Jesse Winchester spent his final years in Charlottesville

Songwriter and Vietnam protester Jesse Winchester settled in Charlottesville, VA after being pardoned for avoiding the draft by President Carter in 1977. Image: Wikimedia commons/robbiesaurus Songwriter and Vietnam protester Jesse Winchester settled in Charlottesville, VA after being pardoned for avoiding the draft by President Carter in 1977. Image: Wikimedia commons/robbiesaurus

The world lost a gift to music with the passing of Jesse Winchester  on April 11 in Charlottesville. According to his website,  the legendary singer songwriter ” died peacefully in his sleep, at home, after fighting bladder cancer.”

The soft-spoken country star may have been averse to thrusting himself into the public eye, but his story speaks voumes.  A determined peace advocate, Winchester found himself pitted against government officials during Vietnam, ultimately leading the young musician to seek refuge in Canada.

According to The Huffington Post, it was here where he found his true beginnings in music.  With only 300 dollars in his pocket, Winchester carved a new life for himself, writing music that extended across borders and politics to find a home within the sanctum of American hearts.   His work includes over 100 songs written for prolific talents such as James Taylor, The Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris, and even Raffi.  Among his most renowned works are “Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” made famous by Joan Baez, and “Biloxi,” whose cover by Jimmy Buffet stands as one of the landmarks of his career.

It was love and family that eventually brought Winchester to Charlottesville.  “I came back to the states because I fell in love with Cindy,” he told WNRN in 2006.  “Cindy’s daughter shopped around for another place to live, with good schools, good climate, nice people, and eventually settled on Charlottesville. […] and we followed them here.” While in Charlottesville, Winchester performed at the former Gravity Lounge alongside other well-known artists like Guy Clark.  For those who knew him, he was a model citizen and an embodiment of the humanist message that resonates from his lyrics.

“I knew him to be the quintessential Southern gentleman,” said Anne Williams of WNRN.

It wasn’t until late in his career that Winchester’s contributions to music were officially recognized. In 1990, he received two Juno Award Nominations, one for Best Roots & Traditional Album, and a second for Country Male Vocalist of the year.  A decade later, he got another Juno nomination for his album Gentleman of Leisure.

According to NPR, Winchester was also honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 for his contributions to country songwriting.  If any doubts of Winchester’s talent still lingered, they were squashed in 2009 when, with a voice like honey, he performed his single “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding,” on Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle” leaving fellow artist Neko Case in tears and rendering the loquacious Costello utterly silent.

Winchester’s legacy has been preserved in a tribute album titled Quiet About It.  The record includes his most influential songs all performed by fellow artists whose careers honor his genius.  His memory will continue to live through friends, family, and the lives that have been touched by his music. —Logan Boggs

  • elliot majerczyk

    From a previous Facebook post on Jesse’s page.

    ” A heart as big as your Mama’s stove”
    (from the song “Payday”)

    I ran into Jesse several times when he was living in Montreal. He was a transplanted Southerner living there. Ironically, when I became a transplanted Northerner living in Charlottesville, we crossed paths several times. He was always gracious, funny, compassionate, and really eloquent in the way he talked and walked. I remember telling him after a solo concert in Montreal, where he performed with just an acoustic nylon string guitar that this is what it must have been like seeing Mississippi John Hurt or Hoagy Carmichael in their prime. Jesse smiled and I know he must have liked to hear that. Recently I played some cuts from the first album and “Third Down…” to some younger people. They sat there there stunned and were transported into the ether, as Jesse’s voice changed the atmosphere in the room.

    • Ken Chawkin

      Love this story. I met Jesse a few months after he first came to Montreal during the summer of 1967 through my friend Michell Markus. Just put a tribute to Jesse together. You can see it here:

      • elliot majerczyk

        Hello Ken,

        Nice to connect. Is this the same Mitchell Markus from CHOM (CKGM-FM)? I knew some of those guys. Greg Schiffrin’s wife was my TM instructor in another life time.

        • Ken Chawkin

          Yes. Jeff Sterling was progressive for those times. I reconnected with Mitchell when I heard the news of Jesse’s passing. They were close back then. Mitchell and I were actually roommates at Cheshire Academy long before then. So Ellen was your TM teacher! I reconnected with her a few years ago as well. I remember your name. I used to listen to CBC Radio when I lived in Canada. You still meditate? Connect with me through Twitter or my blog, if you like.

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