Listen to this track by soft-spoken singer-songwriter from Louisiana and then Memphis, Tennessee who made Montréal his home for many years, Jesse Winchester. It’s “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding”, a track taken off of his latter day album Love Filling Station in 2009.
The reasons for his stay in Canada from 1967 onward were less than ideal. The Vietnam war was ramping up, and Winchester was a pacifist. This meant taking refuge in Canada to avoid the draft like so many of his generation. But what it also meant was meeting with The Band’s Robbie Robertson, who would produce his self-titled first album in 1970, complete with the sepia-toned cover shot that made Winchester look like an outlaw on the lam, which in some respects I guess he actually was before President Jimmy Carter pardoned him in 1977, along with all other American conscientious objectors, after which he could finally tour the States. He stayed in Canada anyway until 2002.
Since that period, he recorded his own albums and penned songs for other artists as well. By 2009, he was not exactly a household name, and his output had slowed considerably. But this tune demonstrates the depths of his talent that remained undiminished, and reveals something about the passage of time and the ways we perceive things as we get older.
Stylistically speaking, Winchester’s material defies categorization, touching on folk, gospel, country, R&B, bluegrass, and all points in between which may reveal his roots in Memphis where so much of this music came together. The same lack of pigeon-holing goes with the eras out of which the music sounds like it comes, which could be anywhere from the twenties to the present day. His music is held together by an effortless vocal style that sounds like Roy Orbison’s less dramatic younger brother, where every line is delivered with care, in every sense of that word. The common thread found in his work is a certain brand of pervading gentleness that is unrushed and delivered with a quiet confidence. It doesn’t have to raise its voice to be heard, particularly with this song that seems to encapsulate the changes in perception we all experience as we drift from youth to old age.
The scene is set with two dancing teenagers, flush with first love and shyness while older folks look on with confusion and scorn, forgetting all the while that they too had been young once and overcome by those very same forces. The phrase “Sham-A-Ling Dong-Ding” as represented in pop song parlance becomes the mantra for the moment where common language will not do. Yet this song also says that deep down, we still hear that song of youthful spirit of being unselfconsciously overcome by our feelings that love will always endure and that we can be immortal even if it’s just for a single moment. It’s just a question of choosing to acknowledge it, even if that mysterious song isn’t always easily captured in words one would find in a dictionary.
That this exercise in finding that sense of youthful wonder gets more difficult as we get older is the big takeaway here for me. As we advance in experience, dented and scarred by disappointment and confronted by mortality, the simplicity of young love looks more and more naive and foolish to us a lot of the time. Romantic walks in the rain become an exercise in getting soaking wet as the idealistic gives way to the practical as informed by harsh experience. But that’s all about perception as well in this song, and perhaps in life as well. Sometimes single moments of pure unexamined joy in our lives can be the ballast that we need to make sense of the hard lessons we’ll also learn. We can’t always explain these moments other than remembering how they made us feel, and at the same time reminding us of who we were when we experienced them.
That’s what this tune touches on best; that even though perceptions shift about a lot of things in a complicated and fast-moving life, there can still be a part of us that chooses to cling to the simple truths we hold inside of us no matter what is happening externally, or how old we get; love, connection, shared memories, and the unique and irreplaceable spirits that exist when people who know and love each other come together.
In these moments, what other words are necessary?
Jesse Winchester died in 2014 at the age of 69 after a respected career as a recording artist and as a writer of material for many, including The Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris, George Strait, Norah Jones, Wilson Pickett, Reba McIntire, and Joan Baez, among many others. In 2009, Jesse Winchester appeared on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle program along with a panel of fellow singer-songwriters that included Sheryl Crow, Neko Case, and Ron Sexsmith. He sang this song. To hear that version, and to see Neko Case totally tear up by the end of it (you will too), you can click right here.
Otherwise, to find out more about this under-appreciated songwriter, check out this portal page on jessewinchester.com for a list of interviews that trace his career from the beginning.
Also, here’s a retrospective of Jesse Winchester’s career from Rolling Stone upon news of his death.