#55 James River- Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. Richmond Virginia.

 

The James River in Downtown Richmond.

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The James River is the major waterway through the center part of the state of Virginia.  The river is quite deep until it hits the “fall line” at Richmond.  Indeed this is why Richmond was built at this spot.  It is the farthest you navigate up the James in an ocean going vessel.  After that there are a series of falls and rapids. In the early 1800’s  the James River and Kanawha Canal was built to bypass these rapids and bring trade from the mountains of Western Virginia down the James River to Richmond. As a footnote it was surveyed and designed by George Washington. But that’s another story.  This canal helped bolster the city’s commercial activity turning it into a relatively prosperous and large city.

Although Richmond is very far inland few people realize that there is actually a Port of Richmond which accepts container ships -albeit the smallest container ships.  The port is tucked away along the south eastern side of the city, in an area dominated by large (and mostly abandoned) industrial sites.  Few people who live in Richmond even know where it is. I’m not sure how financially viable it is. I suspect that the fact the Defense Supply Facility is nearby has something to do with it’s continuing function

But these days the James is a relatively unimportant waterway.  And it figures little into the commercial life of the City. The city literally turned it’s back on the river for many years. The banks were  dominated by railroad right aways,sidings industrial facilities and power plants. Until recently there was no easy access to the river from downtown. It was only in the last 15 years a riverwalk was built along the river in downtown.  There were parks along the river but you still have to cross railroad right aways to reach them.  And thenyou were often in close proximity to railroad hobo camps (south bank) or the rough but not unfriendly denizens of Oregon Hill.*  It is a beautiful river nonetheless.  There are spectacular rapids for rafting and this is in the core of an urban city.  Quite strange really. Deer, foxes, bald eagles and even bears are often seen wandering along the forested banks of the city’s river.  But to me there is a certain sadness or nostalgia to river.  It feels at times a relic of the past.  Like the antebellum mansions and the Civil War battlefields  and monuments. And a hint of even darker things.  Belle Island in the center of the river was a POW camp for Union troops throughout the Civil War.  By american standards a gulag of unimaginable horror.  30,000 prisoners on this island. 1 in 25 perished.  A prominent Baltimore surgeon who treated some of the  released captives from the Belle Isle prison  had this description of the prisoners:

“in a semi-state of nudity…laboring under such diseases as chronic diarrhoea, phthisis pulmonalis, scurvy, frost bites, general debility, caused by starvation, neglect and exposure. Many of them had partially lost their reason, forgetting even the date of their capture, and everything connected with their antecedent history. They resemble, in many respect, patients laboring under cretinism. They were filthy in the extreme, covered in vermin…nearly all were extremely emaciated; so much so that they had to be cared for even like infants.”

 

Talk about Southern Gothic! Cormac McCarthy in his imagination could not do much better.  But it is less the horrors along the river that captured my imagination. It was the sense the river was part of the lost past.  Once important it  is now but a shadow of itself. It is irrelevant to the life of the city. Just as the city was once the capitol of the Confederacy it is now a second tier urban center.  It is somewhat irrelevant to the greater life of the nation.That is both sad and sweet.

The river was the heart of a system that sent the products of the colonies and antebellum south mostly tobacco back to England and Europe.  An export oriented agricultural / natural resource economy.  Trade that went East to West with Richmond an important trans shipment point.   But as the North began it’s rapid industrialization, and railroads proliferated  trade shifted North to South.  The Civil War only accelerated this trend.  Indeed one of the minor frictions between the norther and southern states was over tariffs.  High tariffs protected developing industries in the north.  Richmond was also industrializing and was becoming more tied to the northeast than the south.  Hence many Virginians reticence to join the cause of the Confederacy.  As Corry Arnold (Rock Prosopography 101)  recently explained to me:

Thus the geography of Richmond is infused with a logic that no longer applies to the way the city works, as it is oriented towards the river when that is not actually the economic engine of the city (rivers are pretty, fortunately, so its not a terrible thing, but I’m not researching quality of life). In effect, the economics of Richmond were literally rotated on its axis, as the James River initially facilitated East-West transportation, but was of no value when commerce in the the region moved to a North-South axis (eg Atlanta and Florida to Baltimore).

(This post on richmond is largely based on research that Corry sent to me)

I wasn’t aware of this when I began to write about the James River.  But one – even an recently transplanted westerner- could sense that the James River represented the old romantic past of Richmond.  It’s sorry state also represented something else that I came to associate with Richmond. “Elegant decay”  and “opulent poverty”. Two evocative phrases my ex-wife  Mary uses to describe Richmond.

