You're a Grand Old Rag - The Music of George M. Cohan



World-premiere recordings of original period orchestrations 






1. There’s Only One Little Girl for Me (one-step, 1916) 2:36 

2. The Yankee Doodle Boy (song from Little Johnny Jones, 1904)  2:40 

Colin Pritchard as George M. Cohan 

3. Overture to The Talk of New York (1907) 9:32 

Introducing: “Under Any Flag at All,” “When a Fellow’s on the Level with a Girl That’s on the 

Square,” “I Want the World to Know I Love You,” “Burning Up the Boulevard,” “I Want You,” 

“Drink with Me,” “March,” “Put Down a Bet for Me,” “Polka,” “Mr. Burns of New Rochelle,” 

“Busy Little Broadway,” “Gee, Ain’t I Glad I’m Home,” and “Under Any Flag at All (reprise)” 

4. Geo. M. Cohan’s Rag (from Cohan & Harris Minstrels of 1909)  2:08 

5. The Eyes of Youth See the Truth (song from The Cohan Review of 1918) 2:13 

Bernadette Boerckel, soprano 

6. March Medley from George Washington, Jr., introducing 

  ““Ethel Levey’s Virginia Song” and You’re A Grand Old Rag” (1906) 2:56 

7. Harrigan (song from Fifty Miles from Boston, 1908) 2:33 

Colin Pritchard, baritone  

8. Selection from The Man Who Owns Broadway (1909)  5:57 

Introducing: “The Man Who Owns Broadway,” “When a Servant Learns a Secret,” “Eccentric 

Dance,” “Love Will Make or Break a Man,” “I’ll Go the Route with You,” “I’m in Love with One 

of the Stars,” and “The Man Who Owns Broadway (finale)” 

9. Mary’s A Grand Old Name (song from Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, 1906) 3:55 

Bernadette Boerckel, soprano 

10. Give My Regards to Broadway (song from Little Johnny Jones, 1904)  2:41 

Colin Pritchard as George M. Cohan 

11. Popularity (ragtime incidental music from Popularity, 1906) 3:03 

12. That Haunting Melody (song, 1911) 4:33 

Bernadette Boerckel, comedienne 

13. Overture to Little Nellie Kelly (1922)  10:42 

Introducing: “The Great New York Police,” “The Name of Kelly,” “The Hinky Dee,” “Voice of 

My Heart,” “You Remind Me of My Mother,” “Nellie Kelly I Love You,” “Until My Luck Comes 

Rolling Along,” and “Reprise—Nellie Kelly I Love You” 

14. Over There (song, 1917)  3:26 

Colin Pritchard as George M. Cohan 



15. George M. Cohan speech (1938)  6:05  


TT: 65:52 





By Rick Benjamin 



“Never was a plant more indigenous to a particular part of earth than was George M. Cohan to the United 

States of his day.”—Oscar Hammerstein II  



More than a century after he rocketed to fame, George M. Cohan’s name still evokes vivid images of the 

archetypical Broadway “song-and-dance man.” But Cohan was far too important and complex an artist to 

sum up so breezily. He was an incandescent figure, celebrated as an actor, dancer, choreographer, 

playwright, lyricist, composer, director, producer, and theater owner. Cohan’s incredible range of talent was 

itself remarkable. But astonishingly, he often fulfilled all of these roles at the same time, while at work on 

one of his many theatrical productions. As his orchestrator M.L. Lake recalled, Cohan was “. . . purely and 

simply, a genius—with so many brilliant facets that even his most intimate, oldest friends never ceased to be 

amazed and to thrill over new flashes.” 


