Gee, But I Want to Go Home
DESCRIPTION: A soldier complains about the coffee ("It's good for cuts and bruises And it tastes like iodine), food, clothes, work, and girls at the service club. Chorus: "I don't want no more of army life. Gee, but I want to go home"
EARLIEST DATE: 1947
KEYWORDS: soldier army hardtimes home
FOUND IN: US
REFERENCES (5 citations):
Lomax-FSUSA 39, "Gee, But I Want to Go Home" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-FSWB, p. 276, "Gee, But I Want To Go Home" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Leslie Shepard, _The Broadside Ballad_, Legacy Books, 1962, 1978, p. 181, "Army Life" (reproduction of a broadside page)
Moses Asch and Alan Lomax, Editors, _The Leadbelly Songbook_, Oak, 1962, p. 66, "Army Life" (1 text)
Pete Seeger, "Gee, But I Want to Go Home" (on PeteSeeger31)
NOTES: Why do I suspect that Oscar Brand had a hand in this song? - PJS
The song is probably a bit older than that, although I wouldn't be surprised if Brand did some rewriting. The major question is the date. Jerry Silverman files it among songs of World War I. He offers no proof. Since at least some versions of the song refer to dollars, we can operate on the assumption that it is American.
The song must be post-Civil War, since it says, "They give you fifty dollars [in pay] and take back 49." But Civil War privates were paid only $13 per month for most of the war; it was raised to $16 in 1864, but never to $50 (Boatner, p. 624). Indeed, this argues for a post-World-War-I date, since privates in that war were paid a dollar a day.
There had been an income tax as early as the Civil War, but it was very small, and one in which the tax was paid after it was earned -- there was no withholding. Withholding did not begin until 1943 (Schlesinger, p. 493). Of course, soldiers had certain amounts withheld for expenses. But extreme form of withholding sounds twentieth century -- probably late twentieth century.
Perhaps the extreme numbers come from the British version in Shepard, which makes the version read "They give you thirty shillings and take back 29." That number might indeed fit the World War I era.
Emsley, p. 197, says that iodine was discovered in 1811; on p. 196, says that it first came to be used as a disinfectant (to use a modern term) in the mid-nineteenth century. But HTIECivilWar, p. 484, does not list it among the contents of a Civil War doctor's medicine kit -- and the high rate of infected wounds, often resulting in death, offers strong evidence that iodine was not used as a disinfectant. Nor is it likely that ordinary soldiers would have known its taste in the 1860s.
The song also refers to "service clubs." I've never heard of such a thing in the Civil War era, when even the nurses were mostly male. There were a few more in World War I, but even then, they mostly stayed at home. In World War II, however, women were everywhere -- and the fighting was often at or near the home front. Soldiers saw more women -- but, it is true, they rarely saw the young and healthy women, who very often worked the civilian jobs the young men had given up.
Thus, it seems nearly impossible that this song originated in the Civil War, or any other nineteenth century war. Much of it seems specific to World War II. But, given that it seems to have been known as early as 1940, the best bet may be that it originated in World War I and was heavily elaborated. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.1
- Boatner: Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary, 1959 (there are many editions of this very popular work; mine is a Knopf hardcover)
- Emsley: John Emsley, Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements, Corrected edition, Oxford, 2003
- HTIECivilWar: Patricia L. Faust, editor, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, Harper & Row, 1986 (I use the 1991 Harper Collins edition)
- Schlesinger: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., editor, The Almanac of American History, revised edition, Putnam, 1993 (I use the 1993 Barnes & Noble edition)
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