Songs can tell amazing stories

Published 1:40 am Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ever wake up with a song in your mind that nags at you all day long?

That’s what happened to me the day after my husband and I returned from a weekend out of town. During that trip, my husband had slipped a CD into the player in the car. It was titled, “Sweet Fern, So Far … So Good,” recorded by Bob and Rose Taunton of Montgomery.

We met musicians Rose and Bob at a dulcimer festival several years ago and have always enjoyed their performances in person, as well as several CDs they have made. Bob has a white mustache and beard and displays such genuine enjoyment while he’s singing and playing a guitar, banjo, dobro or bass dulcimer, that he reminds me of Burl Ives. Rose plays a bass dulcimer, dulcimer and a recorder/whistle. She often blends her sweet voice with her husband’s.

One night as a large circle of dulcimer players, along with others playing accompanying instruments, moved from one person to the other, selecting songs, Bob called out, “Methodist Pie.” Then he flashed his merry smile and added that he was dedicating it to my husband, Claude. (Bob knows my husband is a retired United Methodist minister.) “Methodist Pie” is also on the CD we listened to that weekend. It’s definitely one of our favorites, but it isn’t the one that kept popping in my head the day following our trip.

That song was “Reuben James,” a ballad written by Woody Guthrie during World War II. It’s about a destroyer that was sunk by a torpedo fired by a German submarine. The song relates that 100 men were drowned in a dark watery grave. The tune is very similar to another tune that we often hear around a dulcimer circle when we gather with dulcimer players — “Wildwood Flower.”

There’s something so haunting about the chorus: “Tell me what were their names? Tell me what were their names? Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?” As those words kept whirling in my head, my curiosity was aroused. Was there really such a ship as the Reuben James, and, if so, what were the names of those who drowned in service of their country? I began a search and learned, as stated above, there was such a ship sunk by a German torpedo. It happened on Oct. 31, 1941, near Iceland. The Reuben James had left Newfoundland with four other destroyers while escorting a convoy when the tragedy occurred.

I actually found several names Woody Guthrie had taken from the casualty list in a newspaper. He tried to use them in the song, but that part just didn’t work out, so he fitted the “What were their names?” lines in it instead.

Some other delightful songs on the CD are “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “My Rambling Boy,” “Shady Grove” and the title song, “Sweet Fern.” I’d really like to know a little more about all of them, but I’ll save that for another time.