[1966:] Woody Guthrie wrote [this] in October, 1941[...]. Woody originally wrote thirty-'leven verses, listing the name of every seaman who went down. The rest of us urged him to give us a chorus we could sing [...]. Now the song stands for all the seamen who gave their lives in that terrible war against fascism. (Notes Pete Seeger, 'Waist Deep In the Big Muddy')
[1980:] When the U.S.S. 'Reuben James' was torpedoed by the Nazis off the coast of Iceland in late October, killing 86 and wounding 44, Woody was inspired to write a ballad about the incident. He decided the best way to humanize the tragedy would be to name all 86 victims, and he set out to do just that (to the tune of the Carter Family's "Wildwood Flower"):
There's Harold Hammer Beasley, a first rate man at sea
From Hinton, West Virginia, he had his first degree.
There's Jim Franklin Benson, a good machinist's mate
Came up from North Carolina, to sail the Reuben James.
Dennis Howard Daniel, Glen Jones and Howard Vore
Hartwell Byrd and Raymond Cook, Ed Musselwhite and more
Remember Leonard Keever, Gene Evans and Donald Kapp
Who gave their all to fight about this famous fighting ship.
Woody brought his completed work to a songwriting meeting in early November and everyone agreed he'd come up with a sensational idea for a song, but all those names were a bit ... boring. You didn't have to go through all that to personalize it, Seeger argued. A rousing, agitprop chorus could get the same message across. If you combined a chorus with ballad verses describing the event in detail, it might make a better song. Woody agreed to give it a try and reworked the verses, while Seeger and Lampell developed the chorus that would make the song one of the Almanacs' best-known [...]. Woody, who was a fitful communard at best, wanted credit for writing the song, and for [...] others he was primarily responsible for. Alan Lomax sided with Woody, arguing that giving individual credit was the only way to head off copyright battles in the future, but the others were strongly opposed and Woody invariably lost. "Reuben James" was officially written by "the Almanac Singers". In later years, though, Seeger would - typically - give Woody credit for writing not only the verses but also the chorus. (Klein, Woody Guthrie 209f)
[1985:] The most successful [war song of the Almanacs] was Reuben James, the story of the ninety-five people drowned in the first American ship torpedoed in World War II. On first try, Woody had turned the passenger list into an impossibly long ballad, listing everyone who went down. Seeger doubted anyone would listen to the end. The Almanacs sat in a circle in the living room, discussing the song. Woody was adamant, and ready to spend a week memorizing the verses. Finally Pete or Mill asked, "What were their names?" and that became the chorus. This was Almanac songwriting at its best - direct, nonrhetorical, focused on people instead of statistics. (Dunaway, Seeger 97f)
[1989:] The Almanacs stuck to topical songs, and once they started singing war songs instead of attacking the Government, their fortunes rose dramatically - at least for a while. They [...] were heard by millions of Americans when they sang The Ballad of Reuben James (about the first American ship to be torpedoed during the war) on the radio. [...] Pete Seeger remembered how he first fell from fashion because of his politics. 'In February 1942 we were singing on the radio to beat Hitler, and the next day the radio said, "Commie Folksingers Try To Infiltrate Radio", and that was the last job we got.' Reporters (and the FBI) had checked out the past history of the fashionable patriotic new group, and discovered that this was the same outfit who used to sing Franklin D. You Ain't Gonna Send Me Across The Sea. (Denselow, Music 12)
[1993:] In June '41 Woody quit his job [...] and hitchhiked east. I think he arrived about a day or two after Hitler had invaded the USSR. He walked in the door of the Almanac House and with a wry grin said, "Well, I guess we won't be singing any more peace songs for a while." I said, "You mean I have to support Churchill?" "Why, Churchill said, 'All support to the gallant Soviet allies!'" "Is this the same guy who said 20 years ago, 'We must strangle the Bolshevik infant in its cradle!'?" "Yep. Churchill's changed. We got to."
Woody was right. Anti-communists ridiculed our "great flip-flop". The Almanacs sang union songs to the West Coast and back, and then made up a string of win-the-war ballads which were recorded soon after Pearl Harbor. Woody's Reuben James was the most longlasting of these songs. [...] In the 1950's Fred Hellerman of the Weavers made a good new verse. (Seeger, Flowers 26 f.)
He wrote about 10 or 15 verses telling the names of all 40 men who were drowned when the ship was sunk. [The Almanac Singers] complained that nobody but him would sing it that way. "Give us a chorus we can join in on." And he obliged, building his great singing chorus on some of the melodic elements of the verses. (Seeger, Flowers 86)
National Archives and Records Administration
Dictionary of American Fighting Ships
for info on U-552 which sank the Reuben James. )
for extra verses
Reuben James and the Bismarck
The Reuben James
The Good Reuben James