Isolationism vs. Internationalism/Interventionism
2-3 class periods
10th Grade US History
The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Common Core Standards Addressed:
Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
Jill Nysse (2004)
Just before dawn off the coast of Iceland on 31 October 1941, the U.S.S. Reuben James (DD 245) took the German torpedo intended for an ammunition ship in the convoy she was shepherding, and became the first U.S. warship to be lost in World War II. Eighty-six crewmen, and all but one of the twenty officers and chief petty officers on board, were killed; forty-four other crewmen were wounded. The Reuben James was one of several ships engaged in efforts to keep Britain resupplied during a period prior to Pearl Harbor when it was not certain when or if the United States would enter WWII. Many Americans, including American hero Charles Lindbergh, were strongly against the country’s entry into the war already raging in Europe. Still others were indifferent. One who was not was folk singer Woody Guthrie, who wrote this song immediately after the sinking. In Woody Guthrie, Born to Win, editor Robert Shelton quotes Woody:
Most songs that last the longest are the ballads that tell you a story about the news of the day. I can’t invent the news every day. Nobody can. But I can do my little job which is to fix the day’s news up to where you can sing it. You’ll remember it lots plainer if I can make it easy for you to sing the daily news at your job or else at your play hours. Such as the Nazi torpedo that blew up this famous American ship before we declared war on Hitler and Mussolini….
Woody decided that the best way to humanize the tragedy of the sinking of the Reuben James would be to name all the victims. Using the tune of the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower”, he started to do that:
The Almanac Singers, the group of which Woody was a member, produced new ‘win-the -war’ numbers. When Woody brought his completed work to a songwriting meeting in early November 1941, the other Almanacs loved the idea of the song, but felt the list of names was a “bit…boring. You didn’t have to go through all that to personalize it, Pete Seeger argued. A rousing agitprop chorus could get the same message across” (Klein 209). Gordon Friesen, an Oklahoma native who had recently arrived at Almanac House recalled these details:
This song was mainly written by Woody Guthrie. He wrote all the verses but was stumped for a chorus. The other Almanacs felt the song was very good and kept steady pressure on Woody to finish it. For a while Woody tried to build a chorus around representative names taken from the casualty list appearing in the New York Times. He wanted to convey the idea that the crew of the Reuben James symbolized the fighting unity of melting pot America and fairly begged for some such treatment. On it were Scandinavian, Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Jewish, Spanish derived names….but the idea was too broad for condensation into short poetry. Finally, at an Almanac session on the problem, someone suggested the line: ‘What were their names’. Woody took it from there and finished the song. (Cohen and Samuelson, 93-4)
Woody himself joined the Merchant Marines three times during the war, and each time his ship was torpedoed.
Cartoons from Dr. Seuss Goes to War: http://libraries.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dswenttowar/
Song used in this lesson
“Sinking of the Reuben James,” lyrics written by Woody Guthrie in 1941. Tune: Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower”
Introductory learning activities:
Song discussion questions and activities:
Refer to the responses on the active listening chart to complete this activity in class.
Students will be asked to identify words that evoke sympathy for the victims and words that inspire martial feelings or patriotic feelings. Students will be asked to analyze the song in terms of facts versus feelings. To what does Guthrie appeal emotion or intellect?
Five senses chart:
Assessable product or performance:
Research notes from everyone in the class, written questions and written summaries from opposing camps and the judges’ written comments.
“Sinking of the Reuben James” available at
Active Listening Chart
As you listen to the song “The Sinking of the Reuben James”, describe what you
see, taste hear, feel and smell.
Cohen, Ronald D. and Dave Samuelson. liner notes for “Songs for Political Action”, Bear Family Records BCD 15720JL, 1996, pp. 93-94.
Guthrie, Woody.“The Sinking of the Reuben James”, That’s Why We’re Marching [sound recording], Washington DC: Smithsonian/Folkways, 1996.
Klein, Joe. Woody Guthrie: A Life. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1980. p.209.
Minear, Richard H. Dr. Seuss Goes to War. New York: The New Press, 1999, p.29, 39, 41.
“FRA Branch 156 Seeks to Honor First U.S. Warship Lost in WWII”, Naval Affairs 13 August 1998.
HyperWar: USS Reuben James (DD-245) <http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/ships/DD/DD-245_ReubenJames.html>
Copyright 2011-2012 Center for American Music, University of Pittsburgh Library System