George M. Cohan: Biography, Music & Songs

Instructor: Elisa Goldman

Elisa has taught K-6 grades and has two master's degree in Instructional Technology and Education.

In this lesson, you will be introduced to the performer, songwriter, director and patriot, George M. Cohan. Find out about how his inspirational career and songs helped the troops during two world wars.

A Real Yankee Doodle Dandy

In the first three decades of the 20th century, George M. Cohan was the symbol of American can do attitude and patriotic enthusiasm. Not only one of the most fervid of America's songwriters, he was also among its most prolific. He was once asked, Can you write a play without a flag? Cohan replied, I could write a play without a pencil.

George M. Cohan
George M. Cohan

A Life to Be Lived on the Stage

Born George Michael Cohan (1878-1942), the future songwriter was put on the stage in his family act as a young child. He joined with his parents and sister's acting troupe, The Four Cohans, in the Vaudeville and Broadway theaters. Cohan soon became a multiple threat: director, actor, dancer, writer, singer and songwriter. He created a persona on stage -- brash, extremely energetic, sentimental and naive -- that bled into his personal life.

Give My Regards to Broadway

Cohan's shows were an important transition from the European operetta form to a form that best suited the American way of speaking. He used language and dialect native to the country rather than a literary, cultured, or foreign language. He wrote and/or appeared in 40 shows in more than 30 years of work.

One of Cohan's most memorable musicals was Little Johnny Jones (1904), which focused on an American jockey who arrives in England set to ride the horse Yankee Doodle in the Derby. This show is a classic example of Cohan's style and work. He wrote the music, book, and lyrics, and starred in and directed this piece. It lasted for only 52 performances, but gave us American standards such as 'The Yankee Doodle Boy (Dandy)' and 'Give My Regards to Broadway.' He also acted in two historic productions that he did not write -- Eugene O'Neil's Ah Wilderness and Lorenz Hart's I'd Rather Be Right.

Music & Songs - The Great Patriot of the American Stage

If you have ever been to a July 4th fireworks display or patriotic event, then you have heard the songs of George M. Cohan. The rousing patriotism of some of his songs continues to inspire people of all ages. He wrote many songs including, 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' (1904), 'Give My Regards to Broadway' (1905), 'You're a Grand Old Flag' (1906) and 'Harrigan' (1907).

Cohan's song 'Over There' (1917) became an uplifting song for the United States military during World War I and World War II. In June 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded Cohan the Congressional Gold Medal for this and his other patriotic songs.

Over There Sheet Music Cover

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