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Posted In: Features

Sweet Virginia Breeze

Scott Turner

October 19, 2015 1:49pm
Robbin Thompson (left) and Steve Bassett. Credit: Roanoke.com

Robbin Thompson (left) and Steve Bassett. Credit: Roanoke.com

What’s the difference between a sweet breeze and a foul wind?

A foul wind is what all of us in Richmond almost encountered a couple of weeks back when Hurricane Joaquin did that little jiggle in her dance somewhere over the north Caribbean, and none of our weather experts could predict exactly where she would go next (I understand that this particular dance was more of a European-style hurricane waltz, and our distant relatives across the Atlantic knew her next move the whole time).  Winds blowing over 40 miles an hour are always foul, never welcome where they blow, and especially not welcome here. For forest dwellers like us, these winds go from foul to damaging. I think we were all happy to see Joaquin’s exhale drift away from us and over the ocean as she danced to the tune of some European model.

A sweet breeze, by stark contrast, is what I experienced not long ago on the south bank of the James River just north of the Huguenot Bridge.  It was 4 p.m. on a cool, overcast Saturday, and our river was still choking slightly on the welcome dump of rain poured over its watershed before Joaquin ever danced our way. Richmond’s great brother was bleeding dark and heavy after the sky-dump, but in the days since has transitioned more gently through a Starbucksian series of shades. Milky mocha was the color of the James on Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m., and a gentle breath of air fresh from the mountains followed the watery earth-discharge from west to east through a dense throng of trees that are just beginning to show their autumnal age.

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Bassett plays Jones Landing on the banks of the James River on the day Robbin Thompson died. Credit: Scott Turner

The band was framed by a small, rustic gazebo at the edge between a gravel parking lot and a grove of wide-canopy trees. Pecan, box elder, river birch, and American elm join to become the rafters of a green cathedral above the place where Steve Bassett sat beside his Hammond B3 organ. His arms were raised in bent extension to support fingers that brushed and fondled every inch of one of his greatest instrumental loves.

Only 10 or 15 humans were scattered in the cathedral to hear Bassett finger and blow out his blues, and I felt like I was one of the 10 or 15 most well-placed humans on earth as the music began.  It’s an uncommon thing to witness the performance of a blues artist who only hours before watched the passing of one of his best friends. Bassett and Robbin Thompson had written songs together, performed together, and even spent time at this very place together. They had shared together many special moments of creativity and expression. In summary, Bassett and Thompson had shared together Life itself — in its essence. Their early joint album was titled, fittingly, “Together.”

Earlier in the day we had wondered whether or not the concert would be played, considering the circumstances. We should have known better. The singing and playing was even more likely to occur, because of the circumstances, and the nature of the loss. It was Steve Bassett after all. Today’s grief would follow its normal course, through his voice and fingers.

With one song under his belt, and coming into his own, Bassett looked with approval over the small crowd. He reassured us that this close group was more the type of gathering he had hoped for for this particular performance. He noticed each one of us, talked back and forth with some of us, and cracked us up with small whips of self-deprecating humor. Roots Bassett, I suppose.

Bassett in concert.

Bassett in concert.

Early on he spoke very briefly about his loss, and our loss. He said his friend Robbin Thompson had passed this morning at the age of 66 and at the end of a long, spirited battle with cancer. He said Robbin was his friend, and he said that was about all he had to say. But then he played the song, to let us know how he felt. The song he and Robbin had collaborated on in their youth. The one that Thompson lived long enough to see recognized as our official state song. The light, sweet and loving song that blew into their heads and hearts on the front steps of a Floyd avenue house near VCU (then RPI) in the early 1970’s .

The sound of the song is light and sweet, but as a writing man, I warm up more completely to the words. Here are the words he sang Saturday afternoon beside the James, the ones he and Robbin Thompson wrote in their youth:

I woke up this morning, the wind blowing ‘cross my face,

I just had to look up above and thank somebody for this place.

Because he must have been thinking ‘bout me

When he planted that very first dogwood tree.

It’s where I want to be

Living in the sweet Virginia Breeze

The Sweet Virginia Breeze

Take me out to the country, I feel mighty good out there

But when I get back to the city of monuments

it just doesn’t matter. Where I hang my hat,  it’s home to me

The Blue Ridge mountains tend to set me free

its where I want to be

Living in the sweet Virginia breeze

The sweet Virginia Breeze

 

It wakes me up in the morning, and rocks me to sleep at night,

You’ve got a red bird sitting on your windowsill

You know everything will be all right

Living in the sweet Virginia breeze

The sweet Virginia breeze.

 

Well, sitting out on my back porch

I’m just watching the sun come up

The sweet, sweet Virginia breeze

Is blowing ripples ‘cross my coffee cup

 

He must have been thinking ‘bout me

When he planted that very first dogwood tree

And when that breeze starts blowing through the trees

You know everything will be all right

 

You’re living in the sweet Virginia breeze,

the sweet Virginia breeze.

 

The crowd grew slightly larger as the sun finally began to break through the clouds, and late in the program Bassett told us about another song he and Thompson had collaborated on. While sitting at this very place, 46 or so years after that other collaboration, both watching the ancient flow of our great river, both men were still seeking words and sounds for expression. Here’s what they found just one year ago:

Come on baby, and take a walk with me

Down this side road of memories

It’ll all come back, once you see,

right there along the river James,

you remember, that old magnolia tree

thats where I first kissed you, or did you kiss me?

You gave me your heart, I gave you the same, right there along the river James

 

So roll on, mighty river roll on,

lay it all to rest, down in the Bay,

roll on, mighty river roll on,

keep on rolling, mighty river James

 

up the river and around the bend

I heard those stories about way back when

let the water wash all those tears away

we stay strong again, along the river James

 

So roll on, mighty river roll on,

lay it to rest, down in the bay,

roll on, mighty river roll on,

keep on rolling, mighty river James

 

Still sweet, but infused with a different form of sweetness. A slower, heavier sweetness laden with memory. Pains and triumphs. Loves. Moments of inspiration. A sweetness filled with a soft compliance with physical time and age. A different sound from the organ. A different cadence to the words. An expression of not merely the sweetness of life, but the heavier sweetness of life plus the accumulation of human experience.

The sun finally lowered itself over the north bank upriver somewhere, and with a cool, gentle breeze still pushing through the darkness and following the brown water to the Bay, Bassett circled back. If an aging man is living well, he knows how to circle back. Back through those wonderful feelings of youth, always bringing those forward with him, always finding inspiration in the simple and sweet beauty and rightness of life. A spirit can age without growing old, if that spirit circles back often enough.

And so at the end of a mournful day, and at the edge of a river that is always aging and forever young, Bassett’s encore was a circling back. He laid his fingers to the keys and tilted his head to the sky and out came the sweet sounds of a happy, youthful spirit again:

I woke up this morning, the wind blowing ‘cross my face,

I just had to look up above and thank somebody for this place . . .


About Scott Turner

Scott Turner enjoys the simple life he lives with his wife, Amy, and two young daughters in a lush, urban forest near the banks of the James River in Richmond, Va. After travelling the world for five years as an enlisted member of the United States Navy, Scott earned a Master's Degree in Physics from VCU before turning to a career as a certified arborist. He has been the owner of Truetimber Tree Service since 1998 and added an outdoor outfitting business called Riverside Outfitters in 2005 to share his love of trees. The company emphasizes recreational tree climbing, river play, and a return to good, old-fashioned fun.


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