Tell Me, What Were Their Names?


On October 31, 1941, the USS Reuben James was torpedoed by a German U-552 submarine near Iceland. At the time, the Reuben James was part of the Neutrality Patrol that guarded ships making passage between the Americas and the U.K. Within around five minutes, the entire ship went down. Different sources vary, but approximately 115 of the 160 men aboard died.

The Almanac Singers

Around this time, Woody Guthrie was playing with a group called The Almanac Singers, which also included Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, and Lee Hays. The group had recorded songs about civil rights and unions, and they had previously recorded a song critical of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s peacetime draft.

But in reaction to the sinking of the Reuben James and the attack on Pearl Harbor less than two months later, the Almanac singers released an album in 1942 supporting the U.S. war effort.  One of the songs was about the Reuben James.

Woody Guthrie’s Drafts of “The Sinking of the Reuben James”

When Guthrie began writing “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” his initial plan was to humanize the tragedy by listing all of the victims of the tragedy. His original version included lists of names as well as some details about some of the men: “There’s Harold Hammer Beasley, a first rate man at sea/ From Hinton, West Virginia, he had his first degree.” (Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life, at 216.)

Guthrie took a draft of his song to a meeting with The Almanac Singers. They agreed he had a great idea for a song, but they wondered if listing all of the names made the song a little boring. Seeger suggested that Guthrie try describing the event in detail while adding a rousing chorus that would get across the same message.

Guthrie went back and reworked the verses, while Seeger and Lampell worked on the chorus, personalizing the song without listing the names by asking the listener: “Tell me, what were their names?/ Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James.” Below is Guthrie’s solo version of the song they wrote.

Note that in the above version he asks “what was their names” instead of using “were” as in other versions as well as in the official Guthrie lyrics.

The Music for “The Sinking of the Reuben James”

Regarding the music for the song, Guthrie set the verses to the tune from “Wildwood Flower” by The Carter Family.

Popularity

“The Sinking of the Reuben James” became one of the Almanac Singers’ best-known songs. But despite the patriotic tone of this song and other ones they released at the time, the Almanac Singers continued to be harassed for their earlier anti-war stance and they disbanded within about a year.

“The Sinking of the Reuben James” was officially listed as being written by “The Almanac Singers.” But in later years Seeger graciously gave credit to Guthrie for both the verses and the chorus.

{Woody at 100 is our continuing series celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the birth of American singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie on July 14, 1912. Check out our other posts on Guthrie and the Woody Guthrie Centennial too. }

(Public domain photo via.)

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