On Shrimp: Fishing Vessel Ophelia Rae and Walker Cotton

I’m reading a great book called Shrimp: The Endless Quest for Pink Gold by Jack and Anne Rudloe. I guess I don’t need to explain what it’s about, do I?

The book got me to thinking about how important shrimpers, shrimp boats and shrimps themselves are to the way my South Carolina Lowcountry homeland looks, thinks, feels and smells. In fact, if you asked me to come up with a single, indelible image that defined the Lowcountry, I would find a picture of some shrimp boats among the waterways in and around the coastal marshes of Beaufort County.

I can smell the shrimp, diesel fumes and marsh gas from thousands of miles away, just looking at a good photo of a shrimp boat. The folks who work those boats are finding their livelihoods challenged by pond-grown shrimp from abroad, but it’s hard to imagine that farmed shrimp could ever taste as sweet as something pulled fresh from the sea. I wrote a piece about one of these boats a few years ago, and the relentless nature of its work. I reproduce it below, for those who missed it first time ’round on my website:

Fishing Vessel Ophelia Rae
(Copyright 2004, J. Eric Smith)

The sun’s rising on the horizon
as our boat motors into the east,
with nets hanging low on her winches
like wings on some cumbersome beast.

She’s a mote in that vast living ocean,
a speck catching yet smaller specks,
which we haul up in great writhing masses
and then dump in her tank, below decks.

With a full metal belly, she shudders
as we turn her back ’round t’wards the shore,
and then ease her back into her harbor,
where she vomits up shrimp by the score.

And the townsfolk, they scoop up her purging,
which they take home to shell and de-vein,
and then eat with their families at dinner,
while our boat, she gets hungry again.

I also wrote a song about shrimpers once, a dirty talking blues that’s a little bit less noble than the one above. A murder ballad, no less! This lyric is among my personal favorites (I would offer Jefferson Water as the best poem I’ve ever written, but I think this is close), although writers are always lousy judges of their own writing, so you may feel free to disagree. I think Nick Cave could sing this one better than I ever could. Just in case he’s reading. Call me.

Walker Cotton
(Copyright 2000, J. Eric Smith)

Shrimp boat settin’ out t’ sea long before the dawn
Diesel fuel and fishin’ nets long before the dawn
Walker Cotton’s gotta fish before them shrimps is gone

Drop the nets and let ’em drag, he’s settin’ out t’ sea
Sun come up off to the east, he’s settin’ out t’ sea
Walker Cotton chaws a plug, an’ spits off t’ the lee

Down the river, roun’ the bend an’ watchin’ out for mud
Catch the tide and pass the bridge an’ watch out for the mud
Walker Cotton’s overalls are stained with dirt and blood

Pull the nets in, swing ’em round and drop ’em on the deck
Nets all wrigglin’ with the shrimps all hoppin’ on the deck
Loose and floppin’ just like Dewey Varney’s broken neck

Gotta put them shrimps away and chill ’em down all nice
Gotta get them shrimps put ‘way to chill ’em down all nice
Walker Cotton starts a’ diggin’ Dewey from the ice

A braid of rope ’round Dewey’s waist, an anchor at the end
A loop of rope ’round Dewey’s legs, an anchor at the end
Walker Cotton’s gone and killed his one and only friend

Dewey’s wife’s the only one who might been keepin’ tabs
On Dewey’s whereabouts and wiles, she’d long been keepin’ tabs
That’s what made her wish that he’d be eaten up by crabs

Shrimp on ice and Dewey gone, he’s sailin’ back t’ town
Shrimp all iced in Dewey’s box, he’s sailin’ back t’ town
Walker Cotton’s headin’ home t’ lay Miz Varney down

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