The Farmer Feeds Us All: The Origin and Evolution of a Grange Anthem

The following is adapted from a paper I delivered at the Perspectives on American Freemasonry and Fraternalism Symposium, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, MA, 11 April 2014.

The role of music during the “golden age” of fraternal societies remains a relatively unexplored area within the growing body of fraternal scholarship. Music—odes and marches in particular—played an important role in fraternal rituals; typically performed on organs and sung by members, these songs signaled and underscored key events in rituals. Outside the lodges, fraternal bands helped to popularize societies at public events, especially parades. At the same time, the growing popularity of secret societies was reflected in popular music.

One song that emerged from this milieu was “The Farmer Feeds Us All,” written by the American composer, author, and evangelist Knowles Shaw. First published in 1874, the song would become an anthem for The Order of Patrons of Husbandry, commonly known as the Grange, before crossing over into the popular realm, where it occupies an important place in the history of American music.

Evidence suggests that Shaw’s song was inspired by two lithographs related to agriculture and the Grange, published in 1869 and 1873 respectively, and the song itself may have influenced the creation of a third lithograph, published in 1875. Through a comparison of visual elements and song lyrics, we can explore the ways the song reflected and may have influenced these popular visual images, and how together they reinforced the Order’s philosophy and values.

In 1869, The Chicago Lithographing Company published a lithograph entitled “The Farmer Pays For All.” It was commissioned by Prairie Farmer magazine, one of the largest agricultural magazines of the era, and one that most midwestern farmers would have been familiar with. In the February 26, 1870 edition, an announcement appeared stating that the publication had run out of its special annual issue that subscribers were entitled to, but would send out copies of this lithograph in its place. The print was also available for sale in monochrome at 50 cents or in color at $1 per copy to anyone who wrote in requesting one.

The lithograph was based on a device that first appeared on British pub signs in the Middle Ages. On these signs, society was divided into five sectors, each represented by an archetypal figure, such as the soldier, the cleric, or the king, each with a motto appropriate to the role: “I Fight for All,” “I Pray for All,” or “I Rule for All.” Early examples often included the devil (“I Take All”), but by the 19th century the devil was sometimes replaced by John Bull, the symbol of the British populace. His motto, “I Pay for All,” was an acerbic comment on the fact that the highest stations of society relied entirely on the taxes and rents paid by the lower classes to maintain their lofty positions.

The central image of the 1869 lithograph was a farmer in an idealized rural landscape, his sleeves rolled up, breaking the soil with a spade. Surrounding him was a series of vignettes showing the archetypal figures who played important roles in 19th-century American society—the army officer, the merchant, and the clergyman. As in the British original, each figure bore a motto reiterating his role in society. The figure of John Bull was now replaced, not by Uncle Sam or some other symbol of the American everyman, but by the yeoman farmer. Beneath him was John Bull’s punch line: “I Pay for All.” 

The idea that the farmer was the backbone of the American economy, and that all avenues of American culture and commerce ultimately relied upon him in order to exist, was one that would not be lost on most 19th-century agricultural workers. The British sense of class distinction is still preserved in the image, as the figures framing the piece all fill moneyed, white-collar roles. The message of class division is clear: no matter how “high and mighty” someone might be in America, his station is dependent upon the toil of humble farmers working the soil, filling the cornucopia that provides both wealth and sustenance. What humble toiler of the soil wouldn’t be proud to hang such a sentiment on the farmhouse wall?

In May 1868, Prairie Farmer announced that a “Grange” of a new secret order called The Patrons of Husbandry had been founded in Chicago. The article listed the “character and objects of the order,” making special note that “its principles are based upon the fact that the products of the soil comprise the basis of all wealth—that the art of agriculture is the parent and precursor of all arts.” Although I have found no evidence that the lithograph offered by this same magazine the following year had any direct connection with the Grange, the “character and objects of the order” and those reflected in the 1869 lithograph are identical.

Oliver Hudson Kelley

Just after the Civil War, Oliver Hudson Kelley, an easterner who had moved west to Minnesota to take up farming in his younger years, and later worked for the Department of Agriculture in Washington, developed a unique vision for a “Secret Society of Agriculturists,” based on the model of Freemasonry. In 1867, along with six other men, many of them high-degree Masons like himself, and one woman, Kelley founded the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, commonly known as the Grange. Despite its populist ideals, the organization’s structure was modeled on the English feudal system. State, county, and local chapters were called “granges,” the term used for smaller farms in Britain that made up the larger baronial estates. There were seven degrees of membership, the first four corresponding to the seasons of the year.

