Friday Song: Andrew Bird, HOW YOU GONNA KEEP THEM DOWN ON THE FARM? (Young, Lewis and Donaldson, 1918)

Something rather interesting happens when a good contemporary artist decides to cover a song from the distant past.  When James Taylor sang ‘Oh! Susanna!’, a Stephen Foster from the mid nineteenth century came out out like a modern(-ish) folk song. Jen Chapin’s version of ‘Over There’ the stirring patriotic song from 1917 turns it into something weirdly unsettling and threatening. Mavis Staples’ ‘Hard Times, Come Again No More’ gives the original a political edge.

None of them is quite as strange as this week’s Friday Song, a novelty knees-up number from a century ago given a weird, otherworldly treatment by Andrew Bird.

‘How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm’ was written in 1918 as the troops were coming home from battle.  For many of those men, nothing was going to be the same again – conflict and travel had opened their eyes.

‘Reuben, Reuben, I’ve been thinking
Said his wifey dear
Now that all is peaceful and calm
The boys will soon be back on the farm
Mister Reuben started winking and slowly rubbed his chin
He pulled his chair up close to mother
And he asked her with a grin

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

It was a great idea for a song and quickly became a hit. There was a crack musical partnership behind it: the music was written by Walter Donaldson, who had a knack for writing tunes that stand the test of time (‘Makin’ Whoopee’ and ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, for example), while the lyrics came from Sam Lewis (‘For All We Know’) and Joe Young (‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter’).

In 1919, it was released, with farmyard sound effects, by Arthur Fields and Nora Bayes and  was subsequently covered by the usual suspects  – Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby (with some oddities along the way).  In 1942, it popped up in the film Me and My Girl, sung by Judy Garland and that version appeared on the soundtrack of The Lego Movie in 2014.

None of which quite explains how the brilliant and enigmatic Andrew Bird decided to cover it for the 2007 three-CD compilation Songs of America, delivering it with  a changed  tune and vibe: melancholy, ambiguous, slightly lost.

Bird is an astonishing talent – a multi-instrumentalist, good songwriter and phenomenal whistler. His career has been an ever-surprising journey through different genres  – you never quite know where, musically, he is going to turn next. To get an idea of his own songs, there’s a good NPR Tiny Desk concert on YouTube and a good little documentary on the making of one of his CDs.

This is different from all that, and a long, long way from what happened in 1919. No laughs, no farmyard sound effects, no manic banjos; just a great, spooky 21st century take on a good song.