Song Spotlight: “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm?”

  • Mood: Lighthearted, Goofy
  • Themes: Country life vs. City life, Returning from War
  • Tempo: Upbeat
  • Genre/style: 1920s popular song

Something you find out about songs is that if you ponder them long enough and share them with enough people, multiple layers of meaning begin to emerge. Those layers may be deliberate on the part of the songwriter, or they may come from the personal experiences of the individual hearing the song or the context in which they hear it. Today’s song spotlight is on the 1919 song “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm,” and it works in two ways, one that is more on the surface level, and one that is more profound. I’ll start with the easy one.

If you take this song at face value, with 21st century eyes, it’s just a goofy song about returning to farm life after spending time in the big city. Here’s the chorus:

How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?

How ya gonna keep ’em away from Broadway, jazzin’ around and painting the town?

How ya gonna keep ’em away from harm? That’s a mystery.

They’ll never wanna see a rake or plow

And who the deuce can “parley-voo” a cow?

How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?

Hearing this song, you can picture someone traveling to the big city for the first time, seeing all of the bright lights and beautiful people, taking in the sights at the Eiffel Tower and the palace of Versailles, then coming back home to be somewhat let down by the chickens scratching in the yard and the cows waiting to be milked.

I like to include this song in a session with older adults on the theme of living in the country versus living in the city. Most of my clients have been city-dwellers for a while, but a good number of them also lived in the country as kids. That means they have stories to share on both counts, perhaps including the culture shock involved in moving from world to the next. We also talk about taking vacations to places like Paris and Hawaii and maybe even Egypt or Russia then returning to the Midwest, and what that feels like. Some folks can also relate to what their children might experience by living in more exotic locales then coming home to visit their folks in Olathe, Kansas or Independence, Missouri. Overall, the song helps the discussion to stay lighthearted and not too negative about the country or the city.

Simple enough, right? It turns out that this particular song gets more interesting after you learn about its history. You see, this song came out in the last days of the first World War and was wildly popular in the years following the war.

Here’s the scene: after the first World War ended in 1919, a generation of young American men came back home to the U.S. to return to the farms and jobs and families they had before the war. Of course, the same thing happened again after World War II, and it has happened again (in different ways) after every war since then: young men and women have come back home after life-changing experiences overseas. For all of these military members, they come home with a disconnect between the experiences of life in a war zone and life back home. While in a combat zone, decisions had to do with life and death; back home, it’s about what to cook for dinner and what clothes to put on the kids. While overseas, they had to be on alert at all times for possible threats to their physical safety; now they have to be able to handle the noisiness of modern American life without paranoia. While at war, they were surrounded by people who also had direct experiences of being at war; now, people at home are sympathetic but rather clueless, and they wouldn’t want to share the horrific details of what they saw anyway.

So, really, even in its humorous way, this song asks a serious question: how can soldiers return to life as usual after going through the life-changing experiences of being at war? For veterans of the first and second world wars, it certainly wasn’t an accepted practice to continue thinking and talking about the horrors of war after returning home, and post-traumatic stress wasn’t really a topic of discussion. (It was called shell shock back then.) Today’s returning veterans have more resources available for dealing with the transition back to life in the U.S., but it will always be a difficult transition to make. What’s more, the pain that comes from experiencing war can last for a lifetime – I’ve had more than one elderly client tear up remembering his service in World War II.

There are many ways to cope with the trauma of war and the transition back to civilian life, and certainly music is one tool to use. I bet that some of this song’s popularity came from its very quiet acknowledgment of the difficulty of returning home from war in the package of a cheesy, goofy, funny song (complete with cartoonish sound effects in this version.) Perhaps allowing that song to express and contain some of the pain of transition helped, at least a little.

What are your thoughts on this song? Which other songs do you know that work on multiple levels of meaning? What other songs do you know that have been particularly helpful to veterans and their families? Please leave your comments below.

This post is part of an occasional series on special songs to share with your loved ones. For more song spotlights, click here.

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