American Routes Shortcuts: Jesse Winchester
Each week, American Routes brings you Shortcuts, a sneak peek at our upcoming show. This week the late songwriter Jesse Winchester tells of his musical life on the road. Jesse Winchester grew up around Memphis, where he was surrounded by gospel and country music as well as early rhythm & blues and rock & roll radio, sounds that would define his own musical and songwriting style throughout his life. In the early ’60s, he moved to Massachusetts for college and then fled to Quebec to avoid being drafted to Vietnam. He was pardoned by the Carter administration in 1977 and repatriated in 2002. Host Nick Spitzer spoke with Jesse in his last hometown, Charlottesville, Virginia, back in 2011.
Jesse Winchester: I was musical from infancy really. I would sing to people and bang on stuff from an early age and I just kept it up and played the organ in church.
Nick Spitzer: It’s an interesting thing to me that in your life there’s seems to be this back and forth between your southern sensibilities in growing up and then migration for various things. You went off to college in Massachusetts. That had to have been kind of culture shock if you were growing up around North Mississippi and Memphis I would think.
JS: Nick, you put the nail on the head, buddy. It was a shock to me. It was the first time I came across people who put sugar in their cornbread, and I was so disappointed in them.
NS: After college you ended up making a further migration north. You ended up going to Montreal. Can you talk a little about what was going on at the time and the choices you made to leave the United States?
JS: The Vietnam War was going on at the time and I did not believe and I was young enough and impulsive enough that I didn’t even want to discuss it with anyone. I just left.
NS: Tell me about your life in the beginning there in Montreal. What do you do to make a living and how do you live?
JS: I was told that to become a landed immigrant, I had to have a valid job, a job offer, a certain amount of cash. So I looked around for what they would consider a valid job because I knew playing guitar in a bar band was not going to cut it. So I found a sympathetic college teacher and he wrote a letter saying he could offer me a job, but frankly it was a complete fiction. And I used that and some other person gave me five hundred dollars in cash to carry across the border.
So anyway, I got back to Montreal and promptly found a job playing rhythm guitar for a band called Les Astronauts — The Astronauts. They worked way out in the province hundreds of miles away from Montreal, way out with miners and geologists and very few women. They were all just knee-walking drunk, as we used to say, at the end of the evening.
NS: But you’ve gone back and forth. Do you consider yourself a southerner, a northerner? Is there a way to think about who you’ve become as a songwriter and as a person?
JS: I just don’t know. I remember a quotation from Peter Ustinov, who was one of my favorite actors. He said there’s no national anthem that sets my toe a-tappin’ and I know what he meant. It’s a very dicey issue — nationalism. I’m not sure where I stand on it. Who am I? I don’t know. I like certain things about living in the south and certain things about living in the north. It’s just viva la difference.
NS: Touche. Jesse’s it’s been great visiting with you on American Routes. I appreciate your journey and we’ll keep listening.
JS: Thank you, Nick. It was a pleasure, buddy.
To hear the full program, join us Saturdays at 7 or Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at Americanroutes.org