Jesse Winchester in 2011

Jesse Winchester in 2011

In 1967, opposed to the Vietnam War, Jesse Winchester boarded an plane for Montreal instead, rather than join the military and fight in Vietnam. He spent the next 35 years in Canada, an exile of conscience and citizen of a new country.  This morning I opened the Guardian to read that he had died, aged 69, of cancer.

Learn to Love It

The third album – Learn to Love It

Jesse Winchester wasn’t a protest singer like Phil Ochs, and his songs rarely reflected his political views.  Most people I speak to have never heard his name, but somewhere along the line I picked up on his songs – many of them quiet and lovely painterly evocations of the life he had left behind in the South or meditations on the mysteries of life and love.  In fact, it was one of the latter – the wistful ‘Defying Gravity’ from his third album Learn to Love It that first held my attention and which has remained an mp3 player and car journey playlist staple ever since:

I live on a big round ball
I never do dream I may fall
And even one day if I do
Well, I’ll jump off and smile back at you

I don’t even know where we are
They tell you we’re circling a star
Well, I’ll take their word, I don’t know
But I’m dizzy so it may be so

I’m riding a big round ball
I never do dream I may fall
But one day the high must lay low
So when I do fall I’ll be glad to go
Yeah, when I do fall I’ll be glad to go


Jesse wasn’t a musician when he went to Canada, but unable to get a steady job he drifted into music, joining a French-language band in Quebec. He settled in Montreal, where he married and began to raise a family, living his life in French – a language that was familiar from his former life, born in Louisiana  and growing up in Mississippi.

Soon, though, he would take to piano or guitar, and the songs that emerged were reveries of the land he had left behind, forever it seemed.  In an interview with a Canadian newspaper, he said:

In a way, living in Montreal, in another culture, speaking another language is what makes it possible for me to write about the South. It gives me distance, a perspective I wouldn’t have if I were there.

In 1970, he recorded his first album, produced by Robbie Robertson of The Band.  That and five further albums released in the 1970s were overlooked by the general public, but highly-regarded by critics and artists such as Tim Hardin, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, and the Everly Brothers who covered his songs.  If he had been able to tour and promote his work in his homeland during the singer-songwriter heyday, most commentators agree, he might now be regarded as one of the best.

Jesse Winchester in 1974

Jesse Winchester in 1974

Jesse wasn’t able to return to the US until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter issued an amnesty to draft evaders.  He didn’t move back to the US to live until 2002.

The first song Jesse wrote was ‘The New Tennessee Waltz’:

Oh my, but you have a pretty face
You favour a girl that I knew
I imagine she’s back in Tennessee
And by God, I should be there too
I’ve a sadness too sad to be true

But I left Tennessee in a hurry dear
In same way that I’m leaving you
Because love is mainly just memories
And everyone’s got him a few
So when I’m gone I’ll be glad to love you

In 2012, Lyle Lovett recorded a great cover version for a tribute album that came about when Winchester revealed that he had been diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, and artists banded together to show support and to generate some song-writing royalties for his treatment.


Boyhood memories of the South suffused the songs that came to him in Canada – songs like ‘Mississippi, You’re on My Mind’:

I think I see a wagon rutted road
With the weeds growing tall between the tracks
And along one side runs a rusty barbed wire fence
And beyond that sits an old tar paper shack:
Mississippi you’re on my mind

Or ‘Biloxi’ (the subject of an excellent cover version by Rosanne Cash on the tribute album, Quiet About It):
Down around Biloxi
Pretty girls are swimming in the sea
Oh they look like sisters in the ocean
The boy will fill his pail with salted water
And the storms will blow from off towards New Orleans
The sun shines on Biloxi
The air is filled with vapours from the sea
And the boy will dig a pool beside the ocean
He sees creatures from a dream under the water
And the sun will set from off towards New Orleans
The stars can see Biloxi
The stars can find their faces in the sea
We are walking in the evening by the ocean
We are splashing naked in the water
And the sky is red from off towards New Orleans


Today, in the New York Times, Jon Pareles writes:

His songs were rooted in country, soul and gospel, and they strove to stay plain-spoken and succinct, whether he was singing wryly about everyday life or musing on philosophy and faith. In 1989 he told Musician magazine, ‘You can always find a way to say things in fewer words.’

Jesse Winchester learned he had oesophageal cancer in 2011, but was pronounced in remission after surgery. He returned to performing and recording (a new album is due later this year), but in February he was found to have bladder cancer.  The 2012 tribute album, Quiet About It, includes performances of his songs by luminaries such as Elvis Costello, James Taylor, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams and Allen Toussaint.

One of the most recent videos on YouTube of Jesse performing live is this one, captured during a November 2010 gig at Ashland Coffee and Tea in Virginia, near to the home in Charlottesville where he had settled with his second wife Cindy Duffy in 2002:


 I’m riding a big round ball
I never do dream I may fall
But one day the high must lay low
So when I do fall I’ll be glad to go
Yeah, when I do fall I’ll be glad to go


7 thoughts on “For Jesse: Defying Gravity

  1. Well I doubt we read each other’s blogs expecting news. But this was news to me and very sad news too.

    I’ve loved Jesse Winchester’s music since his first album and have never grown tired of listening to him. I thought on his last album, ‘Love Filling Station’ his voice wasn’t quite itself. But of course I never suspected he was dying, we never do.

    1. Amazing! You’re only the second person I know who has heard of him. Yes, it is a sad loss, and he sounds frail on that 2010 YouTube video. Looking forward to that album he’d just completed.

  2. His performance of “Sham-a-Ling Dong Ding” on Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle” slays me every time I watch the video. Truly, a national treasure.

  3. There was clearly a strong Winchester stream running through Liverpool University in the early 70s. Another student there, Gill Baldwin from Carlisle, introduced me to him. And since then his illness and death are the only things about him I’ve managed to miss. Quietly great, but no less great for that.

  4. He was rather well recieved over here in Holland, with quite some critical acclaim. I still play his first album now and then. Captured the LP and turned it into a CD. And later on when it became available bougt the Cd version. It felt like a private secret enjoying his music….

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