The USS Reuben James was the first American ship sunk in World War II, on October 31, 1941. Although the United States was officially neutral at the time, President Roosevelt had ordered the Navy to provide support to the United Kingdom in her fight against Nazi Germany. The Reuben James was escorting military material when she was torpedoed by a German submarine.
Woody Guthrie, at the time singing with Pete Seeger in the Almanac Singers, wrote “The Sinking of the Reuben James” (also known as simply “Reuben James”) immediately thereafter. While the song sounds like a rousing patriotic anthem, it’s worth noting that both Seeger and Guthrie were pro-Soviet Communists and were opposed to U.S. involvement in World War II, until Hitler’s betrayal of Stalin caused them to shift their views 180 degrees and support U.S. intervention. Had the sinking happened prior to the dissolution of the Hitler-Stalin pact, it is quite likely that no song at all would have been written, or, if one had, the sentiments expressed would have been quite different.
The verses are to the tune of “Wildwood Flower,” most famously recorded by the Carter Family, and the chorus is original to Guthrie.
This version is by the Kingston Trio. Some folk music fans do not like the Kingston Trio, quite possibly simply a backlash against the massive popularity they enjoyed in the late 1950s to mid-1960s. I’m no expert on folk and no purist–all I know is that they sing great together and that there is a lot of power in those guitars and vocals–“Reuben James” sounds great.
I threw this one together myself. The song famously asks, “What were their names?” I’ve answered that question.
Update: I may be doing several posts on historical songs, because I find the topic enjoyable to research and write about. While I realize that this is a music blog and not the History Channel, I do make an effort to be accurate, so if you notice any errors now or in the future, please let me know.