Sing-Along: Listening to Pete Seeger’s “The Sinking of the Good Reuben James”

A guest post by Bob Cowser, Jr.

20120616-115114.jpgThe cluck of his five-string banjo announces this right away as a Pete Seeger recording. I think it’s important that the five-string, longnecked banjo (long like the man himself) became Seeger’s hallmark. It democratizes the Harvard dropout son of a musicologist/composer and a Juilliard violinist, a pedigree that wouldn’t serve him as a folk singer. He lacks Woody Guthrie’s authentic Okie twang, but the banjo, trademark hick instrument, lends him “street cred,” or its rural, folksy equivalent.

The tune of Guthrie’s “The Sinking of the Good Reuben James” is familiar, recycled like so many folk tunes. I recognize its roots in the traditional “Wildwood Flower,” but these “Reuben James” lyrics are the ones that resonate with me, the rousing chorus asking for the names of the 100 men who died when a German U-Boat sunk an American destroyer off the coast of Iceland on Halloween, 1941, a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor. “She flew the stars and stripes of the land of the free/ But tonight she’s in her grave at the bottom of the sea.”

Surely that was part of Guthrie’s lyric-writing genius, the way he could reduce a ballad’s essential tension to a single verse. Neither a reader of sheet music nor a sophisticated guitar picker, lyrics were really all Guthrie wrote, and one could argue that he was more poet than musician anyway, click-clacking away on a typewriter. Even outside of its original historical context (both Guthrie and Seeger would hasten to point out that America is still at war, always has been), this song has always raised the hair on my arms, and the writer in me always wonders, “what makes it hair-raising? How’d he do that?” One afternoon last week, I played the song on repeat on my ipod throughout a six-mile run on the wooded trails behind St. Lawrence University where I teach, determined to distill the answer. The thing about Seeger’s artistry is, I still couldn’t tell you.

Mine is a live recording. Seeger recorded several versions with The Weavers, but this is just Pete and his five-string. He’s famously one for sing-alongs, but you find none of his usual exhortations here, just Pete’s slightly churchy voice finding the highest reaches of that auditorium. I imagine an appreciative if conservative 1950’s audience, men in their suits and skinny ties tapping toes, women beaming beside them, cigarette smoke hovering above their heads like in black and white pictures I’ve seen of early Dylan performances. They’re white church-quiet, but I can almost hear them smiling.

This was my own parents’ era, and they represent one of the many contrasts in the mid-20th Century American character: Dad is LBJ to Mom’s JFK. My smalltown West Texas father and I share a love of Americana and roots music, but my Catholic Clevelander mother, a pianist who turned down a scholarship to the Eastman School, poo-poos our amateur harmonizing on a Carter family tune (she owned Peter, Paul, and Mary LPs, which I scratched in my boyhood). “Imagine,” she says, “two PhDs between you and this is the music you listen to.” I know she likes to stick it to my dad whenever she can, which makes me a little sad. But I also know this tug-of-war is part of what makes me their son, not to mention an American.

For me, Seeger’s “Reuben James” marries these high and low American cultural traditions. He’s not as hip or gen-yoo-wine as Guthrie or Dylan, or Elvis or Johnny Cash, and perhaps for that he’s a lesser pop icon. I’ll admit I get self-conscious about my passion for a performer who so resembles Will Ferrell’s SNL parody of the high school music teacher. Yet, except for Guthrie and Dylan, no other folk revival figure has had the staying power of Pete Seeger, whom my young sons and I saw perform in his mid-nineties at his Clearwater Festival just last Father’s Day.

Much to account for Seeger’s enduring popularity. His banjo competence at least approaches his mother’s conservatory virtuosity and musicianship, and he’s inherited his father’s musicologist’s reverence for American song. But my hunch is that it’s his performances that really set him apart from Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton and the like. Specifically, his populist sing-alongs. “There’s something magical about the way Pete Seeger gets people to sing,” my music professor friend tells me. As a writing teacher, I know what a task that is, yet also how crucial. Guthrie and Dylan are modern-day troubadors, just-a ramblin’ on, but Seeger is not content unless we come, too.

In the penultimate chorus on this recording, you hear a few in the audience beginning to join Seeger, getting their feet wet. Women, maybe music teachers and other trained voices. Seeger strums the banjo hard as he segues into the last verse, as if gearing up. “Now there are lights in our country so bright,” that last verse begins, and by the end of it and into the last chorus, they’re all singing, all in the water.

Or are we flying? Usually, Seeger interrupts a song like “That Lonesome Valley” to ask for tenors in the audience to sing in higher registers, but this night he takes it upon himself and what I hear is that roomful of rank and file Americans — like the hundred who perished on that destroyer– singing, as Seeger’s voice soars above in the building’s rafters. What were their names? And it becomes clear now, on the fifteenth consecutive play, why he entreats us to join him: it is the voice of the people that bears the man aloft as he freestyles and makes the song his own, so distinct from any Guthrie version I’ve ever heard, and so surpassingly beautiful.

He ends it quickly, with a single strum. A thwank, and then my feet are back on the ground, the woodchips of that wooded trail. Hell of a way to get your history, folk music. How’s he do that?

Bob Cowser, Jr. (Professor of English, SLU) is a participant in an NEH seminar commemorating Woody Guthrie’s Centennial, held at SUNY-Potsdam this June. Pete Seeger’s summer music festival, the Hudson River Revival in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, has hosted upwards of 15,000 people for more than 30 years. This year’s festival will be held June 16-17 and will feature Seeger as well as Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo.

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One Response to “Sing-Along: Listening to Pete Seeger’s “The Sinking of the Good Reuben James””

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  1. erb says:

    Seeger is a community organizer who uses his music as a tool, more like Guthrie than Dylan or Tom Paxton. I’ve been musing on Pete and his music lately after the recent death of Doc Watson. I don’t think he ever matched Watson’s virtuosity, and Watson never mixed music and politics. But they both embodied the heart and spirit of American music.