Songs Sung Red, White & Blue
The Stories Behind America's Greatest Patroitic Songs!
After September 11, 2001, there was great call to hear patriotic songs again. I enjoyed researching this book and presenting the stories behind compositions that have moved us during this nation's highest and lowest points, Just doing the work on this renewed my sense of awe in this nation and enlarged my sense of history. I had so many choices for a preview chapter but I think the story behind this classic might just surprise you. Imagine this song once was booed off a stage by an audience that didn't understand the patriotic spirit in "You're A Grand Old Flag."
You're A Grand Old Flag
You're a grand old flag,
You're a high flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of, the land I love,
The home of the free and the brave.
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.
Fame had come early and easily to George M. Cohan. In 1900, he was emerging as the star of a family traveling music ensemble known as The Four Cohans. Literally having been born into the business, on stage by the time he was walking, he was a theater natural. Even though he received no formal education, by his teens Cohan was writing and selling songs, organizing shows and working with newspapers on publicity. At twenty, Cohan moved to center stage, he was not just the star of the show, but he had replaced his father as manager as well. With George in command, The Four Cohans were playing the best theaters from coast to coast and commanding as much as $1000.00 per week. This was an astounding sum considering that most common laborers made less than a dollar a day.
Cohan, who rubbed many people the wrong way, often pointed to his Irish genes as the reason he was opinionated, brash and arrogant. Yet most thought it was just George being George. He knew he was talented and spent a portion of every day selling that fact to others. It was probably his salesmanship and talent working in tandem that helped make the Cohan family headliners. Yet even though things were running smoothly and continued success seemed assured, George sensed that times were changing and the act had to as well. With this in mind he began to look and work toward the time when he would be the whole show.
In 1901, Cohan wrote and starred in his first real musical play, The Governor's Son. It failed at the box office. Two years later he penned another full length musical, Running For Office. Again his politically inspired effort failed to draw a crowd. Cohan would have probably been forced back on the road if he hadn’t teamed with businessman Sam Harris. Cohan and Harris combined talent with pragmatism and ended up with the Broadway hit Little Johnny Jones.
In 1905, George M. Cohan was on top of the world riding the success of Little Johnny Jones, and its two hit songs "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Even thought the singer/writer was quickly becoming one of the hottest commodities on the New York Stage, Cohan realized that while he might have a major hit under his belt, a performer was only as good as his latest play. Therefore he had to come up with a follow up act. He found his inspiration in a very unexpected place, lifted from the words of a very unusual man.
Cohan’s first Broadway success allowed him give up horse drawn carriages and become a part of the motoring generation. Over the remainder of his life, his love of cars would lead to his owning scores of them in every color and style. He was riding in one of his first automobiles one day when he spotted an elderly man walking along the road. The star ordered his driver to stop. Cohan then inquired if the man would like a ride.
By looking at his clothes, Cohan realized that the man was obviously not well to do. He also figured that this was probably the first time the old gentleman had ever been given the opportunity to ride in a car. Though neither man considered it at that moment, this was really a unique meeting of generations, a person from a past period of rural American pioneering and the young energetic writer who couldn’t wait to see what tomorrow had to offer.
Cohan was used to being the center of attention on stage and off and usually dominated every conversation. He often spoke so fast that his words came out like bullets from a machine gun. Yet this time the songsmith listened rather than talked. What he heard would impact not just his own life by inspiring his second Broadway hit, but bring something very special to the fabric of American life as well.
Cohan, seemingly fascinated by his guest, studied him carefully. He looked just like another grandfather type except for one peculiar quirk. As he rode down the highway, the gray-headed man, his body bent, his skin wrinkled, held a tattered old piece of multicolored cloth in his hands. The man’s hand never stopped moving, continually petting the rag as if were a favorite pet. After a while, as he grew used to watching the world race by at almost ten miles an hour, the old man began to talk. Over the next few minutes Cohan was only mildly surprised to discover that his guest had fought in the Civil War. The man was proud of that fact too. His stories clearly showed that he clung to his past in the Grand Army of the Republic like a child clutched a favorite toy. In a voice weakened by time, he told the "Toast of Broadway" many tales, including one that centered on the battle of Gettysburg. That was the day that, as a much younger man, he had charged the Confederate forces with the famed General Pickett. The veteran then pridefully shared with Cohan that he had been the flag bearer. As others around him fell to the ground, injured or dead, as the banner he held high was shot by hundreds of rounds of lead balls, and as the battle slowly turned in the Union’s favor, the young man was shaken to the core. How he had survived he didn’t know. He heard scores of bullets fly passed his head on several occasions. Yet to him surviving was not as important as was the fact he had never dropped the American flag. He had held the country’s banner high throughout the entire battle.
