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Born On The Fourth of July

This year marks 247 years since the United States of America declared itself an independent nation, no longer under the rule of King George III of Great Britain. With the ratification of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the United States began its incredible journey as the greatest nation on Earth.

Just like in years past, this July 4th holiday will be celebrated with parades, barbecues, fireworks, and concerts filled with patriotic songs.

This time of year often reminds me of a great American: George M. Cohan, an actor, playwright, composer, director, and performer who is most famous today for his patriotic songs and contributions to musical theater.

George was born the day before Independence Day on July 3rd (though he and his family always insisted that he had been born on the Fourth of July) in Providence, Rhode Island, to Irish American parents who were traveling vaudeville performers.

By age nine, George became a member of his parents’ traveling act and by age 13, wrote songs and lyrics for the act. When he began directing The Four Cohans (his older sister being the fourth member) in his late teens, it is reported the family was such an attraction that they were earning up to $1,000 a week. That would be in excess of $30,000 a week today.

Not long after, George turned his sights on Broadway. By 1904, George had a hit on his hands with the musical Little Johnny Jones, about the life of an American jockey who rides a horse named Yankee Doodle in the English Derby. One of the play’s song, “The Yankee Doodle Boy”, also known as “(I’m a) Yankee Doodle Dandy,” is one of Cohan’s most famous. Most recall the lyrics:

I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,
A Yankee Doodle, do or die;
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam,
Born on the Fourth of July.

In 2004, the American Film Institute raked the song at No. 71 on its 100 Years…100 Songs list.

The play also included the popular song “Give My Regards to Broadway,” which has since been recorded by many artists, including Patti LuPone, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby.  The song’s most famous lyrics include:

Give my regards to Broadway, remember me to Herald Square,
Tell all the gang at Forty-Second Street, that I will soon be there;
Whisper of how I’m yearning to mingle with the old time throng;
Give my regards to old Broadway and say that I’ll be there ere long.

Two years later, in 1906, George wrote and produced the musical George Washington, Jr., in which he marched up and down the stage with an American flag singing his song “You’re a Grand Ole Flag.”

“You’re a Grand Ole Flag” has since become one of the most popular marching band songs of all time and became the first song from a musical to sell over a million copies of sheet music.

Years later, when the United States was fighting in World War I, Cohan was inspired to write the song “Over There,” by a bugle call.

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.

The patriotic song was a signal that the U.S. had decided they would be involved in world affairs. “Over There” became hugely popular during both World War I and II.

George received a Congressional Gold Medal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the song, the first person in any artistic field to be selected for the honor by Congress.

George passed away in 1942, the same year Yankee Doodle Dandy, a musical biopic about his life, would come out. Actor James Cagney starred as Cohan in the biopic and went on to win an Oscar for Best Actor for the role. A few years later, in 1968, the musical George M!, based on Cohan’s life, became a hit on Broadway.

In all, he created and produced over 50 Broadway shows and wrote over 300 songs during his life. George’s statue, the only public statue of a theater performer in all of Manhattan, has stood for decades at the center of Times Square

His many patriotic songs will, no doubt, be played this Independence Day, as we celebrate the birth of this great nation. If you are unfamiliar with George Cohan’s work, I highly suggest you take time to listen to a few of his songs this Fourth of July.

– Congressman Morgan Griffith

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