Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The NRR Project #21: ‘You’re A Grand Old Rag (Flag)’

A quick change of sheet music, in response to public demand.
“You’re a Grand Old Rag (Flag)”
Music and Lyrics: George M. Cohan
Singer: Billy Murray
Recorded Feb. 6, 1906

Brash is seemingly a word coined for George M. Cohan. The performer/playwright/songwriter/director/producer, who started his stage career at age 8, was one of the most popular and powerful figures in Broadway history. From 1904 through 1920, he staged more than 50 productions there – all but one successful. His songs such as “Yankee Doodle Dandy" and “Give My Regards to Broadway” are, justly, classics. Onstage, he epitomized a kind of cocky, hard-charging, quick-witted American persona that audiences responded to with devotion for decades.

“Americanism” was in the air. The country was finally waking up from self-absorption and internal development and was beginning to make its first expansionist stretches, jumping into jingoism with a will. Its industrial might was wowing the world. There was need for a vernacular expression of this energy and pride, akin to the already-popular marches of Sousa.

As a multiple talent, Cohan resembles impresario predecessors such as Dion Boucicault and David Belasco, as well as his contemporary Florenz Ziegfeld. Most of his plays are comic vehicles touched with sentiment, their plots driven by the confusions of romantic entanglements – early, important gropings toward the book musical.

“The Grand Old Rag,” as it was listed in the original program, was a generally despised title. No one wanted to hear the Stars and Stripes referred to in that way. The lyrics changed from “You’re a grand old rag/You’re a high-flying flag” to “You’re a grand old flag/Though you’re torn to a rag” to, finally, the redundant but unobjectionable “You’re a grand old flag/You’re a high-flying flag.” 

Unfortunately, the song had already been recorded. Popular tenor Billy Murray, the “Denver Nightingale” (he lived in the Mile High City from age 5 to 16) was another peppy, confident belter who could sell an upbeat song. It’s instructive to see that the song was recorded six days before the musical opened – marketing savvy is not as recent a development as we might think. (Murray wound up recording all three lyric variants.)

The words and music are patriotic hodgepodges, interpolating “Dixie,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “Marching through Georgia,” and Cohan’s own “Yankee Doodle Dandy” hit of two years previous. The result is a sensory overload of associations, delivered in an up-tempo rush that sweeps the listener along. We will run into Cohan again in a future installment, when we examine his classic of evangelical interventionism, 1917's "Over There."

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: the Frances Densmore Chippewa/Ojibwe Cylinder Collection.

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