Historians have long viewed George Michael Cohan (1878–1942) as one of the most innovative figures in 

the evolution of the American theater: He is widely heralded as “The Father of Musical Comedy,” and he is 

the only person ever to have a statue in his honor erected on the “Main Stem”—Broadway—itself. Without 

doubt, Cohan’s boisterous arrival in the early 1900s liberated our musical stage from the domination of 

European style and convention. As historian Jack Burton put it, Cohan “. . . was something refreshingly new 

in the American theater. His songs packed a punch, his heroes and heroines were American guys and gals 

you’d meet in Joe’s bar and the 5-and-10, and his librettos put New Rochelle, N.Y., Richmond, Virginia, 

and Boston on the musical comedy map. This ‘real live nephew of my Uncle Sam’ had fired the opening 

shot in Broadway’s War of Independence. . . . ”   


In some ways Cohan’s successes as a performer, playwright, and impresario have overshadowed his 

importance as the creator of some of America’s most vital and enduring music. While “Over There,” 

“You’re A Grand Old Flag,” and “Give My Regards to Broadway” are still familiar to many people, 

comparatively few of them today know that these were written by an Irish-American guy named Cohan. 

Fewer are aware of Cohan’s other numerous nationwide song hits, his innovative contributions to theater 

music as a composer and lyricist, or of the powerful influence he later had on “Golden Age” Broadway 

composers such as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and George Gershwin. 


George M. Cohan was a great American songwriter; no less an authority than Irving Berlin referred to him 

as “the great American songwriter.”  Yet surprisingly little serious study and exploration of Cohan’s rich 

musical legacy has been undertaken, perhaps because of the complex, interconnected nature of his 

creativity. The heart of his work cannot be found through dissection even when one begins to peel away the 

many layers: Cohan the songwriter is inextricably linked to Cohan the singer/dancer/actor, who is in turn 

connected to Cohan the librettist, all of whom are welded to Cohan the showman’s tireless quest to 

entertain. The first step to gaining some kind of understanding would seem to spring from simply listening 

to recordings of George M. Cohan’s music performed from his original scores and orchestrations. But the 

difficulty with this plan is that no such recordings have heretofore been available.  






Re-creating George M. Cohan’s Theatrical Soundscape 




The main purpose of this new CD is to re-create, as closely as possible, the sound of George M. Cohan’s 

music as he and his audiences might have heard it in theaters during the early 20th century. These 

performances will likely surprise and possibly challenge 21st-century listeners, whose love for the “Cohan 

Songbook” was probably inspired by the soundtracks of the 1942 Warner Brothers film Yankee Doodle 

Dandy, or M-G-M’s Little Nellie Kelly (starring Judy Garland), or cast recordings of the 1968 Broadway 

musical George M!  These three productions were but part of the flood of Cohan tributes—books, articles, 

plays, recordings, films, and radio (and, later, TV) programs—that began washing across America during the 

last years of the Yankee Doodle Boy’s life, ebbing only in recent years. But, however delightful and heartfelt 

many of these creations were, almost all updated, modernized, “improved” and/or otherwise distorted 

Cohan’s music to conform to ever-changing fashions, expectations, and commercial needs. In most cases, 

these alterations were made for fear that the original versions of his music would be rejected by newer, 

younger audiences as “stodgy,” “too simple,” “not interesting enough,” or possibly even “offensive” (as with 

material referring to minorities). In any event, the producers of Yankee Doodle Dandy, Little Nellie Kelly, 

and George M! et al found the need to update/modify Cohan’s music, and as a result have given millions of 

happy listeners a misleading impression of its sound. 


In the field of audio recordings, the pressure to update the “Cohan Songbook” has been especially intense. 

To date at least a hundred salute-to-Cohan types of recordings have been made, going back into the ’30s (of 

these, the low point surely is 1957’s Mickey Rooney Sings George M. Cohan!). Almost without exception, 

these discs and tapes were simply commercial products, rather than historical presentations of the way the 

music was actually sung and played in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of this, it has been all 

but impossible to make a real study of Cohan’s music using recordings. But his music, as he wrote it (and in 

collaboration with his arrangers and orchestrators) is artistically and historically significant, and deserves to 

be heard in its original forms.  


The first thing contemporary listeners may notice when playing this CD is that the orchestra heard 

performing is not large. This is because American theater orchestras of the 19th and early 20th centuries 

were usually quite small. In contrast to Europe, there were simply fewer musicians in the United States, 

relative to the population; there was little economic basis to support music here. The nation was very new, 

and still engaged in the epic process of forging itself. Most Americans were far too busy earning a living and 

building businesses and communities to have free time or spare money for professionally made 

“entertainments.” And even if they did, outside of a handful of America’s largest cities, there were few 

places they could go to find it. But conditions changed rapidly after the Civil War; as the Industrial 

Revolution fueled a thriving American economy, soon there was time and money for amusement. It was 

into this setting that George M. Cohan and his family (father, Jeremiah [1848–1917]; mother, Helen F. 

