Saturday Single No. 3

Originally posted February 24, 2007

One of the great themes of popular music – from the pre-recording days when music’s popularity was measured only by sales of sheet music, through the entire Twentieth Century to today – is displacement. From the day in 1853 when Stephen Foster – America’s first popular songwriter – wrote “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight,” American musicians and listeners have celebrated, longed for and grieved their separations from, places dear to them.

The separation need not be physical: Time pulls us away, too, as places change and we ourselves are altered by the turning of the calendar. Joe South’s 1969 lament, “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home,” mourned the changes brought to his home place – and by extension, the entire south – by the so-called progress of that decade, which replaced orchards with offices and meadows with malls (and the orchards and meadows continue to disappear to this day, of course, not just in the south but all across the country).

The era during which Joe South sang – those volatile years from, say, 1965 to 1975 – was one of displacement for a lot of folks. Many of those who were displaced, of course, had not one bit of use for rock or soul or any of their relatives; they instead found their solace in gospel music or in the country stylings of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and their contemporaries. But the sense of longing wasn’t limited by genre. It’s not an accident that one of the better singles of the Beatles, the best group of the time – or any time, for that matter – told us all to get back to where we once belonged. We all wanted to go home.

One of those who couldn’t go home was Jesse Winchester, a native of Memphis who’d left the U.S. for Canada in 1967 instead of reporting for military service (and most likely an assignment to the war zone in Vietnam) when he got his draft notice. Living in Montreal in 1969, he met Robbie Robertson of The Band – himself a Canadian, of course, like three of the other four members of The Band. Robertson produced and played guitar on Winchester’s first album, Jesse Winchester, and brought along his band-mate Levon Helm to play drums and mandolin. The record, says All-Music Guide, “was timely: it spoke to a disaffected American generation that sympathized with Winchester’s pacifism. But it was also timeless: the songs revealed a powerful writing talent (recognized by the numerous artists who covered them), and Winchester’s gentle vocals made a wonderful vehicle for delivering them.”

Winchester, of course, was unable to perform in the U.S. to promote either the record or his career, and thus never was able to capture the attention of the listening and buying public as well as he likely deserved. He recorded four more albums in Canada until an amnesty proclaimed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 allowed him to return to the U.S. He’s recorded infrequently since then, but has been an active performer, with his most recent trio of releases being live albums.

When one listens to today’s Saturday Single, “Biloxi” – or indeed, any selection from the Robbie Robertson-produced debut, Jesse Winchester – one can hear the regrets and longing under the gentle vocal as Winchester remembers the joy and solace he once found in a place he might never be able to see again.

“Biloxi” by Jesse Winchester [1970]

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