A Yankee Doodle Dandy
Special to the Daily
Summit County, CO
Where would we be on the Fourth of July without all of that glorious, glorious music?
I’ve always thought that, without all those rousing patriotic songs and marches, the flags would lose their snap and the firecrackers their sizzle.
Remarkably enough, much of the music we hear on the Fourth of July can be attributed to two men ” both consummate showmen of roughly the same era.
One, of course, was the march king himself, John Phillip Sousa. In creating the great American march sound, Sousa honed in on already existing musical styles, particularly from Central Europe and Germany, where marches were popularly used in opera and operetta. Call it a trick of the tunesmith’s ear, or a tweak in the orchestration, but Sousa was able to reinvent that style to create a uniquely American sound in his marches ” and this, at a time when the American popular song was itself trying to find its own identity.
Enter the other man responsible for all that patriotic music we hear on the Fourth of July ” George M. Cohan.
Cohan’s life is still commemorated every year, thanks to Turner Classic Movie’s showing of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” one of the best of the biopics during Hollywood’s golden years.
Cohan himself lived to see the film, sneaking in (against doctor’s orders) to see a screening at a Manhattan theater, shortly before his death in 1942.
Hidden incognito in a back row, Cohan not only got to see his old pal Jimmy Cagney turn in an Oscar-winning performance; he also got to hear the cheers of the crowd whenever one of his songs was being played. No greater gift can be given to a composer at the end of his life and career.
Cohan, an Irish American composer, dancer, singer and showman, virtually created the style known as the American musical theater.
At the turn of the century, the great triumvirate of successful Broadway composers ” to the light opera/operetta style from their native countries (Herbert was from Ireland, Romberg from Hungary and Friml from Czechoslovakia). The emphasis was on beautiful, romantic music ” and plenty of it.
Cohan came along with a new, brash and energetic sound ” a sound that evolved into the great “show tune” style we recognize today. Tap “One” from “A Chorus Line,” and you’ve got a direct descendant of a George M. Cohan song.
A renowned vaudeville entertainer at the beginning of his career, Cohan provided the missing musical link between vaudeville and early Broadway, creating a natural progression between vaudeville and the American musical theater as we know it today ” not a bad legacy for a song-and-dance-man from the vaudeville circuit.
Consider this: Cohan wrote, among other songs, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards To Broadway,” “Over There” ” all songs I’ll bet you’re familiar with. How many songs written between 1904-1917 are still familiar to most of us ” including the average schoolchild ” today?
My favorite George M. Cohan story concerns the writing of one of his patriotic classics, “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Written in 1906 for a Cohan show called “George Washington, Jr.,” it became the first song written for a Broadway musical to sell more than a million copies of sheet music (this in an era when sheet music sales were equivalent to today’s CD sales).
Cohan claimed that, during an encounter with a Civil War veteran who had fought at Gettysburg, the old soldier had taken out a scrap of flag from the battlefield he carried with him, unfolded it gently and said, “She’s a grand old rag.” Cohan used this as the basis for his new song, “The Grand Old Rag.”
What we do know as fact is that, after this song became popular, patriotic Americans were outraged ” how dare Cohan call the star-spangled banner a “rag”? Cohan immediately changed the words and renamed the song “You’re a Grand Old Flag” ” but not before the song’s most popular recording, by million-selling singer Billy Murray, had already come out.
Murray’s Edison cylinder recording of “The Grand Old Rag” still exists, and I have a CD transfer of it. It’s a fascinating piece of American musical history.
Of course, being Irish, Cohan wasn’t above indulging in a bit of the blarney himself. He always claimed, as in his song “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” that he was born on the Fourth of July. Actually, he was born on the third. That’s what they call poetic license, Broadway-style.
My other favorite story involves not Cohan himself, but the operatic tenor Enrico Caruso. During Liberty Bond concerts given during World War I, Caruso happily agreed to perform ” and eventually record ” Cohan’s rousing 1917 call to action, “Over There.”
But since there is no “y” in the Italian alphabet, Caruso couldn’t get the word “yanks” out properly. After several botched pronunciation attempts in the recording studio, Caruso himself changed the lyrics. In Caruso’s recording, it’s the “boys” who are comin’ over there, not the “yanks.” Few people seemed to notice this alteration, as the record became a best-seller during the war years.
If you want to see Cohan himself in action, a couple of the few surviving clips of him dancing are posted on You Tube. Otherwise, watching Jimmy Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” will give you a pretty close approximation of the magic of Cohan’s dancing style ” as you’ll see, if you compare the real Cohan’s steps to Cagney’s.
Cagney himself studied with one of Cohan’s dancing instructors in order to get that eccentric, wide-stepping look that is a masterpiece of originality ” and distinctly Cohan’s own.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Cagney also sounded a lot like Cohan when he sings.
As a young Broadway performer and hoofer, Cagney had been greatly influenced by Cohan’s work, so he viewed his performance in the movie as an homage to a mentor.
Just seeing Cagney-as-Cohan dance down the steps at the White House, after getting the Congressional Medal of Honor from Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and to this day, Cohan is the only composer to ever receive this honor) will give you a patriotic rush that will last you all day, throughout the Fourth, until the fireworks come out at night.
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