Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music
COHAN, George M.
(b 3 July 1878, Providence RI; d 5 November 1942, NYC) Singer, dancer, actor, composer, lyricist, director, producer. He broke away from European operetta-style shows to create a dynamic, tub-thumping American style, deeply influenced by ragtime, full of nostalgia and patriotism. His parents were in vaudeville; George and his sister Josephine made the top act the Four Cohans; he wrote 150 sketches by age 21. Josie semi-retired; three Cohans last appeared together in 1911. George wrote the most famous of all war songs, 'Over There', awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He said he was born on the 4th of July; it was only a small fib.
He was associated with more than 35 plays, musicals and straight drama, as writer and/or producer, including Little Johnny Jones ('The Yankee Doodle Boy', 'Give My Regards To Broadway') '04; Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway ('Mary's A Grand Old Name'), George Washington Jr. ('You're A Grand Old Flag'), both '06 (Cohan had attended a funeral at which a folded flag was fondly stroked by a Civil War veteran, saying 'You're a grand old rag.' He changed the name of the song at the request of veterans' groups; his recording of it was said to be the biggest hit in Victor's first decade.) Further shows were Fifty Miles From Boston ('Harrigan') '08; Little Nelly Kelly '22 (revived '40 as film for Judy Garland); Ah, Wilderness! (long run '33-4); his last stage appearance was in Return Of The Vagabond '40. Appeared in films The Phantom President '32; Gambling '34. James Cagney won an Oscar portraying Cohan in biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy '42; Joel Grey played him in Broadway musical George M! '68. Little Johnny Jones was revived '84 with Donny Osmond, closing after one performance.
Rick Benjamin discovered a treasure trove of original music manuscript and made an album with his Paragon Ragtime Orchestra of Cohan's music in the original arrangements, sounding the way audiences heard it when it was new, to be released in November 2008.