As he finished his story, Cohan watched the man continue to gently pat the carefully folded ragged pieced of cloth that sat in his lap. "It was all for this," the old vet sighed. "She’s a grand old rag, Mr. Cohan. Yes, she’s a grand old rag." It was only then that the songwriter realized that the cloth the man held so carefully was not just a piece of material from an old shirt or coat, it was the flag that he had carried but never dropped during Pickett’s charge.
Cohan had always and would so in the future write his plays before he composed the music to put with his stories. Yet the image of the man in the car would not leave him alone, thus forcing him to reserve his normal creative process. Within hours of having stopped to offer the old man a ride, the composer scribbled down his initial concept — a number based on the old man’s experience and his genuine love of country. Once he finished the song, he then went to work writing a play that could frame and spotlight this new composition. The resulting musical was named after a fictitious relative of the "Father of the Country."
George Washington Jr. was not just another Cohan comedy, it was in fact a "who dun it" musical comedy. This minor detective yarn also managed to do what George knew best, embrace patriotism and the American Dream. Best of all it was very funny. At one point one of the actors tells the story about George Washington tossing a silver dollar across the Potomac River. When another actor comments that the river was very wide and that it would have seemed to have been impossible for even the great general to throw a dollar that far, the first character replies, "A dollar when a lot further then." Cohan’s vaudeville background served this project well, as jokes like that continued throughout the whole play.
Yet the highlight of this musical was not the humor or the who dun it plot, it was the moment when an actor costumed as a Civil War veteran handed Cohan a tattered battle flag. As everyone looks at the old banner, the old man says, "It’s a grand old rag." Then, as if by magic, Cohan and company launched into the song that had inspired the play.
The audience was not just enthralled, many were moved to tears while others shouted and pumped their fists. Chills ran up and down hundreds of necks and applause sounded from every corner of the theater. It was obvious from the response that Cohan had a winning show on his hands, as well as a song that could follow "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy" on the hit parade charts. He went to bed convinced that he had written and starred in his most successful play yet. Yet he woke up wondering if the musical’s pivotal song wasn’t going to haunt him forever.
The next day several reviewers questioned Cohan’s regard and respect for the American flag. One reporter wrote that Cohan had slandered the nation itself by calling the Stars and Stripes a "rag." The Broadway tunemaster immediately sensed that George Washington Jr. might well be booed off stage if "The Grand Old Rag" created a firestorm of controversy and called into question Cohan’s own love of country. He had to act and act quickly.
That night the play continued, but this time Cohan replaced "rag" with "flag." This revision not only saved his play, but also paved the way for the tune that anchored the Broadway musical becoming something more than just another White Way standard. Bill Murry rushed into the recording studio and cut a solo version of the newest Cohan song. His cut would hit #1 in the nation in January, 1906. Scores of other artists would also record "You’re A Grand Old Flag." The Prince’s Quartet and Arthur Pryor’s Band hit the top ten as well. Within months, thanks to Victrola records and sheet music sales, millions who had never heard of George Washington Jr. knew both the words and the music to "Grand Old Flag." Within a year of the opening of the musical it had inspired, the Cohan tune had become the most recorded and beloved patriotic ode in the country.
Though "You’re a Grand Old Flag" would have remained an important American standard without any help from history, World War I assured this tune’s place as the country’s most upbeat and uplifting patriotic song. Though it is neither maudlin nor deeply sentimental, along with "The Star Spangled Banner," it is simply one of the most beloved songs in American history. This should be hardly surprising considering that it was inspired by a single man’s courage and devotion to his country. Thanks to George M. Cohan, the flag bearer at Pickett’s charge didn’t just carry his flag on the day of the battle at Gettysburg, but his spirit is alive and carrying the Stars and Stripes even today.