[“Nellie,” 1854–1928]; and sister Josephine [“Josie,” 1876–1916]) made their first entrance. Billed as the 

“Four Cohans,” this hardy troupe blazed a trail as true pioneers of American show business. They 

specialized in one of the earliest species of that new industry—“variety.”  







For variety performances (often staged in saloons), a lone upright piano was usually the only musical 

accompaniment for the acts. In American variety this state of affairs lasted right up until the mid-1890s, 

even in the fanciest of music halls in the largest of cities. Then, during the 1890s as variety began refining 

itself into true vaudeville, other instruments began to be added to the piano in theater pits. First to appear 

usually was a violin, followed by a clarinet, cornet, and bass fiddle. Eventually, the “ideal” instrumentation 

specified for a “theater orchestra” was flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet, first and second cornets, trombone, 

drums, piano, first and second violins, viola, ’cello, and double bass. The period trade term for this 

combination was “Eleven & Piano.” These orchestras sometimes had a conductor, but in smaller venues it 

was common for the pianist or first violinist to also act as leader. This very efficient ensemble evolved as a 

result of both economic and artistic considerations: It made a clear, full sound, could play popular and 

classical music, was compact enough to not encroach into the customer’s seating areas, and only added 

twelve more names to a theater’s payroll list. From a musical standpoint, the Eleven & Piano orchestra was 

admirable for this setting; it supported singers on the stage without overwhelming them (the microphone 

was not perfected until the mid-1920s, and was not routinely used in the theater until the 1950s), yet could 

play loudly enough to fill the typical theaters of the day (which ranged from eight hundred to fifteen 

hundred seats). On this recording the P.R.O. represents an exact re-creation—even down to its 1910 drum 

kit—of the classic Eleven & Piano theater orchestra.  


American musical comedy—that is, a show with a story (the “libretto” or “book”) advanced by dialogue and 

songs—was to a great extent an outgrowth of vaudeville. Indeed, by the 1890s the aspiration of most 

vaudeville singers and actors was to “graduate” into musical comedy. Naturally then, many of the techniques 

and production values of vaudeville formed the basis for musical comedy. This certainly held true for 

orchestras used to play for the early musicals; well into the 1910s the Eleven & Piano orchestra remained a 

basic standard, even in New York, and even on Broadway. (It should be noted here that operetta in 

America was generally a more expensively mounted genre aimed at upper-class metropolitan patrons. 

Typically, from the 1870s onward American operetta productions featured fifteen-to-twenty piece [or larger] 

orchestras that, in addition to a full string section, included oboe, bassoon, and two French horns.) 


Curiously, George M. Cohan made very few recordings. The reasons for this reticence were never clearly 

stated. But it is known that Cohan did not like the sound of his own singing voice, and may have felt that his 

song renditions required his acting and dancing abilities to truly “put them over.” Indeed, during his entire 

career only seven songs recorded by Cohan were ever commercially released. These were all “waxed” on 

the same day—on May 4, 1911—for the Victor Company, and none of the titles (with one arguable 

exception) were mega-hits from Cohan’s extensive song catalog. A study of these 78 r.p.m. discs reveals that 

the early acoustic recording technique (i.e., pre-microphone) was not particularly successful in capturing his 

unique vocal style. Undoubtedly Cohan was not proud of these records, and given his almost super-human 

scheduling demands as a performer/playwright/songwriter/director/producer, he likely felt no great need to 

develop a career as a phonograph artist as well.   


