#57 Can I Take My Gun Up To Heaven. Hollywood Cemetery. Richmond And Oregon Hill Part 3


Church Hill is on the opposite side of downtown from The Fan and Oregon Hill. But firmly on the East West Axis.  Indeed this is the original city center. The city shifted first west than stretched north and south.  Leaving the old city center Church Hill isolated from the main life of the City.


08 Can I Take My Gun To Heaven_

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Although Oregon Hill is now considered a neighborhood of Richmond it wasn’t always that way. It had a distinct identity separate from the city. When established during the Reconstruction (the rebuilding and re-industrialization ) of the South after the Civil War it was far west of the City. The neighborhood was established primarily for the workers at the Tredgar Ironworks and the Albemarle Paper company.

The houses in the neighborhood have a distinct look. The rumor I always heard was that they were intended to be only temporary housing for the workers. Hence their simple construction.Very narrow two story houses. A steep staircase at the middle of the house that went up at a 60% angle to conserve space. constructed of wood when most of the rest of the building in the city were brick. The adjoining row houses although separate houses and not “condos” often share continuous floor joists and communal walls. The whole neighborhood has the feel of something you would find in New Orleans or more tellingly some of the old West Virginian Mining towns.

Indeed one rumor or story I have heard over and over again from many Richmonders is that the workers were all recruited from a single village in the mountains of West Virginia because they supported the Union in the Civil War. The reconstruction authorities wanted Yankee loyalists in the factories to foil potential saboteurs. Indeed West Virginia broke away from Virginia and was made a separate state because by and large the folks in the mountain counties of Virginia supported the Union. For various reasons this seems believable to me, but I’ve yet to find any real reliable source that supports this story that the inhabitants of Oregon hill were imported from Appalachia in mass.

Still like all the big cities within a few hundred miles of the Appalachian mountains, Richmond attracted many many West Virginians. They came many in successive waves. Certainly during the reconstruction and industrialization of the southern cities after the civil war. But also during other periods of boom and bust. So the idea that the Oregon Hillbillies- as they are often called- came from west virginia or Appalachia is plausible for many reasons. When I lived there you could hear the neighborhoods distinct accent. It was different than the rest of the city. You could hear the mountain cadence in there speech. Older people used curious mountain phrases and words like ‘ye ought to ‘ or ‘thar’ and the river pronounced  not with the pretentious Richmond/Tidewater accent pronunciation:  Ruhvuh. it was pronounced River. Like the rest of us.

It was also 100% white neighborhood. Very poor, very working class. Insular and wary of outsiders. Although the wonderful and elegantly decaying houses were magnets for artists hipster and musicians. The students from VCU were also busy colonizing the neighborhood. Blocks of houses were abandoned and condemned. This didn’t stop people from living in them.

If Corry Arnold’s theory of the inverse relation between housing prices and the vitality of a music scene ever needed a case study, it would be oregon hill 1981- 2000. These are the earliest and latest dates by which my (admittedly) small pool of  Oregon Hill residents agree there was some music scene based in Oregon Hill. Even if your band practiced on Broad street or Fulton hill, the fact most band members lived in Oregon Hill made oregon hill the center of the scene.

The Fan district another neighborhood of brick homes and with a distinct upper middle class and historic pedigree attracted many students. But the Gestapo-like Fan District Association did not permit any bands to practice (or live music establishments) in it’s domain. Or even near it’s domain. Church Hill the oldest and most historic part of the city was another promising area where artists and students lived, but it was too ghetto to rehearse there. Your gear would get stolen.

In recent years oregon hill has begun to emulate the fan district. Exhibit A. the flag at the main entrance to the neighborhood.  This is in marked contrast to the old bumper sticker you would sometimes see around the neighborhood.  Oregon Hill: That better be a tan!

So Oregon Hill by default was the hub of the music scene however brief and small. Despite the fact it was an alien in a host body that did not 100% accept it’s presence. Yet it thrived in it’s own way.

