Maybe we'd better back up.
The U.S. Enters World War I
In 1917, the United States went to war. Then known as "the Great War," and today referred to as World War I, this war was totally unlike earlier American conflicts (or ANY earlier conflicts, for that matter). World War I was fought an ocean away, and our boys fought against machine guns, mustard gas, and tanks on battlefields that snaked across France and other European countries.
Many Americans thought that it was a bad idea to get involved in a war so far away. They wondered why they should care about a conflict thousands of miles away. Others thought the opposite, that the war was that much more exciting because it was being fought in Europe. As a result, the "war songs" written during World War I tend to center on distance: "Over There;" "When Yankee Doodle Learns to Parlez Vous Français;" "I Don't Know Where I'm Going but I'm on My Way."
"How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm" is like these songs in some ways, but there's a major difference: it focuses more on coming home than on going abroad. The central question raised by the song was simple: "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" The song's lyricists, Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis, intended the song to be comical, and with lines like, "They'll never want to see a rake or plow / And who the deuce can parley vous a cow," they thought they had succeeded. Melody writer Walter Donaldson also gave the song a snappy touch. His bouncy tune worked well with the light-hearted lyrics. For many Americans, though, the song hit a raw nerve.
A Nation on the Move
For decades, country folks had been abandoning their farms for the city. "How Ya Gonna Keep "Em Down on the Farm" may have been playfully written about the culture shock that American soldiers would experience when they returned from Europe, but it echoed an anxious question that country parents had been asking themselves since the 1880s.
For the first half of the 19th century, America was an overwhelmingly rural nation, a country of small towns and farms. A handful of cities dotted the landscape, but the vast majority of Americans lived in the country, and the majority of these earned their living off the land. Moreover, America's rural character was seen as a virtue. "Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God," wrote Thomas Jefferson. In last decades of the 19th century, though, the rural-urban balance within the population began to shift rapidly. In 1880, just under 30% of all Americans lived in cities. By 1900, the urban percentage had climbed to 40%, and by 1917, when the US entered WWI, the number of people living in cities was equal to the number living in the country. No longer a minority, city folk were 50% of the nation and growing. Between 1880 and 1914, 15 million immigrants came to America, and most of these settled in cities. During these same years, equally large waves of rural residents migrated to the urban areas.
Why were so many people moving to cities? For a lot of them, the main draw was job opportunities. New farming technologies, including mechanical harvesters and balers, as well as steam-powered and then gas-driven tractors, meant that fewer people could produce more food. Many farmers were, in effect, pushed out of the market. Fortunately, America's booming industrial sector offered job options for those willing to make the move. It was essentially the opposite of the Homestead Act of 1862 that had led to so many people moving out west.
Other people moved to the city in search of a different life. The rural living celebrated by Jefferson was starting to feel outdated, and it didn't seem all that virtuous or romantic to many young Americans. Farming meant working from dawn to dusk, and it promised very little mobility. Many were unsatisfied with farming’s dreary set of prospects. In contrast, America's cities offered not just jobs, but all sorts of new fangled machines such as streetcars and elevators, modern conveniences like electricity and indoor plumbing, and round-the-clock entertainment in theaters and dance halls.
That's why, when American soldiers marched off to war in 1917, their parents were doubly worried about if they would ever see them again. Even if their sons survived the war, would they resist the temptations of the city? Would the bright lights of Paris or New York turn them away from their rural roots?
The U.S. Army did its part to preserve the innocence of the young men it enlisted or conscripted to fight: alcohol was banned on and near army bases; uniformed men were forbidden to purchase liquor; an elaborate campaign was waged against sexual vice. Medical and psychological experts lectured the soldiers on the dangers of sexual excess and the ever-present risk of sexually transmitted infections. Those particular battles, though, were basically unwinnable. It was impossible for officers to monitor the all the activities of their soldiers around the clock, just as it was impossible for parents to keep their soldier sons from being exposed to exciting new worlds off the farm.
A New Worldview
For these reasons and more, "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm," for all its intended humor, raised some pretty pertinent questions. When the song states that "wine and women play the mischief with a boy who's loose with change," it expresses a concern shared by parents and military officers. When it asks, "how ya gonna keep 'em away from Broadway, jazzin' around and paintin' the town," it expresses the fact that, for many, the danger facing American soldiers—at least as perceived by their rural parents—would not end when—or if—they returned stateside.
The good news was that the war ended soon after the U.S. entered it; most American soldiers did not reach France until spring 1918, and a peace treaty was signed that November. The bad news was that many American soldiers did not return to the towns and farms that they had left behind. Unlike their European counterparts, sick of years on the front and longing to return to their loved ones at home, American soldiers had tasted excitement and weren’t keen to go back to their lives on the farm, which now seemed boring by comparison.
Egging these returning soldiers on was the fact that, like every war in American history, mobilization accelerated change. The migration process already begun before the war accelerated during the 1920s. Foreign immigration was dramatically reduced during the decade, but the balance of the American population continued to shift toward the city. By 1930, 56% of all Americans lived in cities; by 1950, city residents outnumbered rural ones almost two to one. By 2000, more than 80% of the public was urban dwellers.
America's shrinking rural population was an important part of the 1920s story, but it is often neglected. The decade is usually remembered for the carefree excitement of the cities. Called "the jazz age" or "the roaring 20s," the decade is generally characterized as a time of booming confidence and wild fun. But in small towns and farming villages, a different mood existed. Rural Americans did not fully share in all of the economic prosperity of the decade, and they feared that their political influence was shrinking as well. Perhaps worst of all, they felt that the city and all of its sins were encroaching on their way of life. Movies made in distant places exposed their children to unhealthy lifestyles, and radio stations broadcasting out of New York and Chicago brought city music and city jokesters into their own living rooms.
A Nation Divided
Country folks did not go down without a fight, though. Many historians have argued that the reactionary movements of the time are best understood as expressions of all the anxiety gripping rural America. For example, during the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan revived and spread throughout the rural states. This new KKK was as bigoted as the old, but it cast a wider net. It denounced Catholics, Jews, political radicals, labor unions, and immigrants of all stripes and colors. This new KKK lashed out at all of the change—much of it connected to the city—that threatened their values and way of life.
Perhaps the most dramatic clash between city and country occurred in 1925. In that year, a Tennessee biology teacher, John Scopes, decided to challenge a recently passed state law that prohibited the teaching of Darwinism. After he was arrested, the NYC-based American Civil Liberties Union sent one of the US’s most famous lawyers, Clarence Darrow, to the small town of Dayton to defend him. Right behind Darrow came a pack of city reporters anxious to cover the trial and poke a little fun at the small Tennessee town. Scopes was convicted, but the real loser in the trial was Dayton and rural America. The unfriendly press portrayed this part of America as ignorant and intolerant, totally out of the step with the more progressive values of modern America.
“How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm” brought the issue of a struggling rural class to the forefront of popular culture. America was rapidly changing; people were leaving the country for the city, and as they did so the political and cultural character of the nation was being transformed. For some, this was tremendously exciting as it represented progress. For others, more was lost than gained: a way of life, a traditional set of values, an idea of what America was all about. When Joe Young and Sam Lewis asked, "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?" there was no simple answer. The question had been mostly decided already: they weren’t going to keep ‘em down on the farm.