Jesse Winchester, the highly respected songwriter called “one of the best” by no less a source than Bob Dylan, but who never achieved popular success largely because he spent 10 years in exile after fleeing the United States to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War, died at his home in Charlottesville, Virgina, Friday.
Winchester was 69 years old and had battled cancer on and off for the last three years.
Though he was born in Louisiana and raised on a Memphis, Tennessee, farm, Jesse Winchester attended an elite northeastern college, Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. His goal was to become a lawyer, but when he received a draft notice after graduating in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, he left the United States and moved to Montreal, Canada.
“I just didn’t feel that I was so right and anybody else was so wrong that I should pick up a gun and shoot him for it,” said Jesse Winchester in 1977 — after receiving amnesty from then-President Jimmy Carter — explaining his decision to live as an exile rather than fight in Vietnam.
But his inability to return to the United States at a time when popular musicians depended on live touring to promote their records, cost Jesse Winchester a shot at the kind of success enjoyed by many of the artists who recorded his songs, even though music critics felt that his songwriting was on par with Dylan himself.
Those artists who covered Jesse Winchester songs included Emmylou Harris, Nicolette Larson, Wilson Pickett, The Everly Brothers, Elvis Costello and The Weather Girls, among many others.
Jesse Winchester professed not to mind his lack of popular success.
“I’d rather have someone else be pop star,” Winchester once told National Public Radio. “My work in life is very happy, but it’s not a barn-burning kind of thing. It’s low-key.”
Nonetheless, Jesse Winchester saw himself as a writer of pop songs, though he was usually labeled as part of the folk-influenced singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s that included James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and others — and Robbie Robertson of The Band acted as his mentor and produced the first Jesse Winchester album while the songwriter was still in Montreal.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a pop person, though I can see why some folks thought, ‘Oh, here comes another bearded white guy with a guitar,'” he said.
One of the most popular tunes penned by Jesse Winchester, “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” was recorded by many other artists including Patti Page, who had a hit with the original “Tennessee Waltz” in 1950.
Born James Ridout Winchester in 1944, Jesse Winchester was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2011, but appeared to recover only to have his cancer return, in his bladder, in February of this year.