July is a time for patriotism in the United States, and much very good music has been written for the occasion, from John Philip Sousa through Aaron Copland to Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys and beyond. People across the political and social spectrum have written music to express their love for this nation.
I didn’t grow up in a particularly patriotic family, however. Sure, we’d go to the fireworks show every other year or so, but most of the time we stayed home and watched whatever was on television or listened to the radio. The old movie Stars and Stripes Forever, with Clifton Webb, Robert Wagner, and Debra Paget is the film I remember—more for the obvious charms of Ms. Paget than for the patriotic themes, I’m afraid. For whatever reason, John Philip Sousa never quite struck a chord in me.
But George M. Cohan is another story. Not the Jimmy Cagney version from the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, which is terrific, but the actual Cohan who gave us all those great songs that celebrate America as a land of dreams to be realized and opportunities to be seized, a country whose optimism was not something to be trifled with.
“We’re not coming back ’til it’s over/over there” was his mighty contribution to the World War I effort, and it was simultaneously cheerfully patriotic and brutally honest. We were a young, upstart country at the time, by European standards, but we weren’t layabouts. No sir, we Americans intend to finish a job once we’ve started it.
A fellow Irish-Catholic, as my father liked to remind me and my siblings, Cohan owned Broadway well before the Great War. He joined the family business of theater as a baby, and he became its standout performer on both sides of the boards by writing, producing, acting, directing, and dancing his way to stardom. By 1904 he was the Next Big Thing on the Great White Way. His energy and dedication to his craft as well as his tremendous success are nothing short of a Horatio Alger book come to life.
Cohan wrote the quintessential Independence Day anthem, “Yankee Doodle Boy” in 1904, for the first of his many Broadway productions, Little Johnny Jones. The few lines familiar to audiences today may or may not be autobiographical, as Cohan’s birth certificate reads he was born on July 3, 1878. Today Cohan might endure a public berating from Oprah for such autobiographical fudging, but of course the song is meant to apply to the character, Johnny Jones, not Cohan himself.
In any case, “Yankee Doodle Boy” elicits nostalgia today for an idealized, childhood celebration of Independence Day. The lyrics cleverly play off the knowledge that Uncle Sam is but a personification of America and yet position the singer as his real, live nephew. All this, decades before postmodernism!
But there’s more than just patriotism when one goes beyond the last eight lines of the song, the lines with which modern audiences are familiar. Cohan’s song celebrates the nation’s character as a melting pot, what is now known as diversity.
The lyric states, “Father’s name was Hezekiah/Mother’s name was Ann Maria,” written in a day when the obvious ethnicity of those names could not be denied. Yet the next line asserts that the couple are “Yanks through and through/Red, white and blue,” and, later, “Oh say, can you see/Anything about my pedigree that’s phony?”
I’ll leave it you to decide what Cohen is referring to by bringing up the word ‘phony’. But, for me, I like to believe that Cohan was urging us to judge others by their character instead of whether they’re bluebloods or mutts. Americans, according to my reading of Cohan, truly manifest the nation’s ideal of “out of many, one.”
Billy Murray’s 1905 hit recording of “Yankee Doodle Boy” can be found here: http://cylinders-dev.library.ucsb.edu/search.php?query=yankee%20doodle%20boy%208910&num=1.
—Bruce Edward Walker
An earlier version of this article appeared at The Michigan View. Reprinted with permission.