This lack of recorded performances by the man himself is a considerable stumbling block today in the study 

and understanding of Cohan’s performance practices. Thus, a second purpose of this recording is to 

attempt to re-create what the young George M. Cohan may have sounded like singing onstage in the early 

1900s. Toward this end, in the spring of 2006 I began to collect and study all known surviving audio 

“artifacts” of Cohan’s voice. I consulted with a number of archivists and several private collectors, and over 

time was able to gather and study all of Cohan’s 1911 Victor recordings, an assortment of his 1930s and ’40s 

radio appearances, and also his performances in the 1932 film musical The Phantom President. With 

Cohan’s ghostly voice ringing in my ears, the next step was to find a modern-day performer who could give 

a creditable impression of it for New World Records’s microphones. This was difficult: After advertising for 

months in the leading theater trade magazines for a “singer who sounds like Geo. M. Cohan,” I had over 

three hundred applicants, most of whom had clearly never even heard of Cohan, never mind having heard 

Cohan on archival recordings. However, from this pile of CD and cassette submissions a handful of 

performers emerged as possibilities—a small fellowship who had done their own homework and obviously 

shared a love of early American theater music. And so, on a chilly March afternoon in 2008, I heard these 

“Cohan-didates” in live auditions held in New York City. I feel very confident in saying that, after this rather 

exhaustive search (and research) process, what you hear Colin Pritchard do on this recording really is as 

close to the real Cohan as anyone is likely to experience without benefit of a time machine or séance.  



And what did Mr. Cohan sound like? From his surviving recordings, the first striking characteristic was his 

manner of speaking, rather than actually singing many of the words to the songs he was performing. He 

used this technique intermittently, reciting a few words, and then singing a few, and then lapsing back to 

speech. He sometimes slurred these two deliveries together. In this process Cohan often ignored the written 

melodies and rhythms of his own songs (and it should be noted that Cohan, with very rare exceptions, 

performed only his own songs). But the effect was one of thrilling insouciance: To audiences it seemed as 

though he was making it all up off the top of his head—delivering his street-wise and sometimes sardonic 

“observations” just as he pleased—while the orchestra underscored him with jaunty Cohan melodies. Of 

course this “sing-speak” technique was not a Cohan invention; it had evolved earlier in operatic music 

(termed Sprechgesang), and also enjoyed a vogue with 19th-century British music hall entertainers. What 

was unique was Cohan’s combination of “sing-speak” with his New England “twang” (gained honestly as a 

native of Providence, Rhode Island, and reinforced during a childhood spent barnstorming through old 

New England), and his vaguely patrician style of enunciation. The blend of these conflicting vocal elements 

resulted in a strangely compelling sound. Audiences found it utterly irresistible (many theater critics thought 

otherwise). As his arranger and orchestrator M.L. Lake observed: “George had absolutely no singing voice, 

yet he could put over a topical song better than any singer I ever heard. There was something in his voice 

that never failed to get under one’s skin, even if you heard the same lines week after week after week.”  



Cohan’s singing was naturally an extension of his stage persona, of which theater historian David Ewen 

wrote perhaps the best description: “Everything about Cohan was personalized . . . he wore a straw hat or 

derby slightly cocked over one eye, and in his hand he held a bamboo cane. He sang out of the corner of 

his mouth with a peculiar nasal twang; he danced with a unique halting kangaroo step. He had his own way 

of gesturing—with an eloquent forefinger. The way he strutted up and down the stage—often with an 

American flag draped around him—was singularly Cohanesque; so was the way he could create a bond 

between himself and his audiences with informal, at times slangy, salutations or little speeches or homey 

monologues.” All this was not an act: his associates affirmed that the cocky character Cohan presented on 

the stage was quite similar to his actual personality (although backstage he was admired for his warmth and 

kindness). As Lake remembered, “George, of course, did it all; he wrote the books, wrote the music, 

directed and starred in his own productions. But, unlike many producers, George never flaunted his 

position; at rehearsals, if he had criticism to offer an individual, it was private—one on one—and not a 

vitriolic insult before the entire company. No bombast. No temperamental explosion. Just a very humorous 

remark, followed by ‘Now, we must get this.’ Naturally, every performer, stagehand, and musician idolized 

such a boss; you couldn’t help it.” 











