65: Reuben James

65: Reuben James

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

Reuben James

Story by Alex Harvey

Song written by Alex Harvey and Barry Etris

Recorded by Kenny Rogers and others

When I first started writing for United Artists, Billy Edd Wheeler was there and he was the man who really taught me how to write songs. He went to Berea College and later studied drama at Yale. When it comes to writing songs, there’s a real art to simplicity. When I think back to Tchaikovsky or Beethoven or Rachmaninoff, or any of the romantic composers that I was moved by, I hear very simple melodies. As far as lyrics, I read a lot of Sandburg and Frost, who wrote simple but profound poems. So did Rimbaud. He was the French street poet that Dylan studied. Dylan also studied Bertolt Brecht. Rimbaud translates just as gutsy as he wrote it in French, which is hard to do.

When Billy Edd was at UA, a fellow named Barry Etris came in with a song called “Reuben James.” It was a song about a white man, and for whatever reason, the song didn’t quite work. Billy told me about the song and said, “Can you do something with this? It needs a little help.” I said, “I don’t really like co-writing songs.” But I said, “Maybe I could find something from my own heart and experiences that could add to it.” So I went back to a memory from my childhood to help me write some of the extra verses.

Across the road from my dad’s little country store in West Tennessee was a little sharecropper’s shack and next to that was a blacksmith shop that was run by a couple of black men named Wesley Watkins and Walter DeBerry. My dad had tuberculosis and when he had to go to the hospital, those men really became my fathers. They got me through some pretty rough times, so I was really close to them. I would go and sit in the door of the blacksmith shop, because my dad was gone and my mom was working, and they really became my family.

My dad never really traded with white people much at his store. When he was born, his mother didn’t have any milk. A black woman named Majulia, who lived not far from them, had just had a baby named Jimmy Lee. So when he was a baby, my dad suckled on one breast and Jimmy Lee suckled on the other. That’s where I got the lines, “And although your skin was black / You were the one that didn’t turn your back / On the hungry white child with no name, Reuben James.”

As a result, my dad really grew up thinking he had a black twin. He preferred dealing with black people and he built his store, I think, so they could have a place to trade. He built it in the middle of this section of land that was owned by the DeBerry family. They had been given some land after the war and they had split it up. They each had about twelve acres and lived all around that store. They farmed the land and made a good living, but what impressed was how they always carried themselves with such grace and dignity. They were deeply religious people and were always very proud of the fact that they were landowners at a time when not many black people owned land.

One of them, Mose DeBerry moved into that sharecropper shack across from my dad’s store when he got older. I went to see him right before he died and the only thing in that shack was a bunk and a chair and a couple of books, and on either side of the bunk were two pictures: one of Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of John F. Kennedy. I’ll always remember that because here was this simple country fellow with no real formal education, out in the middle of nowhere, with pictures of those two men right beside his bed.

I found out that Kenny Rogers was coming to Nashville; I think it was to do The Johnny Cash Show. I went down and sat at his dressing room door for almost three days. He would come in and see me sitting there and he would go into his dressing room. Finally, he looked at me and said, “Who are you?” I said, “Oh, I’m just somebody who wants to play you a song.” And he said, “Well come on in and play it.”

I played it for him and he cut it. It wasn’t long after that, he said, “I really like the way you sing, and I’d like to do an album with you.” So I got on a plane and went out to L.A. for a year or two and did my first album on Capitol, which he helped produce.

That song’s been covered about 27 times at last count. Although it did pretty well for us, it’s probably not one of my favorites, just because of all the doggone work it took to whittle that thing down. I’ve never worked that hard on a song before.

Reuben James

Reuben James

In my song you’ll live again

And the phrases that I rhyme

Are just the footsteps out of time

From the time when I knew you, Reuben James

Reuben James

All the folks around Madison County cussed your name

You’re just a no-account, sharecropping colored man

That would steal anything he can

And everybody laid the blame on Reuben James


Reuben James

You still walk the fertile fields of my mind

The faded shirt, the weathered brow

The calloused hands upon the plow

I loved you then, and I loved you now

Reuben James

Flora Grey

The gossiper of Madison County died with child

And although your skin was black

You were the one that didn’t turn your back

On the hungry white child with no name,

Reuben James

Reuben James

With your mind on my soul

And a Bible in your right hand

You said “Turn the other cheek

For there’s a better world awaitin’ for the meek.”

In my mind these words remain from Reuben James


Reuben James

One dark cloudy day they brought you from the field

And to your lonely pinebox came

Just a preacher and me in the rain

Just to sing one last refrain for Reuben James

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