Jesse Winchester, who passed away Thursday after a brief, renewed bout with cancer, was well loved by many Canadians, including me, not only for his immaculate musicianship and songwriting, but for his unique status amid the turbulent generational clashes of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Refusing to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, he left the States in 1967, drifting across the border to Montreal. “I didn’t see going to a war I didn’t believe was just, or dying for it,” he told an interviewer many years later.
It was there he cut his musical teeth, playing in coffee houses around the city and producing his wonderful, self-titled first album, produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson. It contains some great songs, including one of my favourites, The Brand New Tennessee Waltz. Yankee Lady was another song many admired, though I never cared much for the title. I’m also a fan of That’s a Touch I Like and Snow (welcome to Canada, Jesse!). That’s my well-worn, vinyl edition of the album at the top of this blog.
Winchester was not one of those draft dodgers who pined to be back in his native land. He embraced Canada and Montreal, becoming a Canadian citizen in 1973. I loved the stamp he put on his new country with the title of his second album, Third Down and 110 To Go, a whimsical reference to Canadian football, as opposed to the four downs and 100-yard field that prevail in the United States. If memory serves, since my copy of the album is not readily at hand, it has some folksy shots of his sparse Montreal apartment, plus touching liner notes penned by the city’s dominant rock critic, Juan Rodriguez, who concludes with something like “…and the Habs are at the Forum tonight.” It was all very homespun, in keeping with Winchester’s own pared down, mostly acoustic approach.
He further underscored his devotion to Canada for taking him in, with a delightful song on his third album that plays off an old gospel tune extolling Franklin D. Roosevelt. It’s surely the only song ever written in praise of Lester B. Pearson, who, as Prime Minister, defied the might of America by refusing to return draft dodgers and deserters from their safe haven in Canada. It was one of the best decisions a Canadian prime minister ever made, and we have reaped the benefit of all those bright, committed newcomers ever since. The song is great fun. Give it a listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtGCmDP2qh0
And now, my Jesse Winchester story. It was the winter of 1973. I was in Edmonton working for the Journal, when I noticed that he would be in town for a gig at some pub or other at the University of Alberta, just a few blocks from our “hippie house “on 80th Avenue. I’d been raving about Winchester to my friends, so I persuaded a bunch of them to go. Sadly, my hero gave a disengaged, disappointing performance. He spent a lot of time playing the flute with his band, perhaps because his voice was a little hoarse. The show was also quite short. He seemed to want to be anywhere but Edmonton on this freezing, February evening. While my friends wondered what I saw in this lacklustre guy, I felt ripped off.
Grousing and grumbling, we headed out a fire exit beside the bandstand. And there, on the landing, was a case of beer, just sitting there in the snow. I felt sure the brewskies were being kept cold for Jesse and the boys in the band. Aha, thought I, payback time. We grabbed the case, and had a fine old time drinking Jesse’s brew for the rest of the night. I’m not sure beer ever tasted better, or more deserved. Revenge was sweet. Sorry, Jesse. Rest In Peace. I do hope that the place where folksingers go when their time on earth has passed has a couple of cold ones for you. You’re a fine tunesmith, a fine musician and an especially fine man.
Meantime, we’ll always have this. Not everyone can transfix both a teary Neko Case and Elvis Costello with just a ‘simple’ song: ‘https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uKGWpqnS8E