Finding “the listen”—Cohan the Composer and Songwriter   


Late in life George M. Cohan estimated that he had written five hundred songs. Of these, about three 

hundred were published, in addition to a small number of instrumental pieces (around two hundred Cohan 

scores were studied in preparation for this recording). Cohan wrote most of his music for performance in 

specific stage presentations (sketches, musical comedies, and revues) rather than as independent (stand- 

alone) works. But in their creation, Cohan was always in search of the quality his father called “the listen”— 

that elusive, unnamable magic that could set the entire nation singing, humming, and whistling.  



As a songwriter, Cohan was exceptional in that he was one of the few who composed his own melodies for 

his own lyrics. Almost every other creator of popular songs penned either music only or words only, and 

then relied on a partner (or partners) to come up with the other half of the work. Songwriting, even well 

before Cohan’s time, was considered a collaborative activity, and remains one to this day. Thus it is further 

evidence of his immense talent that he could do both so well that he could create dozens of nationwide hits, 

a few of which remain famous after more than a century. 



The path for this tremendous success as a songwriter was not paved with long years of formal education. Six 

weeks of first grade at Providence’s E Street School was the total extent of Cohan’s classroom experience 

(he was expelled). His musical training was similarly limited; in 1885 Jerry Cohan bought his son a violin 

and arranged for lessons. As George M. wryly related in his autobiography, “In two weeks I knew all there 

was to know about the violin. The teacher himself said so. He sent me back to my father with a note which 

read: ‘Impossible to teach this boy any more. HE KNOWS IT ALL’.” But Cohan’s natural abilities, 

environment (literally growing up in the theater), coupled with his phenomenal ambition more than 

compensated for his lack of theoretical studies of music or poetry.  



At the very core of George M. Cohan’s being was an insatiable need to entertain. And somewhere very early 

on he realized that he was most entertaining when performing his own material. Thus, he began writing 

tunes and song lyrics by the age of ten. As a teenager in the early 1890s, Cohan’s musical interests began to 

eclipse even his performing (as a trick fiddler, dancer, and actor) and sketch writing activities (he wrote the 

Four Cohans’ sketches, playlets, and routines). As he recalled years later, “My heart was set on being a 

popular song writer. I practiced verse writing night and day. ‘The words must jingle, the words must jingle,’ 

I’d keep repeating over and over again. I could play four chords on the piano in F sharp. I’d vamp these 

four chords and hum tunes to myself for hours and hours at a time. I’ve never got any further than those 

four F-sharp chords, by the way. I’ve used them ever since.”  












In one week late in 1892 the young “tunesmith” completed words and music for six songs. With a flourish 

he quickly mailed copies of these to several New York sheet music publishers, and eagerly awaited the 

avalanche of contracts he was sure would follow.  But to his amazement, all six were flatly rejected (One 

publisher sent him this note: “Dear Sir: Your songs are not publishable. Please do not send any more.”). 

Characteristically, rather than discourage him, this total failure strengthened Cohan’s pugnacious belief in 

his abilities. He sharpened his pencil and “. . . worked like a trojan [sic] to improve my style of melody and 

learn how to jingle words in rhyme . . .” A few months later, after he had written a stack of new songs, he 

began to personally make the rounds of the New York music publishers. Again and again he was rebuffed. 

In a last-ditch effort he braced himself and ventured into the offices of one of America’s foremost music 

publishers, M. Witmark & Sons. This firm’s catalog represented the crème de la crème of the nation’s top 

composers (they would not sign Victor Herbert for another five years). To the youth’s amazement, the firm 

purchased one of his comic songs, “Why Did Nellie Leave Her Home?” (It was later revealed that the sale 

was the result of the senior Mr. Witmark’s fondness for George’s father, rather than out of any real interest 

in the kid’s song.) Cohan’s elation at having his first number published was shattered when he received his 

copies and discovered that the Witmarks had replaced his original words with new ones ghostwritten by 

their staff lyricist. Nevertheless, the publication opened doors up and down Tin Pan Alley, and Cohan leapt 

at his chance. Getting his one man “factory” into full production, he turned out songs by the dozens, and 

publishers were now knocking at his door: “I played no favorites with the publishers. I’d sell a song 

wherever I could get the price. The price was from ten to twenty-five dollars, according to the subject and 

merit of the thing. The paying of so much a copy as royalties was an exceptional arrangement in those days. 

