Archive for James River

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

Posted in Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker with tags on September 28, 2010 by Dr. David C Lowery

 

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]

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