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  • Goodnight, Jesse

    I remember my mother singing this beautiful lullaby, "Lay Down Your Burden":

    Lay down the burden of your heart
    You know you'll never miss it
    Show your mama where it hurts
    And let your mama kiss it

    Jesse Winchester, who wrote it, died last week, at age 69, the very age my mother was when she succumbed to the same cruel disease two and a half years ago.

    Celebrities die, of course. Famous people you admire die. Internet denizens seems to get a weird pleasure from posting "#RIP so-and-so"--especially if they get to it before their friends do. This happens all the time; it's almost boring. But this particular death actually meant something me, and I thought I would write about it, by way of explaining a bit about where I come from.

    I didn't know Jesse personally, so I don't want to pretend that I'm experiencing what his family and friends are experiencing right now. But for me, his name, his songs, and his voice were woven into the fabric of my upbringing.

    Both my parents knew him. There's a picture I just saw for the first time recently: my mother sits in a group of shaggy-haired, bearded young people (why is it that everyone in the 70s seemed to be so sweaty all the time? Was it the clothes? The extra body hair?). She's gorgeous, kind of in the way Feist is nowadays: strong bone structure in her face, a clarity in her expression, her hair long and dark. She exudes an earthy, bohemian beauty, holding her three-year-old daughter on her lap (that's my older half sister, Leah). Mum's then-partner Mike, my sister's dad, is also in the picture. And there's Jesse: his gentle face and the smouldering, intense gaze that makes me understand why my mother always sighed, "oh that Jesse...he was so handsome." It was all in the eyes, and the voice.

    My dad knew him from the 60s, when Jesse came to Canada to escape the draft. Dad's oldest friend Brian Blain recalls:

    "I remember getting a call from Sue Lothrop telling me that she and Allan Fraser (then performing as a duo called 'Breakfast') were going to pay the musicians' union initiation fee for this great guitarist who had just arrived in Montreal ... that was Jesse, of course. I was their manager and forbade them putting out that money for Jesse when there were many other great guitarists who were already in the union, but we can all be glad they disregarded my fiscal concerns and went ahead and got Jesse in the union so he could play the gig with them (I think it was at the Venus de Milo Room)."

    Fast forward a few years, after F&D had released & toured their acclaimed first album. Brian tells it this way:

    "I was asked to produce the 2nd Fraser & DeBolt album for CBS Records, New York. The label definitely wanted somebody else to produce but were at least reassured that I had produced sessions for an ad agency and knew how to stick to a budget and fill out a contract. At one point I heard Allan talking to the A&R guy saying 'well it's either Phil Spector or Brian.' I had to laugh. ... Finally it was agreed that I would co-produce the album with Jesse and Jesse came down to the Fraser & DeBolt farm in Cookshire for pre-production. Everybody was tripping on mescaline and I think he might have been a bit appalled - though he was still enjoying his brandy. The whole circus moved to Toronto ... we accomplished very little in the first 5 or 6 days except to exasperate David Greene who was their top engineer. He handed us off to suave Californian called Lee De Carlo who was a little more comfortable with our scene--and even brought his own stash. But in the midst of this, Jesse lost patience. I think, as they say, he wasn't having fun--so he just made a call and went home."

    So I guess it's not altogether surprising that when I finally did meet Jesse, almost 35 years later after a concert here in Victoria, BC, he was a little vague-seeming when I said I was Allan Fraser's daughter. He was polite, though--ever the gentleman, he smiled and asked me to send his regards to my dad. That was one of the two occasions I saw him play live: the other was the Islands Folk Festival in Duncan, where I was performing on their Youth stage. Both times I was mesmerized. Just him and his guitar, yet he had that crowd in the palm of his hand. I did more than watch: I *studied.* I wanted to learn.

    Jesse's way of writing, singing, and playing his guitar, made its mark on me almost through osmosis. Is it possible for musical influence to pass on through the DNA? I felt like his style affected mine vastly, even though I didn't consciously sit down and listen to his music until I had already been playing for some time. When I did, I immediately felt an affinity, particularly when I heard him play just with his acoustic guitar--no band, no production. This ease, this gentleness, this groove! He didn't need to shout. There was sometimes a sly wink in his delivery, making you feel like you were laughing together at the same joke...or such a straightforward earnestness that the simplest phrase utterly broke your heart. His songs are neither ornate nor complex, though sometimes mysterious. Restrained and truthful. Joyous. It's not everywhere you find this.

    All this--the family history, the songs on the stereo as I grew up ("Hey girl, say hey say what..."), the way my Mum used to sing his lullaby to us as kids--that's why I wanted to post something longer than a tweet about this "#RIP." I wanted to explain why I actually wept when I learned that this man, whom I didn't really know, had died. And to explain why what he did was important to me. I hope that I can keep those lessons I learned from him--which I continue to learn as I listen--and put them into what I make. I think that's all you really can do as a tribute, when a great teacher has gone.