Cisco Houston Web Site

The Songs He Sang

Sinking of the Reuben James: Lyrics

As performed by Cisco Houston

Woody Guthrie; Last verse by Fred Hellerman

Appears on:
Have you heard of that ship
   called the good Reuben James
Manned by hard fighting men
   both of honor and fame?
She flew the Stars and Stripes
   of the land of the free
But tonight she's in her grave
   on the bottom of the sea.

    Tell me, what were their names,
    What were their names?
    Did you have a friend
    On the good Reuben James?
    What were their names?
    Tell me what were their names,
    The men that went down
    On the good Reuben James?

Well a hundred men went down
    in that dark watery grave
When that good ship went down
    only forty-four were saved.
It was the last day of October
   that we saved the forty-four
From the cold icy waters
   off that north Iceland shore.


It was there in the dark
   of that uncertain night
That we watched for the U-boats
   and we waited for a fight.
Then a whine and a rock
   and a great explosion roared
And they laid the Reuben James
   on that cold ocean floor.


Now tonight there are lights
   in our country so bright
In the farms and the cities
   they are telling of this fight.
And now our mighty battleships
   will steam the bounding main
And remember the name
   of that good Reuben James.


Well many years have passed
   since those brave men are gone
And those cold ocean waters now
   are still and they're calm.
Well many years have passed
   but still I wonder why
The worst of men must fight
  and the best of men must die.

Of note:

I've always found that vaguely anti-war final verse improperly included. The first verses are a tale of heroism and a nation's gratitude, the story as it was written during the war. Years later, some namby-pamby "Gee, war is a shame" crept in, and I'm sorry Cisco included it.

See a lengthy discussion of the song and its history Here.

Notes from the Folk Song & Minstrelsy Set

In 1943, during World War II, Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston served together in the U.S. Merchant Marine. Woody's post on the troop ships crossing the North Atlantic was in the mess hall. He later wrote "I fed 50 gunboys, washed their dirty dishes and scrubbed their greasy messroom." Cisco has left a vivid word picture of their seafaring adventures: "I remember Woody coming aboard looking like a walking pawn shop window, with guitars, mandolins and fiddles hanging all over him. We took the instruments with us everywhere we went, and we sang and played all over Sicily, Africa and the UK. And when the ship didn't sink too fast (they were torpedoed once and hit a mine once) we would get the whole crew to join in the singing of "The Sinking of the Reuben James." Woody had taken an old folk tune, "Wildwood Flower" which had sold a lot of records for the Carter Family in the late '20s and '30's, and set to it his original lyrics about the first American warship sunk in WW II, a U.S. destroyer. (During the war, the Almanac Singers, which featured Woody with Pete Seeger and Lee Hays and others, recorded the song, and usually The Almanacs are the credited songwriters, instead of Woody. Fred Hellerman, later of The Weavers, is credited with writing the last verse in this version.)

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