessed Are. It is hard to believe (as Elvis Costello said on the Sundance channel) that this was his first song.

I’ve a sadness too sad to be true
But I left Tennessee in a hurry dear
The same way that I’m leaving you.

Then it was Ian Matthews who covered "Biloxi" on his 1974 album, Some Days You Eat The Bear, which I heard long before Jimmy Buffet’s hit version.

Stars can see Biloxi
Stars can find their faces in the sea
We are walking down beside the ocean
We are splashing naked in the water
And the sky is red from off toward New Orleans

Four years later, Emmy Lou Harris got me with "Defying Gravity" on Quarter Moon in Ten Cent Town.

I live on a big round ball
I never do dream that I’ll fall
But even the day that I do
I jump off and smile back at you

While it is tempting to think that Jesse was more song writer than singer, how many people would have done this gospel number a capella with Bonnie Raitt and Emmy Lou singing backup? Bonnie posted on it her Facebook page as a tribute.

I am sure there are more covers to be found in my collection and I am off to the record store in search of Jesse’s albums to hear his take on his songs.  It seems as if he wrote his epitaph at the beginning.

At the brand new Tennessee Waltz
You’re literally waltzing on air;
At the brand new Tennessee Waltz
There ain’t no telling who will be there.


  1. I'm not familiar with Jesse through his music. Thanks for the post.

  2. Nice tribute. Like you, I was not aware of how wide was his impact. Let us know what you find and think of his takes.