Reuben James

Written by Barry Etris

I remember mules, remember them well; how they smell when they sweat, how they get stubborn and won’t “whoa” when you get to the end of a row because they want to go to the barn, how they don’t “gee” or “haw” in time and pull your plow into the tender corn, causing anger and cussing.

When my father was at it, he used every cuss word in his vocabulary, and he had a good one. Even Grandpa Etris, a Baptist Deacon, used mild words like “hell” and “damn” when he walked behind a mule. I thought that was part and parcel of plowing.

When my time came to take a turn with ol’ Tony, I used a few of dad’s choice words and got a whupping right there in the field between the rows of bean sprouts.

Sometimes when I wasn’t needed, I would watch him. He would be bare to the waist, wearing faded cut-off khakis and lace-up work boots. As he retreated down a long row in the prime of his manhood, tanned and golden in the sun, with his broad back and muscular arms controlling the single-tree plow, I thought he looked like Apollo driving his chariot across the sky.

I didn’t know then that the Gods die. That we would someday find Apollo lying on his back in a furrow beside his steed with the reins still in his hands, never to rise again.

“The faded shirt,
The weathered Brow,
The calloused hands upon the plow,”

came from that trauma.

II took the song to Nashville and Billy Edd Wheeler, who suggested I make some changes. Having heard his own compositions, I knew it would be a better song if I took his advice. With some input from Alex Harvey, I changed Reuben to be an old black man, misunderstood and persecuted.

Billy Edd sent the tune to Los Angeles to Eddie Reeves, who told Kenny Rogers about it while they were golfing, went back to the office, played it for Kenny and lightning struck.

 

Barry presents "Portrait of Reuben James" to Zell Miller.
Barry presents “Portrait of Reuben James” to Zell Miller.

REUBEN JAMES
Reuben James,
In my song you’ll live again.
And the phrases that I rhyme
are 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.
Just a no ‘count share cropping colored man
who would steal anything he can
and everybody laid the blame
on Reuben James.…

Reuben James,
you still walk the furrowed fields of my mind,
faded shirt, the weathered brow,
the calloused hands upon the plow,
I love you then and I love you now,
Reuben James

Flora Gray,
The gossip of Madison County died with child.
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,
there’s a better world waiting for the meek.”
In my mind these words remain
From Reuben James

Reuben James
you still walk the furrowed fields of my mind,
the faded shirt, the weathered brow,
the calloused hands upon the plow,
I love you then and I love you now,
Reuben James

Reuben James,
One dark cloudy day they brought you from the field.
To your lonely pine box came,
just a preacher, me and the rain
to sing one last refrain
for Reuben James

Reuben James,
You still walk the furrowed fields of my mind,
the faded shirt, the weathered brow,
the calloused hands upon the plow,
I loved you then and I love you now,
Reuben James.

Reuben James.