 

The first time I ever spent any real time in the City was my 29th birthday sept 10th 1989.  Camper Van Beethoven was on tour with the 10,000 maniacs.  We played a show at the Mosque theater (now called the landmark theater) just west of downtown in the middle of the VCU campus.  Natalie Merchant had some friends that lived nearby.  Later Natalie asked me if I wanted to go to a party at her friends house in this funny little neighborhood to the south of the VCU campus.   This neighborhood is called Oregon Hill.  It is a former factory neighborhood built along the banks of the James for the workers at the Tredgar Iron works.  The neighborhood is very distinct.  It even has it’s own accent despite the fact it’s a 4 by 10 block area.  Tiny two story  row houses with porches.  It looked like some neighborhood in New Orleans.  The residents were out on their porches this fine late summer evening.  Some polite with nods or “good evenings”  others drunk with catcalls and wolf whistles.  Cicadas buzzed in the trees and I thought to myself?  “where the hell am I”.  I’ll explain this  neighborhood more in a later post (Can I take my Gun Up to Heaven).

It was at this party where i met my future ex-wife.  (I’ve always wanted to use that expression). It is the neighborhood that Mary and I lived in for many years.  And more importantly this is the neighborhood that Johnny and I set ourselves up as we sought to finish writing the first Cracker Albums.

So the song started as a Camper Van Beethoven Song.  With me trying to evoke what I would term the “Old-fashioned seediness” and “antiquated decadence” of Richmond.  There were a surprising number of junkies, drug fiends and decadents in the music scene when I first began courting Mary.  So that was what first struck me. That’s what the Camper Van Beethoven version and early Cracker demo reflects.  Later I would come to appreciate the “Elegant Decay” and “Opulent Poverty” of Richmond VA.  Thus the later more gentle more evocative version of the song on Gentlemans Blues.

Finally I hope my description of Richmond comes across as honest but still affectionate.  In many ways my musical career is deeply infused with the life of three places the Inland Empire,  Santa Cruz and Richmond VA.

james river (live) Camper Van Beethoven Italy March 1990

05 James River (Demo) Cracker Sept 1990

04 James River-Cracker Gentleman’s Blues
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James River (later version)

[INTRO & BREAK:]
[Dm]-[Ddim]-[F]-[C]
[Dm]-[Ddim]-[F]-[C]
[Dm]-[Ddim]-[F]-[C]
[G]

 

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

[Dm]You come across [Ddim] the [F] James River [C]
[Dm] A-for a [Ddim] needle, and a [F] spoon [C]
[Dm] But would you [Ddim] come across the [F] James River [C]
To be my woman again [G]
To be my woman again

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

You come across the old lee bridge
A-For a dollar fifty in change
But would you come across the James River
for this heart of gold?
For this heart of gold?

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

[BREAK]

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

You go to work for Ms. Kitty
For a decent rate of pay
But would you come across the James River
To be my woman again?
To be my woman again?

[BREAK]

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

You keep a pistol in your left boot
A brush and comb in your purse
But would you come across the James River
To be my woman again?
To be my woman again?

[ENDING:]
[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]

14 Responses to “#55 James River- Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. Richmond Virginia.”

  1. I had to sign up for an account if I wanted to give a response worthy of the substance of your post: History has gradually become a bit of a personal thing for me, and in my own way, I try and “catch” as much of it as I can. History ain’t pretty, I learned this a while back while living in my native Argentina. I always wondered about the origins of this very dark and yet so seductive song. I just wanted to thank you for the history lesson and the vivid painting.

  2. I always thought this song provoked such a vivid picture, one that you could almost reach out and grasp with your hands…another hauntingly beautiful Cracker song. I found myself in Richmond for the first time in 2006 on a 2 day business trip. I never knew the significance of James River. I knew Cracker had roots in Richmond, but it never dawned on me that it was in that city. I saw a sign for the river walking around town with a few colleagues that day. It was a pretty cool Cracker moment for me — because its always been one of my favorite Cracker songs and a staple on my Quiet Cracker mix. I hope to go back to Richmond someday soon…the city has a certain charm about it. Elegant Decay seems very appropriate.

  3. The guy who wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again” was from Richmond, and having tried for a while to live back there, I can agree, so I remain part of the Virginia Diaspora. Thanks for finally getting to this part of your landscape, and for having a place in your heart for my beloved fucked-up town. Another thing that makes the place interesting and sad is that it’s a place that never got over being hammered in a war. Echoes of that kind of defeat linger for generations, part of the southern inferiority complex that so oddly emerges as “the South will rise again” belligerence. The kind of dehumanization that allows you to first operate a big slave market and later Libby Prison doesn’t just suddenly wash off any easier than the fond memory of elegance before the decay. Ergo a town with a pretty good art museum and casual gang brutality, junkies descended from royalty.
    And a good place for music. At least I thought so in the early 80s when 5 band 5 bucks shows were so common. It seemed even better after a dose of DC, where punks had to conform pretty rigidly to one of a few cliques or poses. Dave Brockie of GWAR caught that pretty well in this bit o rock prosopography:

    http://www.oderus.com/timewasters/metal_slavery/index.html

    Blahblahbah. I could write forever of rivers and railroads, slaves and coal, rednecks and Capitol One Carpetbaggers, but this is your blog. Carry on.

