On Independence Day: George M. Cohan, the Yankee Doodle Boy

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George M. Cohan, the son of Irish immigrants – often described as the man who owned Broadway – dominated American theater from 1901 until 1940.

During that four-decade period, the man born on the Fourth of July produced 80 Broadway shows and wrote more than 1,000 songs. Although Cohan liked to describe himself as “just a song and dance man,” he was a skilled actor, playwright and a director who once advised Spencer Tracy: “Spencer, you have to act less,” counsel that guided the great screen actor to his many understated performances.

Cohan got his start as one of the four Cohans, a late 19th century vaudeville act that included his father Jere, mother Nellie, George’s sister Josie and George. First carried onto the stage when he was four months old, in 1900 George and his family left hometown Providence, R.I., and headed for Broadway’s bright lights.

Soon after, Cohan met Sam Harris, who became George’s friend and partner. For decades, the team paired up for dozens of unqualified stage successes, the first of which, Little Johnny Jones, came in 1904. The play opened in Hartford, Conn., where, upon hearing Cohan sing the words:

“I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy

A Yankee Doodle do or die

A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam’s

Born on the Fourth of July.”

The electrified audience jumped out of their seats, applauding feverishly. The patriotically stirring, flag-waving tune reflected Cohan’s unflinching devotion to his country. Cohan had three loves: his family, the theater and the United States.

In 1905, in his play “George Washington, Jr.,” Cohan wrote another American tribute, “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Sitting next to a Civil War veteran who had been active during Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, Pa., Cohan listened as the old man, who tenderly stroked the U.S. flag he held in his lap, said, “She’s a grand old rag.”

Recalling the veteran’s words, Cohan originally named his song “Grand Old Rag.” But listeners, not knowing the backstory, objected, so he changed the title. In his lyrics, however, Cohan kept the reference intact:

“You’re a grand old rag, 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.”

At World War I’s outbreak, Cohan penned another patriotic song, “Over There,” the era’s most popular tune:

“Over there, over there

Send the word, send the word over there,

That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming

The drums rum-tumming everywhere.”

In 1936, Congress awarded Cohan the Congressional Gold Medal, not only because of his songwriting and acting talent, but also because his work instilled in Americans’ hearts a loyal and patriotic spirit and projected the grandeur that the U.S. represented to people around the world.

Six years later, in 1942, Jimmy Cagney portrayed Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a role that earned him an Oscar for Best Actor.

The same year, surrounded by friends and family at his home, Cohan lost his battle with intestinal cancer. Cohan’s funeral, a Solemn Requiem Mass attended by thousands, was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. For the first time in St. Patrick’s history, the organist played a secular song. In a slow, soft funeral march tempo, “Over There” overwhelmed mourners who sobbed uncontrollably. The funeral procession up Fifth Avenue proceeded to the Bronx where Cohan was laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery with his mother, father and sister.

The burial marked the last stop in the Four Cohans’ journey.

Toward the end of Cohan’s life, long-time friend George Buck reminded him that no one had ever matched George’s theatrical triumphs. “Doesn’t that make you proud?” Buck asked. Cohan replied: “No complaints, kid. No complaints.” His daughter Mary, at his bedside, said that she was certain that George M. died a happy man, a fitting final act for an artist who delighted so many for so long.

Copyright 2023 Joe Guzzardi, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joe Guzzardi is a nationally syndicated columnist. Contact him at [email protected].

Joe Guzzardi writes for the Washington, D.C.-based Progressives for Immigration Reform. A newspaper columnist for 30 years, Joe writes about immigration and related social issues.