It produced only a handful of bands that went onto wider recognition. But I have to say. owning a studio I have empirical quantitative evidence that the Richmond music scene in this period was much more vital than the current period.  With the exception of Lamb of God most of the Richmond bands that have had any lasting commercial or cultural impact emerged in that brief period.

Again leaning on Corry’s observations,  this was the period when the the city had abundant cheap real estate (mostly in oregon hill and along broad street),  but was sufficiently safe (in that area)  to support a start-up band ecosystem.

One thing that helped Oregon Hill remain inexpensive while The Fan rapidly gentrified was that it was not considered a “historic” neighborhood for a long time. It is still often dismissed by the local historical societies. Especially the University VCU which coveted the neighborhood for expansion.  I suspect this has something to do with Richmonds economic axis being pivoted 90 degrees after the civil war. Oregon Hill was definitely tied into the industries that were part of the “new” North-South trade.  It didn’t even exist when there was a East-West trade.

In contrast Church hill and the Fan (with it’s monuments to the confederate war heros) still dream of Richmond’s Antebellum past. These neighborhoods and others further west are where you find the connected families that make up the old money power structures.   The lawyers and politicians that broker the deals of the city and state. I have a friend who identifies this social strata as  the “skimming” class. His point they aren’t actually adding anything to the GDP of Richmond or the US. They are  just simply taking their cut. Much as generations of virginian rentiers that came before them.

Conversely the troublesome carpetbaggers   with their  US Army, Fort Lee,  Defense Supply Depot, railroads, industrial facilities, fancy credit card companies, pharmaceuticals, and bio tech firms all live and work along the north south axis. The poor ones live in places like Oregon Hill, Lakeside  or trailer parks along rte 1 south. The prosperous ones live in the gated communities and sparkling suburbs of Chesterfield county. Brandermill. Colonial Heights. As opposed to the “skimmer” class these people are generally involved in thevalue added part of the economy. But I digress.

My point is that Oregon Hill did not represent old Richmond. The old southern aristocracy. It also didn’t represent the old southern poor. It was simply a white working class factory neighborhood remarkably similar to those found in cities like Portland ME, Providence RI, Pittsburgh Philadelphia  or Baltimore.  Yes it had a southern flavor.  But it was it’s working class white trash sensibility that had the greatest influence on Cracker. That’s what Can I Take My Gun Up To Heaven is about.

Yes it gently mocks and praises the inhabitants of this neighborhood at the same time. And how could we not?

The first weekend we had our studio set up we heard a ruckus that was so loud we could hear it while wearing headphones listening to loud guitars.  Two different factions in the neighborhood had decided to fight.  Well not exactly fight but sort of pretend to fight. Each side had a leader.  One guy had a shovel.  Another guy had a chain. They were naked to the waist like ancient Celts or Comanches. They were standing in the middle of laurel street daring the other to “come on” .  To throw down.  To throw the first blow.  A crowd of at least a hundred people had gathered to watch.

“I’ll Rock and Roll you Motherfucker!!”

A cheer from most of the crowd.

“Yea and i’ll beat your ass,  C’mon C’mon!!”

A cheer from most of the crowd again.  Which really doesn’t make sense if you think about it.

Amazingly  a single fat white city policeman walked into the crowd and dispersed it.  In LA or NYC 25 squad cars and the SWAT team would have responded.

Then of course there was The Prison. Actually I think it was called the Virginia State Penitentiary.  I guess I should have mentioned that earlier.  Neighborhoods that contain a prison are quite unique.  And this was not the city jail i’m talking about.  I mean the Prison with death row prisoners.  They electrocuted people in that prison.  I was at a party in oregon hill one night when the lights dimmed. It was the night they electrocuted a prisoner.  It was probably just a co-incidence. There were death row protesters across from the prison sometimes.  Sometimes there would be Oregon Hillbilly counter-protestors.  One time I saw a guy standing at the corner of belvidere and spring with a sign that simply said “fry him”. People driving home to south side were honking and waving at him.  Like he had a sign saying “Go Redskins”.

Anyway  sometime during this time we lived in Oregon Hill,  they closed the prison and tore it down.  Suddenly our whole neighborhood was filled with rats.  They brazenly walked around my kitchen.  I could scream and stomp and they would hold their ground.   They would have had to smoke and feign boredom to seem more disinterested in me.  These were some hardened city rats. They’d done time.