The Grange movement was hugely successful and spread quickly across the country’s agricultural regions. By 1875 the Order of Patrons of Husbandry could claim 800,000 members. Early on, the Grange’s role became that of a national political advocacy organization, whose goal it was to address the problems that farmers were facing in a climate in which urbanization and industrialization were quickly transforming the nation’s economy. The railroads were a particular favorite target of its political activity, especially regarding the cost to transport produce to distant markets. The Order also addressed issues such as agricultural overproduction, the high cost of farm machinery, inflation, and the abusive practice of crop mortgages, where high interest rates often left farmers destitute. By the last quarter of the 19th century the Grange had become engrained in rural American society.

Knowles Shaw, a man with a powerful beard

When Knowles Shaw moved to Neosho County, Kansas in 1871, the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry was just beginning the massive growth that would see it become an integral part of the rural landscape, especially in Midwestern states such as Kansas. Shaw was born in Butler County, Ohio, on October 13, 1834, but moved with his family to Rush County, Indiana just a few weeks after his birth. His family were farmers, and Indiana in those days still had something of the frontier feel about it. While still very young, he inherited a violin and soon began playing at local dances, where he gained a reputation as the best fiddler in the area. Like his older contemporary Abraham Lincoln, he was very tall, well over six feet, and had a keen desire for education. He managed to pick up a bit of Latin and Greek from a self-professed teacher of those subjects, but most of his learning was self-directed. One neighbor said about him, “Knowles Shaw’s head was like a tar-bucket, for everything that touched it stuck to it.”

In frontier America the fiddle was often called “the devil’s box,” as the whiskey-fueled dances over which it presided were seen as nothing but convocations of sin by the more pious members of the community. It was during one of these bacchanals that Shaw had a religious conversion in the middle of a particularly raucous dance tune. Although he was something of a local celebrity, and playing music brought in part of his income, he laid down his fiddle, walked to the middle of the dance floor, and announced to the assembled crowd that he would never play for another dance. He told them his new path was a religious one, and left the disappointed gathering to consider this turn of events in bewildered silence.

In the 1850s Shaw moved to Missouri and began to preach locally. By 1861, he was an active evangelist preaching across several counties. Though he had given up the fiddle long before, he had not forsaken his musical talent altogether. He continued to compose and to play music; he simply turned his energies from the secular to the sacred. His services were often peppered with his own hymns. His charisma and natural way with people helped his ministry grow very quickly, and by the late 1860s and into the 1870s his travels were taking him as far afield as Michigan, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas. Around 1871, he moved his family to Neosho County, in southeastern Kansas, and it was here that Shaw first made his mark on the history of American music.

In 1874, Shaw penned a hymn that would ensure his place in the canon of American sacred music. Based on a verse from Psalm 126, “Bringing in the Sheaves” was destined to become one of the most enduring songs written in 19th-century America, secular or sacred. It is tempting to say that the composition of the piece was also inspired by the sight of Kansas farmers bringing in the wheat harvest, or the exciting ways in which farmers were beginning to exert their own political and economic power, but that would only be a guess. What we do know is that by this period, particularly rural and agrarian themes had begun to appear in Shaw’s musical compositions.

On January 14, 1874 the Neosho County Journal published a poem by Knowles Shaw, called “The Farmer Feeds Us All.” The paper noted that it was composed at Thayer, Kansas, on January 1, 1874, and was dedicated to the Grange. No documentation has yet come to light regarding Shaw’s connection with the Grange, but the organization was very active in Neosho County during his time there, and it is extremely likely that at the very least many of his parishioners and neighbors would have been members of the organization.

Shaw’s poem “The Farmer Feeds Us All” follows the same theme and makes the same point as the 1869 lithograph of the same name:

You may talk of all the nobles of the earth,
Of the kings who hold the nations in their thrall,
Yet in this we all agree, if we only look and see,
That the farmer is the man that feeds us all.

From this first mention of nobility and royalty, Shaw takes us down the hierarchy from president, to Congress, to speculators, to preacher, doctor, and lawyer, and then finally to tailor and smith. The verses make it clear that no matter how high or humble our role in society, we would all starve to death without the farmer. It’s apparent that Shaw took his inspiration from the 1869 lithograph offered by the Prairie Farmer, but he dedicated the poem to the Grange, and indeed, one stanza deals specifically with the Patrons of Husbandry, while placing the farmer unambiguously at the top of the hierarchy:

Now the Patrons true, are coming to the fight,
And their armies, too, are not the weak and small,
So, God bless them, while we sing, that the farmer is the King, 
For the farmer is the man that feeds us all

Besides the obvious shared themes, how were this early print and the Grange connected in Shaw’s mind? There does exist a further intriguing piece of evidence.

