Song of the Week
by George M Cohan
You're A Grand Old Flag
You're a high flyin' flag
And forever in peace may you wave…
My town band's repertory for the Fourth of July parade doesn't change much year to year and "You're A Grand Old Flag" is a staple. It's 130 years younger than the republic, but it seems to speak to a mid-to-late 19th century patriotic sensibility, the era when Old Glory and Uncle Sam and the Glorious Fourth established themselves as part of the seasonal iconography. The song was first performed in public at the Herald Square Theatre in New York on February 6th 1906, the first night of George M Cohan's Broadway musical George Washington, Jr. In the course of the number, he took a flag and, head cocked to one side, marched it back and forth across the stage, a routine the crowd loved so much he repeated it – to one tune or another – in many subsequent shows (and, via James Cagney, in his smash hit biopic). But this song was special. Cohan saw himself as the embodiment of the American spirit. His previous red, white and blue blockbuster, from 1904, was more or less a valentine to himself:
I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy
Yankee Doodle do or die
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam
Born on the Fourth of July…
Close enough. According to the birth certificate he was born on the third of July, 1878, though John McCabe, his biographer, made a strong case that the lyric is in fact more accurate than the vital statistics office of Providence, Rhode Island. He was in show business all his life, ever since the night his dad carried him on stage for a scene in a vaudeville skit called "The Two Dans". The family act soon expanded to "The Four Cohans" – dad Jerry, mom Helen (known as Nellie), sister Josie, and George. My old – very old – friend George Abbott told me once about seeing their show in Wyoming in the 1890s, and remembered George M Cohan doing his signature sign-off: "My father thanks you, my mother thanks you, my sister thanks you …and I thank you." That's when young Abbott decided he wanted to go into showbusiness, too. By 1906, Cohan was the first self-contained star of the American stage – actor, singer, dancer, producer, director, author, play doctor, composer, lyricist. The scholars are a bit snooty about his musical contributions but he was the first American theatre composer to find a real unity of text and music. He wrote big fat words that bounced off bright clean notes at the dawn of the new century and have remained in our collective memory ever since:
Give My Regards To Broadway
Remember me to Herald Square
Tell all the gang at Forty-Second Street
That I will soon be there…
"You're A Grand Old Flag" started with a conversation – an old man to whom Cohan gave a ride one day in what was then an unusual sight on a country road: an automobile. Throughout the journey, the old-timer clutched a meticulously folded piece of cloth and began to reminisce about his Civil War days. He'd been at Gettysburg, carrying the flag at Pickett's charge, and at the end of his recollection he unfolded the tattered piece of material and revealed it to be the Stars and Stripes. "It was all for this," the stooped veteran told his celebrity traveling companion. "She's a grand old rag." Like any good songwriter Cohan banked the line. Usually, he wrote his plays first and then fitted the songs in. But, in this instance, he started with the veteran, the anecdote, the song idea, and then fashioned the play around it. George Washington, Jr told a somewhat improbable story about a snooty anglomaniac Senator (played by Jerry Cohan) who wants his son George to marry Lord Rothburt's daughter. George is in love with a nice American girl (Ethel Levey, the then Mrs George M Cohan) and is so disgusted by his father's un-American behavior that he announces that henceforth the only father he has is the father of his country and so changes his name to George Washington, Jr. There were plenty of Cohan jokes: Someone tells the story about Washington tossing a silver dollar across the Potomac to which someone else points out that that's a pretty wide river to throw a coin across. "Well," says the first fellow, "a dollar went a lot further then." That joke'd get a bigger laugh today. To Ethel went one of those maddeningly insistent Cohan songs:
I Was Born in Virgin-YUH!
That's the state sure to win-YUH!