The average song writer (comparatively few at the time) was usually pressed for ready cash, and couldn’t 

afford to gamble.”  




In his earliest efforts as a neophyte songsmith Cohan wrote primarily in “waltz time,” and occasionally in 

4/4 meter with bouncing, schottische-style dotted rhythms. These songs were pleasant and very ordinary. 

That would soon change: While touring with the Four Cohans in vaudeville in the mid-1890s, Cohan 

became more and more aware of and fascinated by the emerging style of “rag-time”—the underground 

urban folk music of Midwestern African-Americans. But by the mid-1890s ragtime was making inroads into 

the consciousness of white middle-class America. It is not known exactly where Cohan first encountered 

this new music, but there can be no doubt that he heard it in vaudeville theaters of the Midwest (rendered 

by fellow white performers, since vaudeville was strictly segregated), as offered by the white minstrel troupes 

for whom he wrote sketches, and possibly, at Tony Pastor’s Music Hall in New York, where singer/pianist 

Ben Harney (1872–1938) was then introducing ragtime (as a strange and exotic novelty) to Gotham. 

However he discovered it, this new rhythmic sound was intensely exciting to Cohan: brash, optimistic, and 

eccentric, it was—almost literally—his own personality expressed as music. It is no wonder that he grabbed 

onto it with such enthusiasm, and why it remained an important element in his songwriting for so long.  









The earliest Cohan ragtime-inflected songs appeared in 1896. “Hot Tamale Alley,” popularized by the 

“coon shouter” May Irwin (1862–1938) was the first, followed by other tunes including “Warmest Baby in 

the Bunch” (1897). These first efforts shared two traits: their overtly racist themes, and their very sparing 

use of true ragtime syncopation. Rhythmically speaking, it is likely that Cohan was not yet able to notate the 

tricky syncopations exactly as he wished them to be performed (at the same time in Sedalia, Missouri, an 

older black musician named Scott Joplin was wrestling with the same problem). But by the turn of the 

century, Cohan seems to have mastered the rhythmic “palate” of ragtime.  He did not use many of the 

rhythmic figurations gracing the classic piano rags, but did use those that could be reproduced vocally with 

reasonable ease. Indeed, what could really be termed the “Cohan motif”—eighth-quarter-eighth (as in the 

first measure of “Give My Regards to Broadway”)—was a basic building block of ragtime. It provided the 

“jingle” for dozens of Cohan songs well into the late 1920s. (It should be mentioned that, to the general 

public of the early 1900s, the term “ragtime” meant syncopated pop songs as well as instrumental pieces; 

the narrowing of the definition of “ragtime” to include only piano pieces was a modern trend advanced by 

the ragtime revivalists beginning in the 1940s.  Ragtime songs typically were structured like most pop vocal 

music of that time—intro/verse/chorus/verse/chorus. Instrumental rags were generally built on the “march 



On this recording there are many examples of Cohan’s use of the ragtime style. Beyond the obvious ones 

(“Cohan’s Rag” and “Popularity”) there is the gentle, sophisticated raggyness of “That Haunting Melody,” 

the faster, citified “The Hinky Dee” and “Until My Luck Comes Rolling Along” from the Overture to Little 

Nellie Kelly, “Ethel Levey’s Virginia Song” heading up the “March from Geo. Washington, Jr.,” “The Man 

Who Owns Broadway,” “I’ll Go the Route With You” and the flirtatious “I’m in Love With One of the 

Stars,” heard in the Selection from The Man Who Owns Broadway, and “Burning Up the Boulevard” and 

“Put Down a Bet for Me” from the Overture to The Talk of New York. Even the slightly foreboding “Eyes 

of Youth” contains several measures of good old-fashioned ragtime syncopation, à la Cohan!  


George M. Cohan was the first major white theater composer to inject the rhythms of ragtime into musical 

comedy scores. The “punch” and “zing” of many a Cohan number came from this use of rag syncopation. 

