Discover more from Pro Deo et Libertate
‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’: Flag Day and the Army’s Birthday
Today, June 14, is a double holiday for Americans: Flag Day and the US Army’s Birthday. It’s a day to celebrate all that has been bravest and best in the history of this great country, and to fly the US flag proudly, as it waved so proudly before at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Fort McHenry, Ft. Sumter, Gettysburg, Iwo Jima, and countless houses and battlefields—even on the moon.
Today I want to share a song written by an enthusiastic patriot in the early 1900s about the US flag. But first, about the Army’s birthday. On April 19, 1775, the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord by citizen militiamen—and soon the Patriots needed an official army to fight the British. From the US Army website:
“When the delegates to the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on 10 May, they soon learned that armed men commanded by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold had captured the British forts at Ticonderoga and Crown Point on Lake Champlain in New York. The constitutional crisis, in which Americans sought a redress of grievances from the British king and Parliament, had become open hostilities…they would now have to address the new military situation. The Congress took the next step that eventually transformed a local rebellion into a war for independence when it established the Continental Army: the force we know today as the U.S. Army.
On 14 June 1775, Congress ‘Resolved, That six companies of expert riflemen, be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia… [and] as soon as completed, shall march and join the army near Boston, to be there employed as light infantry, under the command of the chief Officer in that army’…The next day Congress voted to appoint George Washington ‘to command all the Continental forces’ and began laying the foundation for ‘the American army.’”
The Army is older than the United States itself! But it was the Army that ensured America could come into existence as an independent nation, founded on liberty and justice for all, and the Army that has continued to defend America throughout all her struggles and hardships.
Now, in celebration of Flag Day. George M. Cohan has been largely forgotten now, but he was one of the most successful lyricists of the 20th century. Uniquely, he not only wrote his own music and plays, he starred in the plays, singing and dancing. Cohan penned such popular tunes as “Over There,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and the especially famous “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
There’s a touching story behind Cohan’s 1906 hugely popular song “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” involving a Civil War veteran and the veteran’s ragged but carefully preserved and beloved flag. From the Library of Congress:
“‘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.”
In 1942, the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, a sort of cinematic biography of Cohan, came out, starring James Cagney as Cohan. Below is Cagney’s performance of Cohan’s immortal tribute to America’s flag, as performed in the movie:
And a shorter colorized version:
Happy Flag Day, and thank you to all those who have served or are serving in the U.S. Army!
Pro Deo et Libertate is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.