But the night belonged to the recreation of that scene with the man from the rural Grand Army of the Republic post. A Civil War veteran shows George a tattered old banner and, as everyone admires it, says, "It's a grand old rag." And off Cohan goes with a rousing patriotic march:
You're A Grand Old Rag
You're a high-flyin' flag…
The crowd went crazy, most roaring their approval, many moved to tears. Cohan went to bed that night convinced he had his biggest hit since "Give My Regards To Broadway" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy". The next morning he woke up to a problem. Some gentlemen of the press and several patriotic groups thought he was being disrespectful in referring to Old Glory as a "rag". Fearing demonstrations and audiences booing the song off the stage, he acted quickly. He loved the Civil War veteran's affectionate word and he tried to keep it:
You're A Grand Old Flag
Though you're torn to a rag…
But Cohan was a businessman first and knew when he was beaten. He dropped the rhyme and settled for repetition (or, technically, an "identity"):
You're A Grand Old Flag
You're a high-flyin' flag…
The sheet music was already in New York stores. But he had the new version printed up and went around town snaffling up all the "Grand Old Rag" copies and burning them. (I believe there are six very valuable survivors still in existence today.) But the great tenor Billy Murray, the biggest record seller of the day (he had 169 chart hits between 1903 and 1927), had already cut his version of the song under the title "The Grand Old Rag". The allegedly offensive term didn't stop it going to Number One for ten weeks in May, June and July of 1906, and, indeed, it was the biggest selling recording of RCA Victor's first decade. Arthur Pryor's Band and other performers stuck to the new title and, under that name, it became the first American showtune to sell a million copies of sheet music.
Regardless of whether it's offensive, "rag" is a much weaker word than "flag" – the "r-" gets kinda swallowed, the "fl-" is much more forceful on the note. And after that it's plain sailing all the way:
You're the emblem of
The land I love
The home of the free and the brave…
Was it played in Fourth of July parades in 1906? I don't know, but it was certainly making a splash on Independence Day that year. James Metcalfe, the drama critic of Life magazine, had given George Washington, Jr a blistering review. Mr Metcalfe didn't care for the score:
These combinations of music are curious things, consisting mainly of several bars of well-known patriotic or sentimental songs strung together with connecting links of lively and more or less original musical trash.
That's a reference to Cohan's habit of musical quotation. In "Grand Old Flag", it's a line from "Auld Lang Syne":
Ev'ry heart beats true
'Neath the Red, White and Blue
Where there's never a boast or brag
But should auld acquaintance be forgot
Keep your eye on the grand old flag!
I sort of know what Metcalfe's getting at there. But he then lets his review wander into all kinds of other areas, including a bizarre aspersion on Cohan's moniker:
One curious feature of his career is that his real name is said on good authority to be Costigan. It is not unusual for a Hebrew to exchange a patronymic which betrays his race for one which will conceal it, but for anyone bearing a good old mouth-filling Irish name as Costigan for a distinctively Hebrew appellation is strange indeed. However, Mr. Cohan is very shrewd in a business way and, considering present conditions in the theater in America, he was perhaps wise in his choice.
Ah, yes. Like Abraham Lincoln, who was born Fred Lincoln but changed it to something more Hebrew in order to placate the neocon lobby.
So how did George M Cohan spend Independence Day 105 years ago? Well, the cocky little Irish scrapper bashed out a riposte to Mr Metcalfe and published it in The Spot Light on July 4th 1906:
I write my own songs because I write better songs than anyone else I know of. I publish these songs because they bring greater royalties than any other class of music sold in this country. I write my own plays because I have not yet seen or read plays from the pens of other authors that seem as good as the plays I write. I produce my own plays because I think I'm as good a theatrical manager as any other man in this line. I dance because I know I'm the best dancer in the country. I sing because I can sing my own songs better than any other man on the stage… I play leading parts in most of my plays because I think I'm the best actor available. I pay myself the biggest salary ever paid a song and dance comedian because I know I deserve it.
But believe me, kind reader, when I say, I am not an egotist.
He was having a grand old raggin' of James Metcalfe, but for the most part he wasn't wrong. George M Cohan, the Yankee Doodle Boy born on the Fourth of July. "You're A Grand Old Flag", a song born for the Fourth of July and for over a century a staple of millions of patriotic parades from Maine to Hawaii.