It was one of the songs Cohan created for his upcoming Broadway musical George Washington, Jr.
The chorus of the song went like this:
“You’re a grand old rag,
You’re a high flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You’re the emblem of
The land I love.
The home of the free and the brave.
Ev’ry heart beats true
Under Red, White and Blue,
Where there’s never a boast or brag.
But should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old rag.”
On February 6, 1906, “You’re a Grand Old Rag” was recorded as a 78 RPM single by the popular singer Billy Murray.
That same week, the musical premiered at The Herald Square Theater in New York City.
Cohan himself was the star and the highlight of the show was his rendition of “You’re a Grand Old Rag” as he marched up and down carrying an American flag.
Although George Washington Jr. and singer Billy Murray’s recording were both big hits, many critics, military veterans and groups complained to him that “You’re a Grand Old Rag” was disrespectful to the American flag. It should not, they said, be referred to as a “rag.”
This political backlash surprised and bothered Cohan.
He explained that patriotism was a main theme of the musical and that he actually got the phrase “grand old rag” from an old Army veteran.
However, he was sensitive to the criticism and ultimately decided to change the song’s name and lyrics.
Here’s how the story is explained by a page about the song on the Library of Congress website:
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.”
On June 2, 1906, the song was copyrighted with its new name and the sheet music was reprinted, with “old flag” in place of “old rag” in the lyrics.
“You’re a Grand Old Flag” was hugely popular and became the first song from a musical to sell over a million copies of sheet music.
Ironically, at least one critic felt that Cohan’s George Washington Jr. and the songs in it were too patriotic.
Life magazine critic James Metcalf wrote that they exuded “mawkish appeals to the cheapest kind of patriotism.”
Presumably, as Liberace once quipped about negative reviews of his music, Cohan cried all the way to the bank.
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