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You're Still a Grand Old Flag

Jun 28, 2008
George M. Cohan's encounter with a Civil War veteran inspired a song that became a Broadway hit. From there it became a household name.

That song was, and is, "You're a Grand Old Flag". This song celebrates Old Glory and all that it stands for. The song is a patriotic march with a catchy lilt and equally catchy lyrics. It certainly is a summer concert-in-the park favorite.

George Cohan found himself next to a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg one day. He noticed the man had a neatly- folded American flag in his hands but that it was ragged looking. This man said to Cohan, "She's a grand old rag."

This triggered an idea for a song in Cohan's head and he wrote one using this line. There was consternation from people over the term 'rag'. Many felt it was an insult to the Stars and Stripes and they wanted that word removed from the lyrics. Cohan did just that, changing the word to 'flag,' and the rest is American musical history.

Cohan wrote the tune in 1906 for his stage production 'George Washington Jr.' The play, and the song, premiered on February 6, 1906 at the Herald Square Theater in New York City. The story starred Cohan, who played a U.S. Senator's son who desires a simple girl from the southern United States. His father has different aims - wanting his son to link up with an English woman of prominence. The story is their battle to achieve two different goals.

The play and the song 'You're a Grand Old Flag' were a huge success. From Broadway it subsequently moved into America's living rooms over the years because of record and sheet music sales. In fact, this was the first song from a stage musical to sell over a million sheet music copies.

You're a Grand Old Flag became a staple at the family piano and was played across the country. The tune is bright and positive. It evokes feelings of national pride, and one cannot help being uplifted upon hearing it.

George M. Cohan was born in 1878 in Providence, Rhode Island. His parents were Vaudeville performers who continually toured the country. George traveled with them, along with his older sister Josephine. He honed his show business skills as a member of the Four Cohans -- this mother-father-sister-brother act. They kept up a hellish tour schedule with the B.F.Keith Circuit and belted out four to six performances a day. This paved the way for the big time for Cohan, the dues-paying years teaching him much.

Eventually Cohan became a prolific Tin Pan Alley tunesmith and penned many popular songs. Others included "Life's A Funny Proposition After All," "I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune," and "Over There."
His influence was so great he earned the moniker "The Man Who Owned Broadway." Along with that he is known as the father of American musical comedy.

Cohan was not only a songwriter. He wore these hats as well in his career:

* Playwright
* Composer
* Actor
* Singer
* Dancer
* Director
* Librettist
* Producer

His influence and popularity as a true American entertainer resulted in a film about his life. This film was Yankee Doodle Dandy, which portrayed his rise from his Vaudeville days to his Broadway success.

Today, Broadway and its tunes may be a whole lot different from Cohan's time. They still owe a debt of gratitude, however, to this eminent American songwriter and his stage musicals.

Songs like "You're a Grand Old Flag" still speak today to people who are thankful of and appreciate the opportunity America offers.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the free newsletter
"Exciting Piano Chords & Progressions!"
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