GVH's Moving Musical Tribute to the Big U
Since her maiden voyage in 1952, the SS United States has been the inspiration for countless works of art, music, and literature. It is always a pleasure to encounter these creative tributes — and a recent recording by singer-songwriter Greg Van Houten (who performs as "GVH") is no exception.
Greg Van Houten is a Vermont-based singer-songwriter and graphic artist, who recently lent his design talents to the current Norman Rockwell Museum exhibit, "Finding Home" — an artistic celebration that features the work of David Macaulay and his recent book about the SS United States alongside artifacts from the Conservancy's permanent collections.
It was at the November opening of the "Finding Home" exhibit that we first encountered Greg, and where we learned of his moving musical tribute to the SS United States.
The penultimate track on his 2019 album, You're the Only One Who Thinks You're Funny, "The United States" is Van Houten's ode to the Big U, from her glory days sailing across the Atlantic to her current status as a "lady in waiting" in South Philadelphia.
As it turns out, Greg's personal connection to the SS United States runs deep. His father, Thomas Van Houten, Sr., was an architectural engineer who'd worked in New York City since the 1950s — beginning with work on the Verrazano Bridge, and eventually leading to a position as Manager of Terminal Construction for United States Lines in the 1970s.
"Although the SS United States was retired a few years earlier, my father knew the ship well from his tenure around New York Harbor and was thrilled to be part of the company that launched it," Van Houten said. "We had a model of the ship at home, and he kept photos and memorabilia in his office. His fondness for the ship was a result of its outstanding design, unmatched performance, and stunning beauty. The SS United States had no equal."
At the opening gala for the "Finding Home" exhibit, Greg Van Houten admires a model of the SS United States, on loan from the Conservancy and donated by the family of Douglas F. Bushnell. Photo courtesy of Tom Basile.
When Greg Van Houten discovered the SS United States Conservancy, he was deeply touched by our mission.
"The engineering marvel of New York Harbor was something my dad and I shared, and I wanted to see it shared with future generations," he says. "My father passed in 1987, a few years after the closing of United States Lines shipping, but the legacy of the ship lived on in our family."
Coincidentally, Van Houten has a longstanding relationship with the Norman Rockwell Museum, and his GVH Studio was tasked with contributing promotional graphics to the current "Finding Home" exhibit. Given his familial connection to the Big U, Greg was asked by Martin Mahoney, the museum's Director of Curatorial Operations, if he had any personal artifacts he'd like to contribute.
"My younger brother, Dave, had passed away a few years earlier, and was the keeper of the ship memorabilia that my dad had accumulated. I began to filter through the items of Dave’s that I had inherited," Van Houten said. "Sandwiched between two Norman Rockwell hardcover books was a manila envelope with a United States Lines label on it. Inside were a photo of the ship at sea, an aerial of the ship in New York Harbor, and a travel brochure. The latter two were included in 'Finding Home.'
"I was treated to not only providing the supporting graphics for the exhibit, but contributing content to an exhibit that connected to my own family."
From left to right: Van Houten's wife Jane Disanto, Greg Van Houten, and Conservancy President Susan Gibbs at the Norman Rockwell Museum's "Finding Home" exhibit. Photo courtesy of Tom Basile.
And then there's the song, "The United States." Clocking in at just under five minutes, it is a stirring look back at the Big U's rich history, as well as an important reminder of the challenge we now face in keeping her legacy alive.
Here is a sampling of the song's deeply moving lyrics:
She is the SS United States
The pride of the American fleet
She traversed the Atlantic 800 times
With elegance, grandeur, and speed
She is the SS United States
She's trying to find her way home
40 years dodging the scrap dealer's torch
Awaiting her verdict unknown
Below, find a video performance of "The United States" from GVH's October 2019 CD release show.
More than six decades after her record-breaking maiden voyage, the SS United States remains a vibrant and unforgettable cultural icon. Have you spotted this mighty vessel in a work of art, literature, or popular culture? Let us know.