There was also dirt woman.  He was a sort of local celebrity.  A redneck drag queen. Worthy of a John Waters movie.  Every year he would wrestle Dave Brockie from GWAR (in costume) for charity.  He walked up to Mary once and took a bite of her Ice Cream cone.  She gave it to him.  “You eat the rest”.

There was dog man.  That’s just what Johnny called him.  Cause he was like a dog.  He’d sit on his non functioning car in front of his house.  Drinking beer and barking or shouting at whoever drove by.  Not in an unfriendly way.  It was a shout but the important thing was it usually made no sense.

“Hey man it’s going on!”

“That’s what I say!! yep that’s what I say! ”

Some nights when buzzed just enough I sensed a profound truth in his seeming inanities.  But it was always just out of reach.

We didn’t hang out with the locals. The students, musicians and artists that had moved into the neighborhood were our friends and peers.  Most were from northern virginia.  They played or listened to punk rock, hardcore metal alternative and indie rock.    Some played some quite fey indie-pop.  So it wasn’t like we were in some Southern Rock immersion zone.

And a lot of the young oregon hillbillies were picking up on rap, and listened to the more bonehead metal bands.  But yeah on any given day you would hear southern rock emanating from someones car or the local bars.  Especially the locals only place on the corner of Pine st and china street.  That place was rough. (somebody remind me of the name The Chuck Wagon?).  Johnny and I loved our dive bars, but even though we were accepted by the locals we only went in there once.  We were immediately challenged to a fight so we left.

One night I was driving Mary’s car up Pine street and a guy comes running out of that bar at full speed chased by an angry mob.  I didn’t have time to even react and touch the brakes.  I hit the guy going about 20 miles an hour,  he went up and over the hood of the car. Landed on his feet and kept on running.  I stopped to see if he was okay,  but  one of the locals started shouting at me.

“get outta here or you’ll get what he’s gonna get”

My dream was that one day I’d drive by this bar and hear this song blasting from the jukebox.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Finally there is an cemetary at the edge of Oregon Hill.  It’s called Hollywood Cemetery.  It is fairly famous because it has several US presidents and CSA president Jeff Davis buried there. It also has a giant stone pyramid that marks the burial place of 17,000 (?)confederate soldiers.  Many people assume that the song Hollywood Cemetery is referring to Hollywood California.  It is not.  It refers to this graveyard.  In oregon hill it’s presence is overwhelming.  The whole neighborhood should be filled with ghosts.  The protagonist sings the song from texas.  His lost love is like a ghost that haunts him.  He wishes she would stay buried and gone.

04 Hollywood Cemetary

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Can I Take My Gun Up to Heaven.
[D]

Can I take my [G] gun up to [C] heaven? [G] [C] [Cmaj7] [D]
You know she’s [G] always been by my [C] side [G] [C] [Cmaj7] [D]
Can I take my [G] gun up to [C] heaven? [G] [C] [Cmaj7] [D]
I’ll check it with St. [G] Peter at the gate [C] [G(sus4)]

And if I had a [D] woman that was [C] faithful [Am][G]
Or even [D] kind some of the time [C][Am][G]
I’d drag her on [D] up to the gates of heaven [C][Am][G]
Or follow her right [D] down to the gates of [C] hell [Am] [D]

REPEAT CHORUS

[G][D][C][Am]
[G][D][C][Am]
[G][D][C][Am]
[G][D][C][Am]

[C] When I come home from a long day [G] a-working at the prison
[A] I find my woman she’s not a-[D]-round [C]
She’s down at Dahlie’s corner [G] a-playing cards and drinking
[A] Or sitting on the cars singing Dixie with the [D] boys [C] [D]

REPEAT CHORUS

Can I take my gun up to heaven?
Can I take my gun up to heaven?
Can I take my gun up to heaven?
Can I take my gun up to heaven?

[C] Can I take my gun up to [G] heaven?

