In 1919, Americans were wondering if soldiers who had experienced France would come home as different people.
Right after the end of World War One, a hit song swept the United States that reflected on the experiences of the war and pondered its effects on the American doughboys who had gone to France. It was called “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” The famous 369th Infantry Regiment Band recorded it in 1919 and it became a sensation. In subsequent years it would be a hit for several singers. There’s a good chance you’d recognize the melody. (more)
The song is an interesting example of how art can tackle serious subjects in a deceptively lighthearted way. In it, a wife and husband debate whether the returning American soldiers will be content to go back to the farm life from which so many of them had come. She believes they will. “Once a farmer always a jay,” she says, “and farmers always stick to the hay.” Her husband however disagrees, and voices the first line of the chorus which is the song’s title. Then he continues: “How you gonna keep em away from Broadway?” And for that matter, from the “jazzin’ around and paintin’ the town” they will have inevitably heard about overseas.
Here art is presenting us with a very human question. The point is that once young American soldiers, many of whom came from a relatively closed-in farming existence, cross the Atlantic and experience the different wonders of Paris—not to mention the horror of war—they will inevitably come back changed. They will come back having experienced the world in its wider possibilities of life and expression and will no longer be the people who left home in 1917 to make the world safe for democracy.
The fact is that spending time somewhere else has the capacity to change us. It is the enemy of provincialism. it can make us look at things very differently than we did before. Travel itself—when not pursued in a defiantly insular way—can do this too. After all, our word for travel comes from the French word for hard work. We tend to forget that.
It would probably not occur to many people to compare art and travel, but in a way, they can have the same affect on us. They are alike in that if you engage with them deeply, they change you. Art can change us. It can shape our outlooks. It can make us see the world from other perspectives. Years ago novelist John Williams complained that most contemporary writing of his day “encourages us to be merely ourselves, to think or feel merely as have always done.” Great Art doesn’t let us do this.
Warning: Pursue the arts and will you find yourself becoming more open-minded.