The Songs He Sang
Sinking of the Reuben James: Lyrics
As performed by Cisco Houston
Woody Guthrie; Last verse by Fred HellermanAppears 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. CHORUS: 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. CHORUS: 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. CHORUS: 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. CHORUS: 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.
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.)