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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News

 

A music icon or a disgrace?...

Posted 4/29/14 (Tue)

“Rolling Stone” magazine reported last week that blues musician Jesse Winchester has died of bladder cancer at age 69.

I doubt anyone reading this will remember who Jesse Winchester was, but “Rolling Stone” described him as the alternative to Jackson Browne and James Taylor.

In his career that saw several albums released, Winchester had dealings with Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson of The Band, Todd Rundgren, Lyle Lovett and others in the music business.

But that’s not why I remember Jesse Winchester. Oh yes, I have a couple of his albums from the late 1970s, yes the vinyl albums, but my recollection of him is more about political connotations than music.

You see, it was in 1967 in which Winchester, who was born and raised in Bossier City, La., announced he was living in Canada to avoid the U.S. military draft and a trip to Southeast Asia.

This was exactly during the time when the Vietnam War was heating up and tens of thousands of young Americans were getting wounded or killed in the jungles.

So, instead of dealing with the sometimes painful privilege of being an American and serving in some capacity which doesn’t have to be a war zone, Winchester took a short trip to cosmopolitan Montreal where he faded away from American attention for approximately three years before launching his first album.

I’ve always liked Jesse Winchester’s music. It is solid and he does indeed sound a lot like James Taylor.  He played keyboards and guitar and sang. He also directed some music but he was best known for his guitar licks.

It was appalling, however, as a young teenager listening to CBC Radio and hearing of Winchester “dodging the draft.” I knew then that wasn’t how I wanted to be welcomed into Canada.

Oddly enough, in 1973, Winchester was granted Canadian citizenship, later gained amnesty in the United States in 1977 and returned to Virginia in 2002 where he was living when he died last Friday.

A check on Winchester’s website tells of his passing and a family message thanking those who supported him throughout the years.

Canada supported him, but I seriously doubt he was popular in the United States. He may have been in small circles, but overall, it is my recollection that most Americans were angry enough at him for skipping the draft, but when he applied for amnesty, that really torqued the American psyche.

In fact, I was a high school senior in 1977 when Winchester was given amnesty by President Jimmy Carter. Aspiring to be a journalist at that time, I was already an avid radio listener and have a very good memory of the disgust of people that Winchester had the audacity  to ask the U.S. government if he could come back.

It is believed that during the Vietnam years, as many as 125,000 Americans sought safe haven in Canada, with about 20,000 of them being admitted draft dodgers.

Many of those people, 5,000, wound up in Toronto, presumably so they could network with each other and get over the stigma of betraying the United States. In a sense, it was like the Underground Railroad of the Civil War era when thousands of blacks avoided slavery by going to Quebec and Nova Scotia.

There have been some reports in Canadian newspapers that an occasional draft dodger would be arrested in a small, quiet town like Grenfell, Saskatchewan or Brooks, Alberta. Generally, however, they settled in the Toronto metro area.

Winchester traveled but was based in Montreal. He had the luxury of being a gifted musician and didn’t have to deal with every day life like most people. And perhaps that’s why he had an easy time of it despite intense media pressure in 1973 and 1977.

When Winchester arrived in Canada in 1967, he immediately fell into a band and played coffee houses all over Quebec. As time went on his venues got bigger.

He knew precisely the importance of the Montreal music scene when he hopped the border so it makes us wonder how much “homework” he did before crying out for political asylum.

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t just a guy who was afraid to take an AK-47 bullet for the United States. Somehow, it just seems more political than that.

Regardless, he should have served to avoid that skeleton in his closet that is going to haunt him through eternity. He’s a disgrace to other veterans that he didn’t.