George Michael Cohan was already famous by 1917. Born in 1878 in Providence, R.I., to parents who performed on the vaudeville circuit, he was only weeks old when he made his first appearance on stage. Not long after he learned to walk, Cohan joined the act that soon became known as “The Four Cohans” (including his older sister and parents). By the 1890s they were nationally famous and commanded top billing and fees. Young George proved a natural on stage and with the pen. He was only 16 when he published his first song.
By the turn of the century he was writing, producing, and starring in his own musicals. But none did very well until Cohan formed a partnership with Sam Harris. Their first musical, “Little Johnny Jones,” opened in late 1904 and became a smash. It featured two hit songs, “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” More hits followed, including “Forty Five Minutes From Broadway” in 1906 (from the play of the same name) and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” (from the show “George Washington, Jr.”). By 1911, the Cohan-Harris partnership was by far the most successful on Broadway. In that year alone they had no fewer than six hit shows and owned controlling interests in seven theaters.
Cohan’s flag-waving hits made him rich and famous. They also helped identify Irish Americans as an intensely patriotic lot. The Irish in America were rising fast economically, socially, and politically at the turn of the century and the result was, in the words of historian William V. Shannon, a “more than life-size patriotism.” Many non-Irish Americans might not have considered the Irish their equals, but they did admire their Americanism in an era marked by a huge influx of newer and stranger peoples from places like Italy and Russia.
Of course, this robust patriotism was not the same as jingoism. Indeed, when World War I broke out in 1914, many Irish Americans voiced loud opposition to any U.S. intervention. This stance reflected both an adherence to longstanding and widely shared American isolationist principles and a commitment to Irish nationalism. The more the kaiser took it to the British, the better the chances for Irish independence. The failed Easter Rising of 1916 and subsequent summary execution of the leaders by the British only intensified Irish-American hostility to the idea of an Anglo-American alliance. And the American Irish were not alone in this view. President Woodrow Wilson won reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.”
Nonetheless, once the same Woodrow Wilson announced that America would join the Allies in a fight to “make the world safe for democracy,” Irish Americans (and Americans in general) threw their support behind the war effort. Tens of thousands joined the armed forces and several became well-known heroes — Medal of Honor winner William Donovan and Fr. Francis Duffy, “the fighting priest.”
Fueling their enthusiasm and that of the nation at large was Cohan’s rousing call to arms. It came to him in less than an hour while traveling by train from his home on Long Island to Manhattan. “I read the war headlines and I got to thinking and humming to myself,” he later remembered. “Soon I was all finished with the chorus and the verse, and by the time I got to town I had a title.”
Cohan published the song immediately and days later singer Charles King helped popularize “Over There” when he delivered a stirring rendition at a Red Cross fundraiser in New York. Soon thereafter singer Nora Bayes made a recording that marched right to the top of the charts and stayed there for 17 weeks. Stores found it impossible to keep their shelves stocked with recordings or sheet music. In contrast, no one seemed much interested anymore in that popular song of 1915 “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier.”
“Over there” helped to get 5 million Americans into uniform and countless more to fill factories, sell Liberty Bonds, and volunteer at the Red Cross. The American Expeditionary Force under Gen. John Pershing eventually arrived in Europe and helped tip the balance in favor of the Allies over the Central Powers and bring “the war to end all wars” to an end by November 1918.
Cohan continued to write songs, manage his theaters, and perform in musicals, but his star began to fade in the late 1920s. He enjoyed a revival of sorts in the 1930s as a performer and even landed the lead in “Ah, Wilderness,” the only comedy written by that other Irish American icon of the stage, Eugene O’Neill. In 1940, with war once again raging in Europe, Congress awarded Cohan a gold medal (NOT the Congressional Medal of Honor as is often said) for his patriotic songs. Cohan died in 1942, but not before seeing James Cagney star in the film tribute to his career, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” According to his friends, he loved ever flag-waving minute of it.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
April 4, 1859: Minstrel show star Dan Emmet writes the song “Dixie.” Even though written by a Northerner living in New York, the song quickly becomes the anthem of the Confederate cause.
April 5, 1955: Richard J. Daley wins election as Mayor of Chicago, beginning his extraordinary political career as “Boss” of the Windy City.
April 5, 1916: Academy Award-winning actor Gregory Peck, is born in La Jolla, Calif.
April 6, 1927: Jazz musician Gerry Mulligan is born in New York City.
April 7, 1873: Baseball player and manager John McGraw is born in Truxton, N.Y.