In 1873, the year before Shaw’s poem appeared, Strobridge and Company Lithographers of Cincinnati published a chromolithograph entitled “Gift for the Grangers.” As was common with chromolithographs created for other fraternal societies, this colorful print was marketed to Grange members to decorate their homes and to indicate their membership in the organization. It sold for the price of $2. There is no doubt that the print was based on the earlier lithograph, “The Farmer Pays For All.” The central figure in “Gift for the Grangers” strikes the same pose and holds the same spade as the one in the original lithograph. Most telling, beneath his spade the slogan from the 1869 print, “I Pay for All” is presented here without the context in the original. In “Gift for the Grangers” the figure has been somewhat softened and appears to be a farmer of a more sensitive nature, perhaps one who reads poetry by the fire in the evening. He still breaks the soil before an idealized tableau of American agriculture, but here, instead of archetypes of the captains of society and industry, he is framed by vignettes of idealized agrarian life and Grange activities, including a Grange meeting. 

As elegant as this image appears to us today, it was not a universal success in its own day. Upon its appearance, The Rural Carolinian of Charleston, South Carolina, sniffed: “The general idea of the composition is a good one—better than the execution. ‘Grangers,’ whoever they may be, will no doubt buy it. We do not answer to that name, being simply a Patron of Husbandry.”

Knowles Shaw added music to his poem and in 1874 entered a copyright for the “The Farmer Feeds Us All” with the Library of Congress. It was published that year by Thompson and Odell in Boston, a firm that not only published sheet music, but also manufactured banjos and other musical instruments. The cover showed a farmstead, much more prosaic than those in the lithographs, crowded with every sort of imaginable livestock, from cows to peacocks. Above the title of the piece stood the dedication: “To the Patrons of Husbandry.’’

In 1875, the American Oleograph Company in Milwaukee published a chromolithograph to celebrate the country’s upcoming centennial. This image again featured a farmer as its central figure, this time leaning against his plow, framed by the now familiar societal archetypes and their mottos. Here the earlier motto, “I Pay for All,” telling us that the farmer provides the economic wherewithal for society to function, has been replaced with “I Feed You All!” The farmer’s role is now even more fundamental. In place of the earlier depiction of the farmer as the foundation on which the complex American economy was built, he was now cast in a similar but much simpler role: the provider of food. Without the farmer, not only would the doctors and lawyers of the nation be unable to maintain their economic positions, but they would literally starve to death. Although no examples have yet come to light, the 17th-century English nonconformist cleric George Swinnock mentions in his writings that 16th-century Calvinist cleric Theodore Beza made a puzzling reference to a “table” showing the image of a “countryman” in this context bearing the motto “I Feed You All.”

In the 1869 lithograph, the role of ruler had been omitted. The 1875 print, however, includes the US president, in what appears to be an idealized, and much thinner, version of Ulysses S. Grant, bearing the motto “I Rule for All.” It is possible that the unknown artist was working from a pre-Victorian English source, one that included the king, and simply translated it for the American audience. It is tempting, though, to hypothesize that the artist had the second verse of Knowles Shaw’s “The Farmer Feeds Us All” in mind:

There’s the President who occupies the chair
Of the nation in the mighty Congress hall.

 In the original 1869 lithograph, the farmer was portrayed as the economic backbone of the nation. Knowles Shaw’s 1874 song, “The Farmer Feeds Us All,” shifted this idea from the theoretical macroeconomic to the specific: the farmer provides food. The 1875 lithograph, by changing the motto from “I Pay for All” to “I Feed You All,” directly follows the song’s reorganization of this idea.

From its publication in 1874 until the 1890s, we can only trace Shaw’s “The Farmer Feeds Us All” through oblique hints, such as its possible influence on the 1875 lithograph. The greater body of evidence shows, though, that during this time it was firmly insinuating itself into the American folk tradition. The song was included in the 1891 edition of Grange Melodies, the official songbook of the Grange.

Since its beginnings the organization had used music in its meetings to lighten the mood between sessions of serious and often dull and dry business. Some of these tunes were adaptations of familiar songs, like “Rally Round the Grange,” based on George Frederick Root’s “Battle Cry of Freedom,” better known as “Rally Round the Flag,” and some were originals. The original songs that became popular in the Grange movement overall quickly became familiar to a very large body of rural Americans, many of them the most influential in their communities.