(Here it should be mentioned that authentic African-American musicals featuring ragtime scores by black 

composers like Bob Cole [1861–1911], Will Marion Cook [1869–1944], and others began opening on 

Broadway in 1898. But these productions were far less numerous—by a hundred to one, perhaps—than the 

white ones.) Typical show scores of the early 1900s were stylistically no different from those of the 1880s 

and ’90s; the songs and dance numbers derived from the straightforward rhythms of the waltz, schottische, 

march, and two-step. With his introduction of ragtime, Cohan led the break away from these older musical 

conventions. In a very powerful way, his popular New York productions and numerous national touring 

companies exposed vast numbers of white theatergoers to ragtime, helping it to gain acceptance as the up-to- 

date musical “language” of the modern theater. However, while Cohan’s audiences took delight in this new, 

“gingery” sound, many professional critics—comfortable in their Victorianism—objected. They often derided 

his music (and ragtime in general, as it crossed their paths) as “cheap,” “vulgar,” and “inappropriate for any 

setting other than a common minstrel show.”  (James Metcalfe, writing in Life magazine, sniffed that Cohan 

represented one of the most “. . . emphatic proofs of the continuous downward tendency of the American 

stage and the American audience.”) Interestingly, after Cohan’s move from vaudeville to New York musical 

comedy, his ragtime songwriting began to move away from caricaturing African-American life toward 

depictions (usually humorous) of middle-class white situations. Ragtime was moving from demeaning 

exoticism to its eventual status simply as up-to-date pop music—the new “soundtrack” of mainstream 







As far as can be determined, other than a brief passage in his autobiography, Cohan did not leave a detailed 

description of his method for writing his songs. He did occasionally kid interviewers who questioned him 

about his “system,” and offered a few rather-difficult-to-believe descriptions (writing while asleep, etc.) of it. 

What can be said is that Cohan had intense powers of concentration and wrote his songs very quickly. It 

seems likely that he usually devised his lyrics first and then wrote melodies to fit them. When analyzing 

Cohan songs, it becomes apparent that the text was paramount to him, and in order to serve it, Cohan often 

ignored the conventions regarding the normal, “commercial” length of a song.  A typical 1900s pop tune 

was constructed with a verse of sixteen measures, followed by a chorus of another sixteen or thirty-two 

measures, both of which were repeated at least once. But Cohan often exceeded this “standard” format to 

accommodate his more expansive texts (the chorus of “There’s Only One Little Girl,”—heard here as 

an instrumental—has forty-nine bars.). Similarly, when brevity was key to the success of his text, he would 

issue a song with fewer than the number of “expected” measures (as in “Eyes of Youth,” which tells his 

mystical story in one “pass” without need of a second verse and chorus).  



Cohan the composer achieved success mainly by instinct rather than training. As related earlier, his formal 

musical study was extremely limited. He once quipped “As a composer I could never find use for over four 

or five notes in any musical number. . . .” From several comments he made, it is likely that Cohan’s tunes 

did not come to him in finished form (inspiration), but rather were melodic “nuggets” that he quickly 

worked out on the piano by repeated tinkering and experimentation. M.L. Lake became his orchestrator in 

the 1920s, and had this to say: “Everybody knows that George had a natural gift for creating rhythmic, 

tuneful melodies. No one ever wrote ‘patter’ songs equal to his. Although he had learned to play a few tunes 

on the violin, his basic knowledge of music was negligible. Like many other ‘ear’ composers, Cohan played 

his melodies on the black keys of the piano—in the warmly-colored keys of G-flat or F-sharp. These are very 

difficult keys for schooled pianists, but easy to find for those who employ only three or four chords for 




Like most composers of popular music, George Cohan’s limited musical training caused him to rely on the 

services of arrangers to put his musical ideas into proper written form. (An “arranger” is a musical expert 

who is paid to take an incomplete musical idea [often a mere snippet of melody] or an improperly notated 

one, and turn it into a serviceable “score” crystallizing the composer’s ideas for future performance and/or 

publication. Arrangers are also responsible for “translating” piano pieces and songs into successful 

arrangements for the larger forces of orchestras and bands; such scores are often called “orchestrations.”)  

