Rural Values

Farmers nooning, from the original picture in the possession of Iona Sturges Esqr. Painted by W.S. Mount ; engraved by Alfred Jones ; printed by J. Dalton. 1843. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Songs sung in mid-nineteenth-century parlors often endorsed agrarian values and promoted emigration to the West. Indeed, before the Civil War, both North and South had been predominantly rural. The West held the imagination of many in America and beyond with its promise of a greener frontier or a beautiful country with abundant resources. For many immigrants, moving west was a way to escape from the hardships of crowded cities.

Increasingly, though, these rural values were threatened by the course of economic development. By 1876, in the midst of an international depression, the world’s largest steam engine was the major attraction at the phenomenally successful Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. This was symbolic of the rapid industrial changes that were occurring in America at this time. Cities became regarded as the hub where important things were happening, and the whistling, jovial farmer boy increasingly would be regarded as lacking in industry and ambition.

Recordings and Sheet Music

Cover of A Life in the West

A Life in the West, by Henry Russell; words by George Pope Morris (Cincinnati, 184?).

"A Life in the West" is a good example of the kind of song that evoked visions of a promised land. It was composed by an Englishman, Henry Russell, probably in the early 1840s, to words by the American poet George Pope Morris (1802-1864).

Cover of Jovial Farmer Boy

The Jovial Farmer Boy, Author unknown; from The Day School Ideal (Cincinnati, 1885).

"The Jovial Farmer Boy" from The Day School Ideal (Cincinnati, 1885) describes the contrast between rural and urban life. The farmer boy is represented as an idealized carefree lad and is held up to schoolchildren as an edifying example. In this song, the freedom, "glee," and "fun" of the country far outshine the city's "lengthened streets of dusty brown and gloomy houses high."

Cover of Ho for Kanzas

Ho! For Kanzas, by Lucy Larcom with F. H. Pease; from The Western Bell (Boston, 1857).

The abolitionists went West not for economic but for idealistic political reasons. "Ho! For Kanzas," from The Western Bell (Boston, 1857), is more than a call for fresh opportunity. The freedom and liberty it extols are not for the emigrant but for the slave. Author Lucy Larcom (1824-1893) from Massachusetts wrote the song with composer F.H. Pease.

Information on playing the recordings

Learn More About It

Russell, Henry. Cheer! Boys, cheer! London: J. Macqueen, 1895. ML420.R96 Microfilm MUSIC 785 ML.

Stanley, Sadie, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed. New York: Grove, 2001. ML 100 .N48 2001 v. 21.