Given that making music at home was a time honored 19th-century American tradition, it is likely that many “official” Grange tunes moved quickly from the Grange hall and into the parlor, and thus into wider American culture. On January 13, 1891 the local farmer’s institute in La Monte, Missouri, was opened with a singing of “The Farmer Feeds Us All.” Carl Sandburg learned the song from an old-time fiddler who would sing it as the pair washed milk cans on winter afternoons in 1890s Illinois. During this period, the song was not only becoming more popular, but was being transformed by the folk tradition as well.

On November 7, 1923, an Atlanta elevator operator named John Carson entered the Okeh recording studios in New York City to record his version of Shaw’s song, retitled “The Farmer is the Man That Feeds Them All.” Having been invited to New York by the label after initial success with two songs he had recorded for them in Atlanta earlier in the year, this session was one of the earliest experiments in recording and marketing what was later to become known as country music. It is not clear where or when Carson learned the song, but he likely picked it up from other musicians as part of a shared body of folk repertoire that was regularly played at dances and other events. Carson’s version of the tune appears to be a mild parody of Shaw’s original:

While the women uses snuff, and they never get enough,
But the farmer is the man that feeds them all.
And the lawyer, I’ll declare, will tell a lie and swear.
But the farmer is the man that feeds them all.

At first glance, it might appear that this transformation of the song’s verses into lightly humorous ones may have happened outside the sanctified walls of Grange hall meetings, but a look through the 1891 edition of Grange Melodies shows that even in their official songbook Grangers were capable of self-deprecating humor. James L. Orr’s “Because He Joined the Grange” is a comic tale of a Granger not getting the girl he loved simply because her father objects that, “He’ll not amount to anything because he’s joined the Grange.” Its appearance in the official songbook implies that it was sung during lighter moments at official Grange events, so it’s not unimaginable that a playful version of “The Farmer Feeds Us All” could also have arisen within the Grange itself. 

Carson’s rough, unpolished, barnyard version of the song has become a legendary part of the history of early recordings of American vernacular music. Along with his version of “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane,” recorded earlier in 1923, “The Farmer is the Man That Feeds Them All” is often cited as one of the earliest commercial successes in the newly-emerging genre of recorded country music. By the Roosevelt era, Carson had modified the song yet again as a form of mild social protest. In 1934, he recorded a version called “Taxes on the Farmer Feeds Them All” for Victor’s Bluebird label.

In 1930, in Memphis, the duo of Frank Wheeler and Monroe Lamb recorded their rendition of the song. They used Shaw’s original lyrics but slightly modified the title and universalized the song by changing the word “Patrons” in the sixth verse to “farmers.” “The Farmer Feeds Them All” was released on the Victor label in the spring of 1931. Since then the song has become something of a minor standard among folk and old-time musicians. It has been performed and recorded in all its various forms by countless musicians throughout the years. The New Lost City Ramblers recorded Carson’s updated “Taxes on the Farmer Feeds Them All” in 1959, which was revived by Ry Cooder in 1972, and in the early 1990s Pete Seeger released his version of Carson’s take on the original tune on an LP called American Industrial Ballads.

There are still many unanswered questions that warrant further research regarding the creation and transmission of both “The Farmer Feeds Us All” and the associated lithographs, particularly establishing any early formal connections with the Grange. From what we do know, though, the story of “The Farmer Feeds Us All” is a very American one. Its source appears to lie in medieval England, where the original idea of the peasant bearing the economic weight of society upon his shoulders first arose.

The song was crafted by an evangelist who had moved west along with the expanding agrarian population of the country, and written in response to the self-reliant spirit he witnessed there, a spirit embodied in the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, the Grange. It began its journey as a poem published in a small-town newspaper, and ended up a standard of the American folk music canon. The original medieval idea, the three 19th-century lithographs, and Shaw’s “The Farmer Feeds Us All,” are all reflections of a founding principle of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry—“that the products of the soil comprise the basis of all wealth.”

Today, when a folk singer performs the song as a quaint relic of yesteryear, he or she is invoking a simple idea that elevated the farmer’s role from one near the bottom of the societal hierarchy to one crucial to the very existence of the nation. With songs like “The Farmer Feeds Us All” as their rallying cry, farmers took this newfound sense of status and began to organize and exert their political and economic power through fraternal organizations like the Grange. No longer simply manure-stained sons and daughters of the soil living on forgotten, isolated farmsteads, farmers were now, like the archetypal figures at the top of society depicted in the popular lithographs, an economic and political force to be reckoned with.

—Stephen Canner 

Further Reading

For more information on the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, see As Above, So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society, 1850-1930 (Lynne Adele & Bruce Lee Webb, foreword by David Byrne, University of Texas Press, 2015).

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