A Winter Night at the Abercorn House
“Midnight Bus” and “Yankee Lady,” two songs by Jesse Winchester, reminded us recently of a winter night in the late seventies when Robert and I drove to Canada to the Abercorn House. Like us, Jesse was young then, a scrawny boy born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, Tennessee who’d moved to Montreal to avoid the draft.
The Abercorn House was a typical roadhouse honky-tonk — a few tables, a long bar, the air permeated with a fug of cigarette smoke and stale beer. The band was set up in the middle of the small dance floor, the crowd sitting along three sides on barstools and at tables scattered along the perimeter. When we arrived, Jesse was just wrapping up his first song of the evening. A couple of obliging fellows grabbed chairs for us, hoisted them over their heads, and planted them right in front of the band.
Robert and I were newly in love. Every song Jesse sang, every knowing smile we shared, added to the magic of that night. Jesse sang all our favorite songs and many we’d never heard before. He sang about Bowling Green, about his brief time living in Vermont with a Yankee Lady, about riding on that sad old midnight bus. Towards the end of the evening, Jesse even put down his guitar and did a sweet little shuffle in his cowboy boots. It was well after midnight when the concert broke up and we headed home. Exhilarated by the music and enthralled with each other, we were impervious to the cold and the late hour, unfazed by the long drive home in the unreliable old Saab.
Over the ensuing decades we saw Jesse perform several times. His songs were lyrical and raucous, funny and sad, sentimental and irreverent. Many other artists performed Jesse’s songs, too. After he died, several of them collaborated on a tribute album. On Quiet About It, Jimmy Buffet sings about being a gentleman of leisure, Roseanne Cash nails Biloxi, and Alan Toussaint does a heartbreaking rendition of “Wave Bye-Bye. All the songs are uniquely Jesse — warm, witty, a little bit melancholy.
Studies show that music is closely linked to memory and emotion. That’s why most people have a special attachment to the music of their youth. It fits, then, that hearing Jesse recently, we were reminded of that night at the Abercorn House more than forty years ago. As Alexa shuffled songs by Jesse Winchester, we rediscovered our appreciation for his music, remembered every word of the lyrics, and reminisced about that long-ago evening at the Abercorn House when the dark winter night was alight with music and romance.