Kenny Rogers’ “Reuben James” Lyrics Meaning

“Reuben James” is based on the real-life experiences of songwriter Alex Harvey. He grew up in an environment in which he and his family lived alongside Black people. And to make a long story short, both Harvey and his dad had to rely on such folk for their upbringing during certain challenging junctures in their childhoods.

The narrative focuses on a character named “Reuben James”. The singer often refers to him in the past tense which, considering other clues also, is likely indicative of the fact that he has passed away. And Rogers is recounting his recollections of this man and the impact he had on his life.

In the eyes of the public, James was “just a no-count sharecropping colored man” who was looked down upon as a criminal by the people in the town. The implication is that said residents were White and racist. However, the singer himself remembers Reuben as a good man. For instance, there was the case where he took in the baby, i.e. the “hungry White child”, of a lady who died during childbirth. And he also used to preach the gospel to the singer.

So the overall feeling behind the tune is that “Reuben James” got a bum rap in life. He lived in a racist environment where, despite his inherent goodness, he was looked down upon as an unfavorable individual. But the singer himself is immortalizing him in song and in the process letting it be known he was in fact an upstanding person.

Facts about “Reuben James”

Under its original billing, this song was actually dropped by Kenny Rogers alongside his former band, the First Edition. And it came out as part of the band’s “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” project in 1969. Later it was also featured on Kenny’s famous “Greatest Hits” project of 1980. The label that put out the original was Reprise Records, and in the latter case it was published by Liberty Records.

Indeed this classic is considered to be one of Kenny and the Edition’s most-notable hits. It fared impressively (number 26) on the Hot 100 and also charted in Canada and Oceania.

This song was written by two songwriters, namely:

  • Barry Etris
  • Alex Harvey 

And it was Harvey himself who pestered Kenny, who was at first reluctant, to actually listen to “Reuben James”. And Rogers of course went on to embrace the song.

Other classics from Rogers’ “Greatest Hits” album:

42 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    The way I always interpreted it was that the singer/storyteller was the child that was raised by Reuben James .

  2. Garry says:

    The lyrics of his song touch the Soul of any careful listener who considers himself human. I cannot keep a tear from falling each time I hear it. My compliments to songwriter Alex Harvey and to Kenny Rogers for making it the hit that it was. Dear God how high time it is for us to put aside our racial differences and clasp our hands united in our humanity.. Amen.

    • Anonymous says:

      What you said, and also that the tune of the song is pretty good too!

    • gregory scott garner says:

      Most of those ‘differences’ were put aside 40 years ago. But certain people have decided that they like things better with all this division and strife. It’s very good for Democrats….they can’t win without black people being mad or afraid…This narrative allows poor blacks to have an excuse for every failure, and successful blacks to have their cake and eat it too…How else could somebody like Lebron James play the victim and keep a straight face?

      • Anonymous says:

        Hit the nail right on the head sir. All of it.

      • Anonymous says:

        Are you implying racism and oppression does not exist? It is a political stunt

      • Ross K says:

        racism is still very much alive as evidenced by your statements “…This narrative allows poor blacks to have an excuse for every failure.” I recall sundown laws, enforced in my hometown and many others throughout the country, up into the 1960’s, when blacks had to be out of town before sundown, also meaning that they could not own property in those towns. They were mostly taken off the books in the mid to late 70’s. And it was in 1963 when black students were finally allowed admittance in the University of Alabama, forced through activation of the national guard by the Kenedy’s. Yes, these things happened well over 40 years ago, but generational racism is still very much alive as evidenced by the recent upswing in the killing of unarmed blacks by police, and other violent attacks against blacks, due in part to Trump embracing and empowering militant, racist organizations during his administration. Due to their popularity and publicity, people like Lebron James, Oprah Winfrey and Whoopie Goldberg are ideally poised to speak out against racial injustice that is still very much alive and continues to be sustained by people such as yourself.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think of this song repeatedly

  4. Walter G. (Buzz) Luttrell says:

    I’m 77, Black, still sing Karaoke, remember this song very fondly – loved Kenny ; now gonna try to learn & perform it – very fitting & maybe important during these racially hateful times! Really seems like we, as a nation, are going backward. Hard to believe that ONE man could have had such a profoundly negative impact on America!

    • Anonymous says:

      yes Joe Biden has really screwed things up, hasn’t he?

      • Anonymous says:

        Pretty sure Mr. Luttrell was referring to Donald Trump.

        But I suspect you knew that, didn’t you? And didn’t want to face the truth.

    • I Wonder says:

      I wonder how this was never discovered until he ran for president. Look him up on IMDB. He was a celebrity until then.

      • Anonymous says:

        Interesting that it didn’t take but just a few replies to turn into a political and racially divided thread. Just goes to back up how divided the country really is. No matter who you place the blame on, we have gone back 20 years in racial harmony. Now that I’ve made my politically correct statement, the start of us going backwards was when Barack Obama was president. The division started there and grew immensely as the Democrats could not handle Trump being president.

  5. warren c says:

    a song and lyrics that stays with you, and sadly relevant, even after you grow old

  6. Dan says:

    Reminds me of Big Al Downing’s song “Mr. Jones”. They both understood the idea of the “Salt of the Earth”.

  7. Rube says:

    Awesome song…I’ve always loved it!!!

  8. Cynthia says:

    I just heard this song on an oldies station. I had forgotten how great it is!

  9. Anonymous says:

    Conway Twitty did it long before Kenny.

  10. In California says:

    My brother’s name is Ruben James, born in 1970. Mom liked Kenny’s music. She said she wanted international names for us, being Americans of Mexican descent. But, I wonder if it was really because she liked Kenny’s music. She’s gone now. I can’t ask her. Maybe dad will remember.

  11. Old Rob says:

    Great song. I try to sing along with Kenny Rogers while travelling the outback of Australia.

  12. Helen Weaver says:

    I agree LOVE ❤️ THIS SONG!!!

  13. Alisha Kirshman says:

    Whoever said Conway did it first…WRONG( I think???) just looked it up Kenny released it in JUNE 1969( so it was recorded before that) Conway Twitty RECORDED it April 1970 and RELEASED it in June 1970…Kenny rules!!! I just found a starved mostly dying stray kitty that I’m nursing back to health…been trying to think of a name…my husband loves this song…and it popped in head that rueben James is an excellent name…but it’s a girl…so I was like well DUH…RUBY JAMES!!! 2 great songs one great kitty hehehe

  14. Anonymous says:

    I love all of his songs, a few years back my family and I got to see him in concert

  15. Grannytilla says:

    I agree with Walter G. (Buzz) Luttrell. I’m white and 73. What happened to all we strived for when we were younger?

  16. Doris Sippel says:

    I am adopted. My mother died when I was three months old. This song has always made me cry. Universal human love. Rest in Peace Kenny Rogers and Alex Harvey.

  17. TM says:

    Just listened to the words again. Definitely speaks to who we should all be to all people! Our world needs this type of heart today!

  18. Tom says:

    Actually, it was Barack Obama who stirred up racial division in this country. Joe Biden is/was too stupid unless someone else thought it up for him. i.e., Obama.

  19. Randy says:

    Did black lives matter happen on joes watch?

  20. Anonymous says:

    I was a country music DJ in Prescott, Arizona, when this song came out. “Loved it then, and I love it now”….. RIP Kenny, Alex,

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