You’re a Grand Old Flag
You’re a Grand Old Flag is a patriotic song of the United States. The song, a spirited march written by George M. Cohan, is a tribute to the U.S. flag. In addition to obvious references to the flag, it incorporates snippets of other popular songs, including one of his own. Cohan wrote it in 1906 for George Washington, Jr., his stage musical.
The song was first publicly performed on February 6, the play’s opening night, at Herald Square Theater in New York City. “You’re a Grand Old Flag” quickly became the first song from a musical to sell over a million copies of sheet music. The title and first lyric comes from someone Cohan once met; the Library of Congress website notes:
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.”
In the play itself, the scene with the Civil War soldier was replicated. The soldier’s comment was the lead-in to this song. Thus the first version of the chorus began, “You’re a grand old rag / You’re a high-flying flag”. Despite Cohan’s efforts to pull that version, some artists such as Billy Murray recorded it under its original title, “The Grand Old Rag”. Cohan’s second attempt at writing the chorus began, “You’re a grand old flag / Though you’re torn to a rag”. The final version, with its redundant rhyme, is as shown below.
The song was used in a major production number in Cohan’s 1942 film biography, Yankee Doodle Dandy.
- There’s a feeling comes a-stealing,
- And it sets my brain a-reeling,
- When I’m listening to the music of a military band.
- Any tune like “Yankee Doodle“
- Simply sets me off my noodle,1
- It’s that patriotic something that no one can understand.
- “Way down south, in the land of cotton,”2
- Ain’t that inspiring?
- Hurrah! Hurrah! We’ll join the jubilee! 3
- And that’s going some, for the Yankees, by gum! 4
- Red, white and blue, I am for you!
- Honest, you’re a grand old flag!
- 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.
- Here’s a land with a million soldiers,
- That’s if we should need ’em,
- We’ll fight for freedom!
- Hurrah! Hurrah! For every Yankee tar 5
- And old G.A.R. 6
- Ev’ry stripe, ev’ry star.
- Red, white and blue,
- Hats off to you
- Honest, you’re a grand old flag!
- You’re a grand old flag,
- 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. 7
- Ev’ry heart beats true
- ‘neath the 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 flag.
1. “noodle” = head; so “off my noodle” means something like “out of my head” or “crazy”
2. Line from the song “Dixie“, aka “I Wish I Was In Dixie”
3. Modified version of a line from the song “Marching Through Georgia”, written by Henry Clay Work in 1865
4. Line from the 1905 Cohan hit, The Yankee Doodle Boy
5. “tar” = old slang for a sailor, a.k.a. “Jack Tar”. See the Wikipedia article: tar
6. G.A.R.= General Army of the Republic
7. Compare to the line in “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the U.S. national anthem: “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave”
Text extracted from the main Wikipedia article on the song, adapted