You're a grand old flag,
You're a high flyin' flag
And forever in peace may you wave . . .
"You're a Grand Old Flag" was written by George M. Cohan for his 1906 stage musical George Washington, Jr. The song was introduced to the public in the play's first act on opening night, February 6, 1906, in New York's Herald Square Theater. It was the first song from a musical to sell over a million copies of sheet music.
The original lyric for this perennial George M. Cohan favorite came, as Cohan later explained, from an encounter he had with a Civil War veteran who fought at Gettysburg. The two men found themselves next to each other and Cohan noticed the vet held a carefully folded but ragged old flag. The man reportedly then turned to Cohan and said, "She's a grand old rag." Cohan thought it was a great line and originally named his tune "You're a Grand Old Rag." So many groups and individuals objected to calling the flag a "rag," however, that he "gave 'em what they wanted" and switched words, renaming the song "You're a Grand Old Flag."
It was in George Washington, Jr. that Cohan worked out a routine with this song that he would repeat in many subsequent shows. He took an American flag, started singing the patriotic song, and marched back and forth across the stage. Music such as Cohan's "You're a Grand Old Flag" helped create a shared popular cultural identity as such songs spread beyond the stage, through sheet music and records, to the homes and street corners of America.
The musical comedy stage of the early twentieth century drew heavily on vaudeville for both material and star quality. George M. Cohan had experienced success in vaudeville as a member of his family's group, the Four Cohans. After a break with the Keith vaudeville circuit, George Washington, Jr. became a hit for Cohan on the "legitimate stage." Critics tended to hold Cohan's musical comedy in low esteem due largely to the wisecracks and musical bits it owed to vaudeville, but the general public seemed to find it good fun.
The show actually gave rise to one of the more interesting exchanges in theater history between a drama critic and a producer. Writing for Life Magazine the reviewer James Metcalfe discussed both George Washington, Jr. and its writer, lyricist, composer, co-producer and star -- George M. Cohan.
Mr. Cohan's personality and accomplishments are quite worth notice . . . consisting mainly of several bars of well-known patriotic or sentimental songs strung together with connecting links of lively and more or less original musical trash . . . mawkish appeals to the cheapest kind of patriotism. "George Washington, Jr." is a fair example of his playwriting . . . Mr. Cohan is not to be blamed. In fact, from the American viewpoint that moneymaking is the test of real success, he is highly to be commended as a successful American. If he can bring himself to coin the American flag and national heroes into box-office receipts, it is not his blame, but our shame . . . "Life" recommends its readers to go to see Mr. Cohan's performance. There could be no stronger appeal for the betterment of the American stage - no fiercer commentary on the debased condition of the intelligence of a large part of the theatre-going public."
Cohan responded to Metcalfe, as was his way, on the 4th of July 1906 in The Spot Light (Vol. II, No. 3).
I write my own songs because I write better songs than anyone else I know of. I publish these songs because they bring greater royalties than any other class of music sold in this country. I write my own plays because I have not yet seen or read plays from the pens of other authors that seem as good as the plays I write. I produce my own plays because I think I'm as good a theatrical manager as any other man in this line. I dance because I know I'm the best dancer in the country. I sing because I can sing my own songs better than any other man on the stage. . . . I write these little stories because I think I write them better than other writers of stories. I play leading parts in most of my plays because I think I'm the best actor available. I pay myself the biggest salary ever paid a song and dance comedian because I know I deserve it. But believe me, kind reader, when I say, I am not an egotist."
Ethel Levey, who was married to Cohan, was a member of the original cast of George Washington, Jr. Gilbert Sildes, author of The Seven Lively Arts wrote that she displayed "something roughly elemental, something common and pure; whatever she did had broadness and sharpness both." Levey walked out on George Washington, Jr. (both the show and its alter-ego Cohan) in 1906 while they were performing in Cleveland but continued a lively career, which included work in London.
With and without Ethel Levey George Washington, Jr. ran from February 12, 1906 to April 23, 1906 and, following a national tour, had a one month return engagement in New York from February 11 through March 11, 1907.