As the U.S. into a three-day weekend of one of its most important holidays—Independence Day (aka the Fourth of July), I want to pay tribute to a memorial man who blended his Irish cultural heritage with a love of his American identity. Songwriter and showman, George M. Cohan wrote so many songs and plays that it is impossible to succinctly say he’s known for this song or that one. There is one song, however, that is particularly associated with him, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The song comes from his autobiographical play, Little Johnny Jones. In it, he sings,
“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.”
Actually, he was born on the 3rd of July, 1878, in Providence, Rhode Island, to Jeremiah and Helen (Nelly) Cohan. His grandparents had immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland. After arriving in the U.S., the family surname, O’Caomhan, got changed to Cohan.
George’s parents became performers in vaudeville and brought George onstage as an infant, using him as a prop. He made his official stage debut, playing the violin, at the age of eight. He grew up on the stage and traveling the vaudeville circuit with his parents and sister, developing into a song and dance man. They were billed as The Four Cohans.
By the age of fifteen, he was writing sketches and songs. At the age of twenty-three, his first full-length play on the “legitimate” stage opened in New York. During his lifetime, he would go on to write more than three dozen Broadway musicals and over 300 songs. He would become known as “the man who owned Broadway." Cohan also was an early member of the now famous American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, better known as ASCAP.
Cohan’s plays, musicals, and songs displayed his love of his family’s Irish roots. Some of these plays are Little Nellie Kelly, The Rise of Rosie O’Reilly, and Molly Malone. These admittedly leaned towards and contributed to an early twentieth-century American tendency toward a sentimental portrait of Irishness. This is true, as well, of his famous song, “Harrigan,” which both rejoices in his Irish identity while reinforcing American stereotypical images of the Irish character.
As much as he cherished his Irish ancestry, Cohan took great pride in being an American. He wrote a catalogue of patriotic songs. Some of the most famous are “Over There,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and, of course, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” In 1940, the U.S. Congress awarded him a special medal for his World War I song, “Over There,” which addresses the idea of American soldiers going “over there” to Europe to help the allies (and, from the song’s perspective, save the day). The song was revived in 1941 when Americans went back to Europe to fight with the allies in World War II. The song reassures the allies and warns the enemies that “The Yanks are Comin’… and “we won’t be back ‘til it’s over over there.”
Shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, on November 5, 1942, George M. Cohan died of cancer. But his legacy as one of America’s greatest showmen and songwriters lives on.
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Slan go foil!