Hollywood Cemetery


[G][B][C][G(sus4)]
[Em][C][G][G7][B][Em][C(7)]
[G][B][C][G(sus4)]

[G] I left my baby, [B] I left her [C] down in Hollywood [G(sus4)] Cemetary
Weren’t a cloud in the [B] sky, but how I [C] wish it was [G(sus4)] raining

[Em] Well I know it was [C] wrong to feel love like a [G] burden [G7]
[B] But if we all were [Em] angels [C(7)] Heaven would be earth
[G] So I left my baby, [B] I left her [C] down in Hollywood [G(sus4)] Cemetary.

[BREAK:]
[Em][C][G][G7][B][Em][C(7)]
[G][B][C][G(sus4)]

She got her petees? and coffee, while the band plays a funeral dirge
In New Orleans Mardi Gras, but I’m sick as a dog, here in Texas

When the one that you love’s in the arms of another man
You’ve got to rise above it, and let her go
Leave your baby down, leave her down at Hollywood Cemetary

[REPEAT BREAK]
[G(sus4)]

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5 Responses to “#57 Can I Take My Gun Up To Heaven. Hollywood Cemetery. Richmond And Oregon Hill Part 3”

  1. Oregon Hill reminds me of the St Johns neighborhood in Portland, OR. While it’s a bit more diverse, in terms of demography and race, it’s similar to Oregon Hill in that a significant percentage of its population lives under the poverty line (23%, according the Wikipedia–the standard for wikiality).

    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Johns,_Portland,_Oregon)

    There’s a bar in St Johns called Slims, where a secret Cracker show would be awesome. I wonder how many people it holds?

  2. This trilogy of Oregon Hill posts is the story of every rock scene from the 1960s onwards. Of course, all the details are different for Haight Ashbury in the 60s, or the Lower East Side in the 70s or dozens of other places, but the essential arc is the same: cheap, transitional housing, proximity to work and gigs, tolerant indifference from the locals. The story about the street fight being broken up by one cop is meaningful, too, since it clearly indicates that despite a certain level of rowdiness Oregon Hill was safe enough for a wobbly musician to walk home late at night with his expensive gear.

    What makes Oregon Hill such a perfect paradigm–beyond, of course, David’s articulate eyewitness account–is that the street map so clearly illustrates the economic circumstances of the community: near enough to be useful, but separate enough to be left on its own. The area was always populated by outsiders who didn’t see itinerant rock musicians as much different themselves, which is not true of every neighborhood, even down and out ones.

    When you see the Oregon Hill flag as the neighborhood gentrifies, its typical to invoke Joni Mitchell and say “you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone.” That may be, but the nature of transitional neighborhoods is that they are in motion and can never remain the same. In this case, it looks like Oregon Hill is heading upwards towards chi-chi, rather than downwards towards a slum, but either way it could never stand still.

    The more likely prophet here would be former New York Tribune columnist Karl Marx, who famously said “History repeats itself…first as tragedy and then as farce.” As Oregon Hill improves, that will lead inevitably to an Historical Society, then a Street Fair and finally a Heritage Festival. There is plenty of history in the community (as David eloquently described), but the only cultural heritage is a bunch of 80s and 90s rock bands. Sometime around 2030, David and Johnny will get to judge the Cracker karaoke contest (contestants will be using Rock Band 27.0), as the final event before the re-enactment of the Dirt Lady/GWAR match. I’ll meet you all there.

    • That’s no lady, that’s Dirt Woman, man. Regardless of chronology, Dirt Woman was an innovator, and Divine a domesticator. S/he used to show up at occasional punk gigs, invariably grabbing some young guy but the nuts.
      In the 70s and early 80s, the East Grace end of the now gentrified fan had the same cheap housing as Oregon Hill. It still cracks me up that a friend who became some sort of financier paid top dollar for a National Register of Historic Places rowhouse where in 1985 you could still buy heroin. That part is not on the official history.
      Thanks for this and the other Orre-GONE Hill entries.

  3. On October 23, a historical society is offering a tour of Hollywood Cemetery on segways. What will the Oregon hillbillies make of that?

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