Andrew Bird reimagines a song from World War I

guitarthumbiconThe typical rock cover tune takes the form of faithful homage: a loving tribute to a favorite songwriter or an important influence. At best, this kind of cover opens a window into an artist’s formative aesthetics, and draws a through line between a contemporary and his or her predecessors; at worst, it’s plodding, dull, and unimaginative, too caught up in being respectful to be interesting. Then there’s the novelty cover, in which a band takes an ironic crack at an uncool or highly unexpected source: a punk version of a Barry Manilow tune, or a bluegrass take on the Ramones. This kind of cover rarely rises above the level of a wisecrack: it’s kind of funny in passing, but also predictable and usually entirely forgettable.

A better approach to the cover tune is to avoid the dual traps of over-easy irony and over-earnest tribute by aiming instead at reinterpretation. One of the best reinterpretive covers I’ve heard recently is Andrew Bird’s version of the 1918 pop hit “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm,” which he released, slightly retitled as “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm,” on his 2008 EP Soldier On. The original version, with lyrics by Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young, and music by Walter Donaldson, was recorded by a number of popular performers in the years immediately following World War I. You can hear a version recorded by Harry Fay in 1918 here, via firstworldwar.com. You can read the lyrics on the same site, and also at Time Portal To Old St. Louis, which puts the song’s publication date at 1919 rather than 1918.

In the song, a couple argue with one another about whether their sons will return home to the farm now that World War I has come to an end. When the wife expresses her happiness at the thought of her boys coming home, her husband, Reuben, replies, “How ’ya gonna keep ’em, down on the farm / After they’ve seen Pa-ree?” He suggests that “They’ll never want to see a rake or plow,” and (amusingly and absurdly) asks her, “And who the deuce can parleyvous a cow?” The wife’s reply is that you can take the boy from the farm, but you can’t take the farm from the boy: “Once a farmer, always a jay /And farmers always stick to the hay.”

Fay’s 1919 version of the tune bounces along amiably, treating the lyric (which is sometimes quite silly) as a lighthearted joke. His performance is all humor and showmanship, without a trace of either sentimentality or seriousness. Bird, on the other hand, decides to take the lyrics fully in earnest, and transforms the song into a slow and mournful folk ballad. Though he follows the original lyric closely, he reworks the melody dramatically, and both his vocal performance and arrangement come off as utterly sincere. As a result, the humorous novelty pop hit becomes something much sweeter, sadder, and richer. Bird’s vocal poignantly captures the sadness of a parent who recognizes that her grown-up children won’t be coming home again, and her fear for their well-being and safety now that they’re beyond her protection (“How ya gonna keep ’em away from harm,” Bird sings in the chorus, with both nervousness and world-wise resignation). At the same time, you can hear a parent’s pride and joy in her sons’ independence, and the understanding that it’s time to let go.

Released in 2008, Bird’s version also taps into the ninety years of American history that has elapsed since “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm” was originally published. In Bird’s hands, the song also becomes a lament for the slow death of American rural culture. We now know that the husband in the song is absolutely right: over the course of the 20th century, almost every farmer’s son and daughter did indeed leave the farm, and resettled in the cities and the suburbs. Part of what’s great about Bird’s rendition is that it doesn’t display much nostalgia: his vocal delivery treats the lure of the city seriously, and admits both the pleasures of modern life and the sadness of the increasingly few people who’ve stayed behind and remained a part of rural culture. Bird (who lives in both Chicago and rural Illinois) doesn’t judge the parents for staying or the children for leaving; instead, he goes after the idea of what it feels like as the world changes around you, becoming a different place (for better or worse) than the one you’ve loved.

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