    Oh, and accept my deep thanks for the CVB live version of James River!

  4. This is a fantastic post, because it illustrates how the changing economic underpinning of a community changes it’s culture, even when it is only partially visible to the participants. I had no idea about all the metal bands that got rolling in Richmond, but its a perfect illustration.

    One of the ways to characterize the transformation of industrial transportation from the 19th century to the 20th is the movement away from internal waterways to railroads (and hence, land). Some cities, like New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco, were important ports and then important railroad junctions. Others, such as Chicago and Los Angeles, were inconsequential to water traffic but essential to rail. Places like Richmond are less obvious, in that their waterborne supremacy made them important for awhile, but they lost traction over time, hiding their weakness from their own inhabitants.

    The doppleganger for Richmond, VA–you decide which is good and which is evil–is Portland, OR. Portland, too, was built 100 miles upriver to facilitate deep water shipping. Portland’s importance in the 19th century was ultimately transcended by more important rail junctions in the 20th century, primarily Seattle and Spokane. Thus Portland too became a land that time forgot, as commerce rotated north/south (SF-Seattle) rather than East-West.

  5. Living in the NW now, I see some similarities between Portland and Richmond. One is that both have railroads following rivers that still ship vast amounts of coal from the interior to the coast. When that plays out, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. But the James is damned (the vengeful southern god intent on drying it up in recent years) while the Columbia is dammed.

  6. handsometodd Says:

    David,

    Have you considered rerecording your Camper/Cracker rarities for an oddballs album? I thinking songs like Lincoln Shrine, Before I Met You, Staying at Home with the Girls in the Morning, in addition to Camper versions of Loser and James River. And you must have good songs like Big Life that never made it on to an album. And the sort of rarities that occasionally get played live, like The Man in Me. I’d love to have high quality versions of these songs.

    How about an HQ Camper version of Before I Met You with someone like Sally Timms or Kelly Hogan!

  7. in listening to the three versions of the song I latched on to your comment of meeting your “future ex wife” and, having one or two of those ex’s myself, it evoked not only a sense of place in a geographical sense, but more sense of place in a relationship.

    The CVB version comes across as filled with the bravado and mystery of a new relationship. The Cracker demo version has less of that, more flat stability but the words are the same. And the final version is all some half-remembered longing. Wondering (even if you were glad to see her go) if she would come back.

  8. Another great post, and I’m enjoying the responses so much as well. I tend to be a bit obsessive about trying to understand the history of places I live.

    As for the song – always a favourite. For no logical reason, it always evokes one of my favourite traditional blues songs, St James Infirmary. The name is a superficial similarity but for me there is a connection between the sadness of the two songs.

  9. joelhoffman Says:

    David, a great posting. I laughed at the “future ex-wife” line, because my wife and I had a joke calling you my wife’s “future ex-husband”. We moved to Forest Hills in Richmond in 2003. My wife went to UC Santa Cruz and knew CVB when the band was new. She always joked that if we ran into you in Richmond, she would ask you “didn’t you go to Santa Cruz?”. We did run into you at the coffee place on Forest Hills, and she used that line and spoke to you for a few minutes, saying that she was an acupuncturist and went to UCSC. I guess you paused and said something like “that’s funny, my previous wives were acupuncturists from Santa Cruz”. Forgive me if I’m butchering the details. To safeguard my wife against destiny, we returned to California.

    Thank you for writing so well about Richmond, VA. I’m still very fond of the city.

  10. bruceterrell Says:

    You got the history of the James and your characterization of the Hill just right. I played in the Richmond punk/bar scene for much of the late 70s – 80s (was bandmate of Bryan H. and Stephen McC. and knew Mark L. somewhat during the Johnson Family days.) I lived much of the time down on 720 S. Laurel, second to the end (now torn down). Could hear the river from my 2nd floor couch on the porch and the trains would lull me to sleep at night. Would prowl Hollywood Cemetery at all hours. I left to go to grad school and pursue a career in Marine Archaeology. I’m new to your blog but am glad to see your interest in the history of our contrary burg. Thought if you were interested you might want to take a look at my masters thesis which contains a good bit of history of the James and the bateaux that navigated it. I was part of a dig that excavated a number of bateaux and canal boats in the early 80s.
    Go to:

    http://www.ecu.edu/cs-cas/maritime/upload/ecur007.pdf

  11. [...] is an interesting blog that appears to be written by David Lowery, and it details this song and his years in Richmond. Here are most of the lyrics from the song “James River:” You come across the James [...]

  12. I have a pretty good recording of this from the Flood Zone in Richmond, February 1990. Let me know if you’d like a copy, Mr. Lowery. Seems momentous, since the Flood Zone has been under the James a time or two.

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