From a song by Woody Guthrie:

Well, a curly-headed girl with a bright shining smile
Heard the roar of a plane as it sailed through the sky
To her playmates she said, with a bright twinkling eye
My Daddy flies that ship in the sky

My Daddy flies that ship in the sky
My Daddy flies that ship in the sky
My Mama's not afraid and neither am I
'Cause my Daddy flies that ship in the sky

Then a button-nosed kid, as he kicked up his heels
He said, My Daddy works in the iron and the steel
My Dad builds the planes and they fly through the sky
And that's what keeps your daddy up there so high

The bolded phrase was very hard for me to imagine. What did the boy actually do?

I found this definition for "kick up one's heels":

to do things that you enjoy:
After final exams we kicked up our heels and had a really good party.

This meaning clearly fails to fit the song.

I then googled for images. Is this "kicking up of heels" similar to this (as if dancing)?

enter image description here

Or to this:

enter image description here

Or he could have been "kicking up his heels" in any of the possible ways, and we should imagine it ourselves?

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    Can I just say? I love this question just for all its fun imagery especially the kid literally kicking up his heel :D. – Teacher KSHuang Dec 23 '16 at 16:47

Kick up one's heels doesn't designate any specific motion—it evokes an image of dancing so exuberantly that both one's heels are frequently off the ground at once.

I imagine Guthrie chose this phrase more for the rhyme with steel than as a literal descriptor. Like the little girl's "bright twinkling eye", it just conveys the happiness and pride the boy takes in his father's work.

  • 1
    Ah, so the boy was dancing or making some dancing movements. Up until today, I thought that he only put one of the heels up and held it by the hand, and after awhile put another of the heels up and held it by the hand. Bending one's leg and holding the heel behind his back, like children do sometimes (standing on one leg only). like this – CowperKettle Dec 23 '16 at 14:15
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    @CowperKettle This is probably closer to what the image evokes. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 23 '16 at 14:19
  • It could just imply that he was being contrary, for the fun of it. – Mick Dec 23 '16 at 14:21
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    I think that it's more figurative, than literal. Jumping for joy comes to mind as an equivalent expression. – Vekzhivi Dec 23 '16 at 14:35
  • @Vekzhivi Exactly. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 23 '16 at 14:41

Kick one's heels up

to act frisky; to be lively and have fun. (Somewhat literal when said of hoofed animals.) From thefreedictionary.com The boy isn't doing anything special, he is just lively.

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