It’s rare to come across a piece of film that captures the moment when one song transforms a show, but Jesse Winchester’s performance of ‘Sham-a-Ling-Dong-Ding’ on Elvis Costello’s TV show Spectacle in 2010 does just that. When I found it online, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t paid more attention to Winchester down the years. It’s one of the best songs about the past and the present, youth an age, that I know.
It certainly hit Elvis, his guests and audience pretty hard. From the moment Winchester starts the song with a gentle ‘Ooooh’ intro to a lightly 1950s-ish chord sequence on his nylon-string guitar, it’s as if the entire theatre is holding its breath.
‘The boys were singing shing-a-ling
The summer night we met
You were tan and seventeen
Oh, how could I forget?
When every star from near and far
Was watching from above
Watching two teenagers fall in love.’
By the end of the song, there are tears on and off the stage. ‘Thanks, Jesse, you finished me off,’ says Elvis Costello. ‘It happened in rehearsal and it’s happened now.’
Why does this song work so well? Partly because it taps into the rich vein of nostalgia that is fifties pop, the great age of teenagehood. That’s hardly new – the same idea was behind ‘Summer Lovin’ and indeed the entire Grease soundtrack, and the Carpenters’ ‘Yesterday Once More’ .
What lifts ‘Sham-a-Ling-Dong-Ding’ is that it is also about a feeling that every generation of teenager will understand – how pop songs, however silly, belong to you, reflecting your own intense yearnings in a way that no grown-up could understand. In fact, the way that the rest of the world is excluded from them is part of the songs’ appeal.
Cleverly, Jesse Winchester moves forwards and backwards in time in his lyrics – forwards to years when the teenagers are growing old together, and backwards to when those disapproving adults were going through their version of the same thing.
‘And, oh, the poor old old folks
They smile and walk away
But I bet they did some
Sham-a-lam-a-ding-dong in their day…’
It turns out to be more than a love song. It’s about getting old and looking back. Age, and the memory of youth (what could be sadder?) are perfect for song, and have rarely been captured as well as here.
Having discovered this clip quite recently, I became rather obsessed by Jesse Winchester. I had heard his name being dropped by other songwriters – his songs have been widely covered and he’s even been praised by Bob Dylan – but I had previously not seem him a Premier League writer. I has assumed he was a solid Championship performer, comparable to the likes of Jim Croce and Warren Zevon.
I hit Spotify in search of songs as good as ‘Sham-a-Ling-Dong-Ding’ – and discovered that I had been sort of right. The songs that he wrote and performed when he lived in Canada – he had moved their to avoid the draft and Vietnam – are fine, good, intelligently written pop songs, but no better than that. Even Quiet About It, an album of covers put together by his friends, including James Taylor, Lucinda Williams, Roseanne Cash and Allen Toussaint, is, in my view, touching but forgettable.
Weirdly, Jesse Winchester seems to be a rare case of a songwriter who really hit his stride when he became old. There are other other great songs, whose tone and tempo and depth of feeling are extraordinary but they they tend to be written in the past ten or 15 years of his life (he died in 2014). My other favourites are the wonderful ‘That’s What Makes You Strong‘, and ‘I Wave Bye Bye’.
From interviews, Jesse Winchester seems a kind and sane man. ‘My work in life is very happy, but it’s not a barn-burning kind of thing,’ he said in one interview. ‘It’s low-key.’ As for his song-writing, he once said, ‘I don’t want to break any clichés. I’d rather bring clichés back to life.
That’s what he does with ‘Sham-a-Ling-Dong-Ding’. The song keeps building, both in its emotional intensity and its melody so that, when it finishes, it feels like a small, touching piece of art, perfectly achieved.
If it doesn’t move you, you may need help.