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Reuben, Reuben, I've been thinking
Sound familiar? Okay, maybe not—but it would have back when this song was written.
Lyricists Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis decided to start off "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm" by tapping into the familiar. They ripped this first line off from an old children's song called "Reuben and Rachel."
Written in 1871 by Harry Birch and William Gooch, "Reuben and Rachel" was usually sung as a flirtatious duet between a boy and a girl. Over the years, many different versions popped up, but almost all of them begin with "Reuben, I have long been thinking" or "Reuben, Reuben, I've been thinking."
Now that all is peaceful and calm
The boys will soon be back on the farm
This line dates the song: World War I is over.
This line tells us that the song was written after November 11th, 1918, the day that the Allies and Germany signed a peace agreement ending the war. This date, also known as Armistice Day, was declared an American federal holiday in 1938. In 1954, after World War II and the Korean War, the holiday was re-named Veterans' Day to honor the American veterans of all armed conflicts.
The 1918 armistice ended a brutal war that claimed more than 16 million lives. For Europeans, the human and material loss was staggering. By comparison, Americans losses were light, largely because they entered the war so late; the United States declared war in April 1917, but American troops weren't deployed in large numbers until spring 1918.
America's fresh yet untested troops played major roles in the Battles of Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood in June 1918. They also contributed to a massive offensive in the Argonne Forest launched in October 1918. Less than a month later, the war was over.
How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree'?
Good question. Paris has a reputation for being a beautiful and exciting city.
Country folks may have worried about the temptations posed by any city, but Paris was a particularly seductive town. During the 30 years prior to the start of World War I in 1914, Paris celebrated a beautiful age, a belle époque, still renowned today for its architecture, art, and culture.
Several impressive structures, including the Eiffel Tower and Grand Palais, were constructed; impressionist artists like Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet filled city galleries with their works; and naturalist author Émile Zola presided over a dynamic literary scene.
During these years Paris was also known for its exciting and risqué nightlife. Nightclubs, dance halls, and bordellos offered a range of entertainments. The city's most famous hotspot was the Moulin Rouge. Can-can girls danced on stage, prostitutes worked the floor, and post-impressionist artist Toulouse-Lautrec captured the excitement on canvas.
How ya gonna keep 'em away from Broadway,
Jazzin' around and paintin' the town?
The immediate danger lay in "Paree," which many soldiers would have visited during their time in France, but New York City, where Broadway is located, was also a threat.
Lyricists Young and Lewis hit the anxiety nail on the head with this line. For many parents, getting their kids home alive and far away from the glitter of European capitals was only the first challenge. They also needed to steer their boys away from glamorous New York City.
It wasn't until the 1920s that New York became synonymous with the jazz age, but most of the pieces were in place by 1918, when Young and Lewis wrote "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down." Scantily clad women like the Ziegfeld Girls were on display at theaters along Broadway, and sultry jazz could be heard at clubs in Harlem, a predominantly African-American neighborhood of the city.
Not only that, but it would be much easier for young veterans itching for the city life to make it back to New York, where many had stopped on their way home from Europe, than it would be to sail all the way over to France.
Once a farmer, always a jay
And farmers always stick to the hay
People from Kansas have long used the nicknames Jays, Jayhawkers, or Jayhawks.
It seems like Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis had a little trouble finding something to rhyme with hay, but lucky for them, "Jay" was a common nickname for a person from the farm state of Kansas.
The nickname started appearing in the decade before the Civil War, when radical abolitionists began calling themselves Jayhawkers, and the label stuck. In fact, about 20 years after the University of Kansas opened its doors in 1866, its athletic teams adopted the Jayhawk as their mascot.
While the Jayhawk is now synonymous with Kansas, it's not a real bird. It's the imaginary hybrid of a blue jay with a sparrow hawk. During the years before the Civil War, it was meant to suggest the quarrelsome yet sly character of antislavery radicals. These militants were viewed as combative troublemakers, like blue jays, and sneaky hunters, like sparrow hawks.
Imagine Reuben when he meets his Pa
He'll kiss his cheek and holler 'oo-la-la!'
The songwriters definitely knew how to stereotype the French. Americans viewed cheek kissing as a particularly strange foreign custom.
These lines aimed for a laugh by tossing out two stereotypic French behaviors. The expression "oo-la-la" (or, to be precise, "oh là là") is an actual French exclamation that means something like, "Oh my goodness!" Cheek kissing ("la bise") is also French custom, but it's hardly restricted to that country.
It's common in many European countries, as well as in parts of Latin America and the Middle East. Contrary to popular American belief, though, "la bise" involves touching cheeks while making a kissing sound, not actual kisses on cheeks.