A Brief History
On October 31, 1941, the United States Navy destroyer, USS Reuben James was sunk by a German U-boat with torpedoes, the first US Navy ship sunk in the European Theater of Operations during World War II, and over a month before the US was even in the war. Today we will tell you a little about the namesake of the fateful ship, and about 10 ships well known for having songs about them. (Apologies to “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island” and the SS Minnow!)
1. USS Reuben James.
The ship also known as DD-245 was assigned to escort convoys of cargo ships from the US and Canada to as far as Iceland, where British ships picked up the convoys for escort duty. Although the US would not actually be at war until December 7, 1941 (Pearl Harbor Day), the US Navy was actively helping convoys of cargo ships get vital supplies to Britain. With a “wolfpack” of German submarines known to be stalking the cargo vessels in the convoy, the skipper of the Reuben James positioned his destroyer to block torpedoes from hitting an ammunition ship in the convoy. U-boat U-552 fired a torpedo at the ammunition ship, and inadvertently hit the Reuben James, sinking the US ship with the loss of 100 of the 144 men aboard the ship. Woody Guthrie, the famous folk singer/songwriter, wrote and performed a song, “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” and artists such as Johnny Horton and The Kingston Trio have recorded and performed their versions of the Guthrie song. In 1991 the US Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp of the Reuben James. The ship had been named after a US Navy Boatswain’s Mate (Bosn’s Mate, or “Boats”) by that name that had performed heroically during the First Barbary Wars (1801-1805). Oddly enough, the heroics were probably accidentally attributed to Reuben James and were most likely performed by another sailor, Daniel Frazier. In any case, the song is a darn good song.
2. RMS Titanic.
No, we are NOT referring to the song from the movie Titanic by Celine Dion! We are talking about the much cuter song with murky origins from as early as 1915, possibly at first a Negro folk song. It is called several different names, “Titanic,” “It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down,” or “Titanic (Husbands and Wives).” Perhaps the first recording is Ernest Stoneman’s version from 1924, “The Titanic.” A selected line from the song, “All the husbands and wives, Itty, bitty children lost their lives,” is quite memorable. Anyway, there are several songs about the Titanic, but this is our favorite.
3. The Bismarck.
Johnny Horton (famous for “The Battle of New Orleans”) recorded “Sink the Bismarck” in 1960 coinciding with the major motion picture by the same name (the song was later corrected to read “Sink the Bismarck”). The song made it to #3 on the music charts and is about the determined nature of the British drive to find and sing the German battleship that was making all that fuss. The Bismarck was indeed a mighty ship, taking a pounding like no other ship in history before being scuttled by her crew in 1941. The song was recorded by The Blues Brothers for the 1980 movie by that name, but was edited out of the final print.
4. The Edmund Fitzgerald.
Canadian folk singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot released this masterpiece in 1976 after the tragic sinking with all hands of the Great Lakes ore ship, The Edmund Fitzgerald. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” made it to #1 in Canada and #1 or #2 in the US (depending on which chart), and was Lightfoot’s second most successful song (after “Sundown”). Lightfoot himself considers this his greatest song. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the Great Lakes at the time, and to this day is the largest ship ever to sink in the Great Lakes, at 729 feet long and 75 feet wide with a loaded tonnage of 26,000 tons. The death toll from her sinking was 29.
5. Sloop John B.
The first fictional ship on our list, the Bahamian folk song by various names was adapted by the Beach Boys in 1966 as “The John B Sails,” although other folk type singers and groups have also put out their versions, including The Kingston Trio, Barry McGuire, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, The Brothers Four, and Jerry Butler.. The song dates back to at least 1916, and for the Beach Boys reached #3 in the US, but was popular for months all over the world. There are too many popular cultural references to mention, from television, to movies, to books to whatever.
The guy that brought us “Big Bad John,” Jimmy Dean (the sponsor of the breakfast sausage using his name) also brought us the song about the travails of the future President John F. Kennedy and his ill fated PT boat, PT-109 in 1943 when the patrol craft was struck and sunk by a Japanese destroyer in the Pacific Ocean in the area of the Solomon Islands. The song, “PT-109,” reached #4 on the country charts, 1 of 5 songs Dean had that charted in 1962 and details the incident in which the PT boat was sunk and Kennedy’s heroics in saving his crew. It was a different era in 1962, and the lyric referring to “the Jap destroyer” and “the heathen Gods of old Japan” would probably be altered today! The song contains a shout out to Dean’s biggest hit, “Big Bad John.”
7. The Walloping Window Blind.
This fun song about a fictional ship started life in 1885 as a children’s nonsense poem by Charles Carryl, later adapted to the tune of “Ten Thousand Miles Away.” Versions of the song have been recorded with other titles, such as “Blow ye Winds, Heigh-Ho,” and “Capital Ship.” Natalie Merchant sang a version called “The Walloping Window Blind” on her 2010 album, “Leave Your Sleep.”
A song written and performed by John Denver in 1975 as a tribute to the research vessel by the same name operated by famed oceanographer Jacques Yves Cousteau. The song reached #2 on the charts as the B-side to “I’m Sorry.” The ship is a former British minesweeper that was converted for research in 1950 until accidentally sunk by a barge hitting her in Singapore in 1996. In 1997 the 42 meter diesel powered ship was raised and restoration began.
9. Marie Christine.
A song on the 1968 Gordon Lightfoot album, “Back Here on Earth,” the song is about a sailing ship by the name Marie Christine about the hit the rocks near a lighthouse. There have been actual ships by this name, including the Princesse Marie Christine (passenger ship), but as far as we can tell, the song is about a fictional vessel. The daughter of Marie Laveau, the famous voodoo witch of New Orleans was named Marie Christine, and several other historical persons share this name.
10. The Mayflower.
A song by Jon and Vangelis from 1981 about the famous sailing ship that brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock in 1620. For some reason, the song, after referencing the Mayflower we know and love, talks about a spaceship named Mayflower on its way to space.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other ships would you put on this list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Duprey, Susan, ed. Sea Classics, April 2015.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Ted Stone, U.S. Navy of USS Reuben James on 29 April 1939 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.