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: