The Music of George M. Cohan.
That Yankee Doodle Boy
This month we look at the music of one of America's greatest songwriters, stage personalities and patriots, George M. Cohan. Cohan and his music are eternally enshrined in America's musical heritage through his melodies as well as images created in one of the greatest biographical musical motion pictures ever made, the wonderful 1942 Yankee Doodle Dandy starring James Cagney and Joan Leslie. Much has been written about Cohan and there are many excellent biographies about him available on the net. Though our intent here is in part to provide his biography, our main purpose is to frame his music in the context of his life.
George Michael Cohan was one of the most flamboyant and talented luminaries of the early American musical stage. Extremely blessed with skills in many dimensions, he was an actor, singer, dancer, songwriter, playwright and producer. A fiercely patriotic man, he always claimed that he was born on the fourth of July yet his birth certificate clearly states July 3, 1878. His parents Helen and Jeremiah were vaudevillians who literally lived out of a trunk and for the most part never had a home other than seedy hotels and boarding houses on the circuit. George and his sister Josephine were carried along on this nomadic existence and were integrated into the act as soon as they were able to. In George's case, he made his debut as an infant when his parents used him as a prop in one of their sketches. By age nine, George was a performing part of the family act, performing in The Two Barneys in 1887. The following year sister Josephine was integrated into the act and the group became known as "The Four Cohans." From this early beginning, he soon developed into an accomplished dancer and actor and by eleven even started to write material for the act. It is said that by thirteen he was already writing songs. In 1881, Tony Pastor, one of Tin Pan Alley's seminal promoters opened a theater on 14th street in New York. Not long afterward, the Four Cohan's were featured at the Theater as evidenced by the above early photo of Pastor's theater entrance featuring a bill advertising the Cohans. In his 1934 book They All Sang, Edward B. Marks mentions a first encounter with Cohan at about this time mentioning that Cohan had written a song for a production to be sung by the Tenor Allan May. According to Marks, May brought the song to him and told him that the song was "no good" and he would not perform it. Fortunately for Cohan, that may have been the last of his songs viewed in that manner. Marks failed to name the title of the song so Cohan's first flop is unknown, perhaps as it should be.
In 1894, Cohan's first song was published by a major publishing house, Whitmark purchased Why Did Nellie Come Home for $25 and the publication of the song signaled a new level of Cohan's song writing career. It was not long before others took notice of his talent. That same year Venus My Shining Love was published under his name featuring Harry Leighton on the cover. Leighton himself was the composer of many songs and was an English performer, later knighted. The song is typical for the period, being quite Victorian in it's sentiments and quite honestly, not particularly forward looking or unique in its musical construct. It is however an important example of Cohan's early work with Spaulding & Gray. That said, originally when I wrote this article, I speculated that it was possible that Cohan did not actually write this song; he may have only arranged it. In 1893 Billy Gray, a boxer, comedian and songwriter started a song publishing house with George Spaulding. That same year they hired "a skinny New England Irish lad who parted his hair in the middle à la Terry McGovern and danced with the leg drive of a line plunging halfback. The kid was known as Georgie Cohan."1. Spaulding and Gray imported many English songs and published them here. Cohan's job was to "Americanize" the lyrics of these songs and according to Edward B. Marks, Venus My Shining Star may have been one of those imported songs.
I went on to say that "It is unclear as to whether or not this song was indeed a Cohan original or an imported song. However, the fact that the sheet music cover shows Sir Harry Leighton, an important English performer as the featured performer and that the music also carries an imprimatur for Howard & Company, London points to this song more likely being an import reworked by Cohan rather than a Cohan original. My conclusion is that it is not a Cohan original." It turns out that though my premise was plausible, I was quite wrong about this song. I later heard from a Broadway producer who is an authority on Cohan and his music, Chip Deffa. Chip informed me that
"Cohan said he never wrote a better song than "Venus...," that it was a personal favorite among all of the songs he'd written. And he kept it in print as long as he lived. He made no boners about the fact that he started his professional songwriting career by Americanizing British songs. For example, the British song "What Could the Poor Girl Do?" was pblished in America with both the original English lyrics and the additional lyrics written by Cohan. And both the British and the American songwriters were credited. "Venus..." was credited solely to Cohan. If it was his Americanization of a British song by Harry Leighton, as you speculated, why wouldn't Leighton (who was then a bigger name than Cohan) have been given some credit for authorship? If he'd written andf performed the song, why wd he accept having sole authorship credited to Cohan?"I'm indebted to Chip for this clarification and urge any of you who are in New York to attend any of his plays that are on Broadway at the time. Chip is the author of the play, "George M. Cohan: In his Own Words," which was tried out in NYC in 2002, and which Samuel French Inc. has just published. His latest work is "The George M. Cohan Revue" (which Chip wrote and directed) running at Danny's Skylight Room in NYC. It includes about 40 Cohan songs Back to Venus, the song is a relatively simple yet melodic waltz that is very reminiscent of Charles Harris' After The Ball (Scorch format) which was published two years earlier. I've been unable to unearth an English copy of the song attributing any other songwriter but is is very possible Leighton was the original writer. Listen to it and compare it to other Cohan works and decide for yourself. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi and see the Lyrics .
Not long after after the success of his 1894 songs, Cohan made another breakthrough by selling a song to May Irwin, one of vaudeville's biggest stars. In 1895 Irwin purchased Hot Tamale Alley from Cohan and used it in her popular stage show. By 1897, Cohan was becoming well known and his songs all seemed to become successful just by virtue of his name being attached to them. In 1897, Cohan published The Warmest Baby In The Bunch which was a moderately successful hit in the popular "coon song" genre which was all the rage by this time. The box at the lower left of the sheet music cover titles it as an "Ethiopian Ditty" a common descriptor attached to many coon songs of the era. As we've commented in our article about coon songs (linked above), much of the music and lyrics of coon songs were based on stereotype and ignorance of African American culture and the origins of many African Americans. Ethiopia was in the news so became the standard of origin for blacks in America by uninformed whites.
The music and lyrics of this song seem much more suited to Cohan's style. Although he soon abandoned the coon song genre, the music has much of the good humor that characterizes much of his later music. The lyrics are funny and tell a cute story in spite of some exceptionally painful words and stereotypes that were perfectly acceptable then but certainly not today. The song though does not somehow seem to fit with our image of Cohan and it's well and good that he wrote few more songs in this style. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi and see the Lyrics .
According to Isadore Whitmark's autobiography, From Ragtime To Swingtime, George M. Cohan developed his lifelong personality early in his career and Whitmark said he was "a self opinionated youngster with implicit faith in his gifts." Ewen called him "brash, self assured and cocky." Interestingly, the film biography's depiction of Cohan is right in line with those descriptions. An important part of Cohan's output of popular songs came from the many stage shows he wrote. As the Four Cohan's became increasingly popular, George took on more and more of the responsibilities for the act including control of the sketches, songs and management of the troupe's affairs. At that same time he began selling music and sketches to other performers. In 1899, Cohan married the vaudeville comedienne, Ethel Levy, seen here, who joined the Cohan team for a period until Cohan broke from the family act and went his own way as a writer and producer of Broadway musicals. His first, The Governor's Son in 1901 and his second attempt, Running For Office in 1903 were based on vaudeville sketches and were considered abject failures. As with many things in life, the third time was a charm and Cohan had a smash hit on his hands that generated several separate smash hit songs. The show was Little Johnny Jones which opened on Broadway on November 7, 1904. Of course Cohan was in the lead role as an American Jockey in England. In this show were two of Cohan's most lasting hits, Give my Regards To Broadway (Scorch) and the fantastically inspiring, The Yankee Doodle Boy. Anyone who has seen the film biography of Cohan must surely remember the film version of Cohan's performance by an incredibly talented James Cagney strutting around the stage as Cohan must have and dancing that inimitable stiff legged progenitor of the moonwalk that Cagney did so well. The music to this song is infectious and one of those songs that will stick in your mind till you want to scream. The words are even better and my guess is that there are few people born before 1950 who cannot sing this song, or at least the chorus from memory. What is amazing about Cohan and his music is that he managed to create song after song of this intensity and quality for most of his career. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi there are no Lyrics for this work.
Though the next few years would result in a series of Broadway musical productions that spawned numerous songs, Cohan did not neglect other options. In 1905 he wrote one of his few marches without lyrics The Irish American. Though Cohan was an American patriot through and through, he still revered his Irish heritage and of course that comes through time and again in his music and stage productions. This work is little known though despite the fact that his songs have always held prominence in our consciousness and our association with Cohan as a composer. The work is exceptionally good in my opinion. He uses a number of "Irish" melodic conventions in the course of the work, the most notable and entertaining being the central 6/8 passage that is quite Irish in it's tone and style. The work starts with a short introduction and immediately moves into a jig that repeats and then segues into a more martial variation of the original theme. A short passage in 6/8 takes us into an Irish theme that is universally recognizable as such. The work moves back into a speedy 2/4 section that restates some of the themes and ends rather abruptly after the martial theme and a snippet of the opening jig. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (Printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi there are no lyrics for this work.
Soon after the success of Little Johnny Jones, Cohan had yet another smash hit, Forty-five Minutes From Broadway which generated yet more popular song hits such as the sentimental Mary's A Grand Old Name and So Long Mary. The show premiered on January 1, 1906 at the New Amsterdam Theater and featured Fay Templeton and Victor Moore. In an unusual gesture, Cohan left the performance of his new songs to others in the cast and took on the role of producer rather than performer. However, the ham in him came forward when the show was revived in 1912 and he assumed the staring role. That same year he also produced George Washington Jr. and starred in it as well so his sideline activity was short lived it seems. The music begins with a verse that makes liberal use of dotted rhythms and then moves into a broad and bold chorus. The scene takes place at a train station where the Mary, the lead role persona, is about to leave town on her own adventure of discovery. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
As mentioned earlier, in 1906 Cohan produced George Washington Jr. which featured one of his greatest patriotic songs, You're A Grand Old Flag (Scorch). An interesting anecdote related to this song is that Cohan had originally titled it You're a Grand Old Rag and on its introduction several patriotic societies objected to referring to our flag as a "rag." Cohan reacted to the criticism by changing the title to that which we know today. In 1907 Cohan produced The Talk Of The Town and then in 1908, Fifty Miles From Boston, yet another source of Cohan classic songs including the fabulous Irish style song, Harrigan. Again, we have a classic melodic and lyrical combination that is one of America's most remembered and recognizable songs. Who can forget that wonderfully catchy "H-A-Double R-I-G-A-N spells Harrigan?" My bet is that 99% of you sung that line in your mind as you read it, you can't escape it!
Fifty Miles From Boston premiered at the Garrick Theater on February 8, 1908. The cast included Frank Bouman, James H. Bradbury, Charles Cartwell, Master Lores Grimm and Laura Harris. The show ran for only 32 performances despite this blockbuster song being a part of it. Clearly, this was not one of Cohans greatest productions, but the song is priceless. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
In 1907, George and Ethel divorced and ended their professional relationship as well. Later that same year, Cohan married Agnes Nolan, a performer who played a part in Little Johnny Jones. In spite of his personal life's problems and changes, Cohan continued to create hit shows and songs for years after his first successes. In 1908 he also produced The Yankee Prince and The American Idea. In 1909 came a show which featured this song, I'm In Love With One Of The Stars. This song is for most of us, a relatively unknown work by Cohan. Though popular at the time, it has failed to hold a place as one of the great songs from Cohan and has been dismissed to the attics and piano benches of times past. It comes from his 1909 musical, The Man Who Owns Broadway which was one of his many successful shows from this period.
The song is a real delight though. With a snappy introduction and verse that are pure Broadway in their sound. The chorus has a wonderful sound to it with a moving bass line under a really nice tune that definitely sounds a little raggy even without the use of dotted rhythms. The song also has that Victorian period sound to it. Though rarely if ever heard today, it is a Cohan classic and certainly merits a listen to now. The show premiered on October 11, 1909 at the New York Theater and ran for 128 performances. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (Printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
Nineteen-eleven ushered in a new decade and one that would prove to be Cohan's greatest in terms of shows and lasting hit songs. Though Cohan produced over eleven shows in 1911 alone, many of his individual songs continued to become very popular. Among them is this 1911 work, That Haunting Melody. This song appeared in one of Broadway's most acclaimed shows, Vera Violetta starring the great Al Jolson (biography). The show Opened November 5 at the Winter Garden Theater and closed February 14, 1912 after 112 performances. This particular show was not written by Cohan but he did contribute this work to it along with music by several other of the periods greatest songwriters.
None other than Jolson introduced the song in the show and it was recorded by Jolson that same year (1911) on Victor record 17037 with Rum Tum Tiddle, also from Vera Violetta, on the reverse side. The song is a very happy tune that plays on that often experienced "song in the head" affliction that we all face from time to time. The introduction to the song exposes the 10 note, three measure theme and then the verse gives us the initial story. The chorus makes liberal use of the melody to ensure that the listener is just as haunted by the melody and as Jolson professed to be on singing the lyrics. It's an infectious tune and I can clearly see why it was a hit. Jolson's style was clearly considered by Cohan in writing it and as well, the song is reflective of Cohan's optimistic outlook in most of his music. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
From 1911 to 1917, Cohan wrote four more musicals, The Little Millionaire, (1911), Hello Broadway, (1914) and three editions of revue's titled Cohan's Review in 1916, 1917 and 1918. From the 1916 revue came this song. There's Only One Little Girl. Graced with a nice cover painting of a quite serious looking Cohan, the sheet music boasts of the song being "George M. Cohan's Greatest Song." Given the incredible hits that had gone before it, that is definitely a risky statement for the song does not appear in some of the most comprehensive listings of songs and recordings of American popular song. Perhaps it was nothing more than typical advertising hyperbole and wishful thinking by the publisher.
The song is pleasant and has a nice melody. The verse is a little too common to be called great and it drags somewhat. It is the chorus that shines in this song. It's a cheery and lively tune and bounces along just as you'd expect "Georgie" to dance across the stage. Regardless, in my opinion it does not come close to the greatness of many of the songs that came before it that have become lasting hits. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch player) or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
By 1917, American sentiments and thoughts were entwined with the great war that was consuming Europe. That same year, America entered the war and song writers across America wrote hundreds of exceptional songs about the war. For a comprehensive review of World War One Music, see our three part series about America's music during the war. In that same year, Cohan wrote what is considered to be the greatest war song of all time, Over There (Scorch format). A song that would be acclaimed in both world wars and for which Cohan would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor from Franklin Roosevelt in 1942. If you'd like to download an MP3 of Cohan himself singing the chorus of Over There, download it here. Though Cohan wrote a number of war related classic songs none ever quite rose to the level of Over There, but many were still outstanding. In 1918 Cohan, like many of the composers, focused on the war's end and the hope of every family for the safe return of their loved one's who had gone off to fight the Hun. That year he wrote the typically Cohan optimistic, When You Come Back. This song, as well as the next one, was written as a sequel of sorts to Over There but never reached much popularity. Perhaps it's greatest virtue is the fabulous cover photo of Cohan surrounded by a terrific patriotic and colorful background. This sheet is actually quite common and I've seen it often for sale on eBay. Interestingly, the most often cited (and most often incorrect) sheet music price guide states the value of this sheet at $50 but it usually sells for only a few dollars which shows that price guides tend to be unreflective of what actually happens in the market. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
The same year as When You Come Back (1918), Cohan wrote another sequel but more closely related to Over There in title and construction; Their Hearts Are Over Here. Again, we have a good song, but not one that rises to the level of the benchmark war song Cohan wrote before. In this case, Cohan dedicated the work to the American Red Cross and in a generous gesture, donated all of the proceeds from sales to the "war relief." The song was premiered in the Cohan Revue of 1918 which opened December 31, 1917 so technically, the song was written in 1917 but published in 1918.
The song is very similar to Over There and also uses the familiar tune from Give My Regards To Broadway (Scorch format) as an integral part of the tune. The introduction immediately leads off with the "Regards" theme and then takes us into a verse and chorus with melodic lines very similar to Over There. The chorus is a fast paced martial theme that again embeds the "Regards" theme several times. A good song, fun to listen to and fun to sing. I hope it made a good lot of money for the Red Cross. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch player) or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
In 1919, Cohan suffered a personal and professional setback that took away much of his zeal and interest in the theater. That year the actor's union, Actor's Equity sought to strike against producers in an attempt to get themselves certified as the collective bargaining agent for it's members. Cohan found himself facing off against many old friends and people whom he had generously assisted in building their career and took it very personally. Cohan put all of his energy into fighting the union and in the end lost his battle. In a fit of anger he disbanded his production company, quit several theater centered organizations and talked of retiring permanently. However, after a period of rest and travel, Cohan found the call of the stage more than he could resist and returned to write several plays and musicals during the twenties that failed to capture the public's interest and by 1928 hegave up on writing and producing songs yet again. During this period, he still found many of his songs to be worthy of publication and a certain level of popularity. Among them was this 1922 ballad, Won't You Come Back To Me. Described on the cover as a "Fox-Trot Ballad," this one is also somewhat obscure as far as our collective consciousness of Cohan music. This work is not listed in the more comprehensive listings of popular songs which indicates it never really reached a high level of popularity.
This song is really nothing special although it is a pleasant fox-trot. The verse is completely nondescript and shows little of the Cohan joie de vivre that his earlier songs displayed. The chorus is the same. Perhaps at this point Cohan was still suffering from his loss of enthusiasm after the union battle. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
In 1932, Cohan was asked to star in a motion picture, The Phantom President. The producers and directors of the film made the experience unsatisfying for him in that they dared to try to tell Cohan how to perform some of his own routines. Ewen said (Popular American Composers, p. 43) that after the experience Cohan said, "If I had my choice between Hollywood and Atlanta, I'd take Levenworth." Strong words, but Cohan never was shy about confronting the truth as he saw it. In 1933, Cohan returned to the stage starring in Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! and the in 1937 he played the part of President Roosevelt in the Rogers and Hart Musical I'd Rather Be Right. In 1940, Cohan made one last attempt to produce a Broadway play with The Return Of The Vagabond. The play closed after only seven performances and Cohan told a friend, "They don't want me no more." That same year, Cohan participated in an acclaimed concert in San Francisco that featured America's greatest songwriters performing their own songs. Cohan sang a medley of some of his greatest songs as well as Over There. That concert has been preserved and offers many insights into the performance of many of the worlds best loved songs and the personalities of the songwriters and performers. For Cohan's part, I was actually surprised at how much like Cohan James Cagney sounded in his performances. I also found that Cohan sounded rather frail and at one point lost his place. In a priceless moment at the end of the medley, you can hear Cohan say about the orchestra, "I knew they'd blow it." You can download an MP3 of Cohan singing this medley if you'd like to hear it.
In 1942, his career was highlighted in the movie, Yankee Doodle Dandy. That same year Cohan while recovering from surgery, Cohan took a taxi ride around Broadway from Union Square to Times Square. He managed to stop by the Hollywood Theater to watch a few minutes of Yankee Doodle Dandy. That was his last visit to his beloved Broadway. Cohan passed away on November 5, 1942. President Roosevelt said at the time, "A beloved figure is lost to our national life."
Cohan was clearly one of America's most original and greatest musical and stage geniuses. Though totaling his accomplishments shows the quantity of his output (Over 500 songs, 40 plays, thousands of performances), his real contribution is less quantifiable. He inspired countless other performers and songwriters, he energized a nation at war with one song and set a personal patriotic example that has never been equaled. His desire to be "that Yankee Doodle Boy," born on the fourth of July is an example that we all could look to in today's rancorous political environment. Cohan knew in his heart that this land is the greatest in the world and did his best to contribute to our collective joy and unity through wonderful music that will live on forever as long as there is an America.
Want to see and hear more about the other Cohan songs linked to in this article? Explore our site's resources. Here are the songs in addition to the songs featured in this article that have been published on our site and the monthly issue of ParlorSongs where they can be seen and heard. They have been linked to in the text of this feature as well but these links lead to the text and articles related to the songs.
1. They All Sang, Marks, Edward B., Vail Ballou Press, 1934, pp 83-84
This article published July, 2004 and is Copyright © 2004 by Richard A. Reublin and The Parlor Songs Academy. Text, images or music may not be reproduced in part or in total without express written permission of the author.
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