Friday, July 16, 2010

Jesse Winchester, You're On My Mind

Jimmy Buffett’s schtick, which conjures up images of enjoying tequila and triple sec cocktails in the sun, never appealed to me. But the 63-year-old musician suddenly is a notch or two higher in my estimation and not just because his environmental activism -- save the manatees! -- has sharpened in reaction to the BP oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s the primary reason: When the hipster dude who turns out hits like “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise” organized a free July 11 concert in his native Alabama, the show included Jesse Winchester.

This singer-songwriter with a soulful tenor voice is the antithesis of a “parrothead,” the term Buffett aficionados use to symbolize the “island escapism” sensibility of their hero. Winchester, also a Southerner, has a rather somber demeanor, even when performing as cheerful an anthem as “Laisse les Bon Temps Rouler.” With a courtly, almost old-fashioned manner, despite the perennial hippie beard, he rocketed to fame in the late 1970s as an artist living in exile who was finally able to visit his homeland again after President Jimmy Carter pardoned America’s draft resisters.

In January 1967, four days before he was to be inducted into the U.S. Army, Winchester flew with a one-way ticket from his Tennessee hometown, Memphis, to Montreal. When immigration officials asked him about the length of his stay, aware that this was a life-altering choice he told them “forever.” With only $200 to his name and an electric guitar, the recent college dropout began playing Canada’s coffeehouse circuit. One of those venues was in Abercorn, Quebec -- the closest he could come to the U.S. That’s where I first interviewed him, in late 1976. By then, Winchester had been ‘discovered’ by Robbie Robertson of The Band, which led to a recording career. From Jesse Winchester, his first album, produced by Robertson, the tune “Yankee Lady” was particularly meaningful to those romantics among us in this corner of New England: “I lived with the decent folks/ In the hills of old Vermont....” It harked back to the days when he was a student at Williams College in western Massachusetts but spent most of his time with a girlfriend in the neighboring Green Mountain State, near Bennington.

One of Winchester’s greatest strengths as a composer is a keen sense of place. His affections are evident in “L’Aire de Louisianne,” “Biloxi,” “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” and “Mississippi, You’re on My Mind” -- which contains lyrics that form a poignant word-picture: “I think I see a wagon-rutted road/ With weeds growing tall between the tracks/ And along that road, a rusty barbed wire fence/ And beyond that sits an old tarpaper shack...” These melodies seem to indicate homesickness during the decade up north, though he once told me: “The piquancy of my being a draft dodger added something to those songs they ordinarily wouldn’t have had. But I was not standing on the border, beating my breast, dying to go home.” The commitment to his country of choice (he changed citizenship in 1973) had to be wholehearted. “To me, the idea was to become a good Canadian. The idea was you came up here and you could never go back. I never thought in a million years they would let us come back.”

Yet, thanks to Jimmy Carter, Winchester was soon free to visit America again. In April of 1977, his U.S. professional debut -- in Burlington, Vermont -- was accompanied by much hoopla. He had signed with Bearsville Records, owned by Albert Grossman, who once managed Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and many other major acts. With Playboy, Rolling Stone, The New York Times and CBS News all covering the event, a media circus ensued. Winchester, however, is never very comfortable in the spotlight -- or talking about politics. While some of the press was tagging him “the conscience of America” for  refusing to fight in Vietnam, he merely boiled it down to feeling offended that, “people above me could decide who I kill and what my life is worth.”

The post-pardon national tour and four more albums failed to bring Winchester the kind of success that might have made him a celebrity. Not that he cares. “I know it sounds like sour grapes, but it’s the best thing that could have happened to me,” he said when we talked in 1980, after the fuss had died down. “The problem was that I didn’t want it bad enough. A lot about it embarrassed me.”

In 1999, Winchester made a comeback, in the studio, with
Gentleman of Leisure, and on a solo tour, following a decade-long hiatus when he had concentrated on writing songs for others to play -- among them, Elvis Costello, Joan Baez, Reba McEntire and Jimmy Buffet. He’s now based in Virginia, a little closer to the region that always called to him while a resident of Canada. That call presumably grew even louder for Winchester after April’s oil disaster. He’s not someone known for topical material, but perhaps there’ll soon be a lament in his repertoire for the decent folks in the bayous of old Louisiana.

Yankee Lady

I lived with the decent folks
In the hills of old Vermont
Where what you do all day
Depends on what you want
And I took up with a woman there
Though I was still a kid
And I smile like the sun
To think of all the loving that we did
She rose each morning and went off to work
And she kept me with her pay
I was making sweet love all night
And playing this old guitar all day

And I got apple cider and homemade bread
That would make a man say grace
And clean linens on our bed
And a warm feet fireplace

Yankee lady, so good to me
Yankee lady, just a memory
Yankee lady, so good to me
Your memories gonna have to do for me

An autumn walk on a old country road
With a million flaming trees
I was feeling a little uneasy
Cause there was winter chill in the breeze

And she said, "Oh Jesse, look over there,
The birds are are southward bound
Oh Jesse, I'm so afraid
To lose the love that we've found

Yankee lady, so good to me
Yankee lady, just a memory
Yankee lady, so good to me
Your memories that’s enough for me

I don't know what called to me
But I know that I plain had to go
I left that little old Vermont town
To live down in sunny Mexico

And now when I can see myself
As a stranger by my birth
The Yankee lady's old memory
To Remind me of my worth

Yankee lady, so good to me
Yankee lady’ just a memory
Yankee lady, so good to me
Your memories gonna have to do for me

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.


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