Songwriter, dancer, actor, playwright, producer, theatre owner George M. Cohan was the one of most multitalented person in show business. When he died in November 1942 President Roosevelt sent a telegram:
"A beloved figure is lost to our national life (..). He will be mourned by millions whose lives were brightened and whose burdens were eased by his genius as a fun maker and as a dispeller of gloom" .Mayor La Guardia praised him for having put "the symbols of American life into American music".
During the first two decades of the 20th century, Cohan’s style of light comedic drama dominated American theater, and the lyrics he composed are still remembered for their flag-waving patriotism and exuberance.
Cohan spent his childhood as part of a vaudevillian family. Cohan and his sister traveled a circuit of stages, slept in boarding houses and backstage while their parents performed.
At nine years old, Cohan became a member of his parents’ act, by the age of 11, he was writing comedy material, and by 13 he was writing songs and lyrics. In 1894, at the age of 16, Cohan sold his first song, “Why Did Nellie Leave Home?” to a sheet music publisher for 25 dollars.
His first Broadway production, “The Governor’s Son,” was a musical comedy that he wrote and in which he performed in 1901.
In 1917 Cohan composed “Over There,” the song that would become his greatest hit. Americans coast to coast listened to the recording made by popular singer Nora Bayes. Twenty-five years later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt awarded Cohan the Congressional Medal of Honor for the patriotic spirit.
Cohan published about 300 original songs noted for their catchy melodies
and clever lyrics. His major hit songs included "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway" ,"Mary Is a Grand Old Name ". Cohan wrote numerous Broadway musicals and straight plays in addition to contributing material to shows written by others.
One of his most well known songs is "You're a Grand Old Flag" that Cohan wrote in 1906 for his stage musical:
I'm no cranky hanky panky,
I'm a dead square, honest Yankee,
And I'm mighty proud of that old flag
that flies for Uncle Sam.
Though I don't believe in raving
Ev'ry time I see it waving,
There's a chill runs up my back
that makes me glad I'm what I am.
In 1903 George Cohan wrote his first full-length musical "Little Johnny Jones" , the first American Musical, about jockey, Johnny Jones , who rides a horse named Yankee Doodle in the English Derby. The show introduced Cohan's tunes "Give My Regards to Broadway" and a patriotic song "The Yankee Doodle Boy " also known as "Yankee Doodle Dandy". The play opened at the Liberty Theater on November 7, 1904.
At the end of his life Cohan had written a play about his life called “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” that was produced for the stage in 1939. Later there was a movie "Yankee Doodle Dandy" based on this play and produced in 1942 and starring James Francis Cagney as Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Cohan himself served as a consultant during the production of the film. Due to his failing health, his actual involvement in the film was rather limited. However, Cohan did see the film before he died (from cancer) and approved of Cagney's portrayal.
"Yankee Doodle" is one of the most popular American patriotic songs, and is also the state song of Connecticut. the origins of "Yankee Doodle" lie in old English folk music. The song emerged before the American Revolution as a vehicle for the British to mock American soldiers.
By the way the world Yankee comes from Janke or Janneke , Dutch equivalent of the English name John. This was originally used as a nickname for Dutch settlers living along the Hudson River. The term Doodle , as is written in Wikipedia, first appeared in English in the early seventeenth century, and is thought to be derived from the Low German (a language close to Dutch) dudel, meaning “playing music badly” or Dödel, meaning "fool" or "simpleton".
After Cohan’s death, a memorial committee, whose first chairman was Irving Berlin, sought to commission a statue in his honor. The committee selected Georg Lober as the sculptor and Otto Lanmann as the architect. The same team worked on the statue of Hans Christian Anderson in Central Park. On September 11, 1959, the Cohan statue was formally unveiled. The 8-foot bronze remains the only statue of an actor on Broadway.