Cohan did not need help writing down initial sketches of his tunes; he had acquired that important skill in 

childhood. He did however require arrangers to make orchestrations from these piano “drafts” for use in 

his many shows. For decades the arranger most closely associated with Cohan was Charles J. Gebest (1873– 

1937). The Gebests were a family of German bandsmen who had settled in the Midwestern United States 

in the 1840s (Gebest’s uncle, Charles L. Gebest [1848–?] was a well-known circus bandmaster). Music 

remained the Gebest family business, and Madison, Indiana, served as their home base. Here young 

Charlie grew up and studied. While still a teenager, he left home; in 1890 he was carving out a living as a 

musician in Zanesville, Ohio. Sometime, somewhere in the 1890s Charlie Gebest met Jerry Cohan, and the 

vaudevillian hired the young man to serve as music director for the Four Cohans. He soon became their all- 

around musical factotum, playing piano for the act, conducting the pit-orchestras in those venues so- 

equipped, and writing arrangements and orchestrations of George’s latest songs and dance numbers. 

Gebest’s relationship to the Cohans was very close, and he remained in their service for more than thirty  

years. He conducted almost all of George M.’s Broadway shows (until 1928’s Billie), and up to 1922 

orchestrated most of them as well. Charles Gebest’s services must have somehow been invaluable to George 

Cohan, because their working relationship was often stormy. Cohan was a formidable man who had no 

difficulty firing employees when necessary, yet M.L. Lake remembered, “How two guys could be as fond of 

one another and continue to fight every day for more than thirty years is unexplainable. Charlie Gebest 

wasn’t a bad guy. He had some fine points but he was afraid someone would find out about them. So he hid 

behind a sour puss, which never tends to make a man popular. If George remonstrated with him for lousing 

up someone’s dance tempo, it was always a yelling match. I remember one time when George turned to me 

and said, ‘Do I have to take this in my own theater?’ As far as Charlie was concerned, he did.”  As an 

orchestrator, Charles Gebest was quite conservative, even by the standards of the early 1900s. He presented 

Cohan’s melodies simply, with a minimum of ornamentation, coloration, or changes of instrumentation. 

This presentation may have reflected Cohan’s wishes. In any case, Charles J. Gebest’s hundreds of scores 

quite successfully introduced Cohan’s music to the world. 



In 1922 George Cohan hired M.L. Lake (1879–1955) to take over as chief orchestrator for the Cohan 

productions (Charlie Gebest retained his posts as musical director and conductor). Unlike Gebest, Mayhew 

“Mike” Lake was a highly trained classical musician. By the age of sixteen he was playing his violin with the 

Boston Symphony Orchestra; subsequently he graduated from the New England Conservatory after 

advanced courses in piano, harmony, and counterpoint. But Lake, like most classical musicians in late 

1800s America, found the best way to make a living was to play, compose, and direct theater music for 

popular shows. He became a conductor specializing in vaudeville, and by 1910 had risen to the top of his 

field. At the same time Lake built a strong reputation as an arranger/orchestrator, scoring for such 

luminaries as Victor Herbert and Sousa. In 1913 he accepted the prestigious post as Editor-in-Chief of Carl 

Fischer, Inc., then the world’s largest sheet music publisher. Despite this very full professional life, when 

George M. Cohan offered Lake the job as orchestrator, he took it. In his wonderful autobiography Great 

Guys, Lake described the work: “The Cohan melodies were good but, lacking a foundation of harmony, 

George wrote rather crude accompaniments limited to ‘ear’ chords. So, it was my principal job to 

incorporate the proper harmonies and then arrange the scores for orchestra. Good sequences of chords will 

enhance the effect of any song without detracting from the original melodic line. . . . There are, however, 

many instances wherein over-harmonization will destroy the effect of a song. In a typical tune, where the 

lyrics are all-important, any musical background should be secondary and kept light and unobtrusive. The 

words must dominate or the song is lost. Soupy, soppily-sentimental chords belong only in ‘heart’ songs, 

and when George would encounter any strange harmonization, his face would pull down into a grimace, 

one eye would close and we knew without his saying a word that the chords were out. At least for the time 

being. Sometimes, through conniving, I would be able to interpolate chords and harmonic sequences about 

which he would later rave. And he could, with minimum effort, be the most stubborn guy that ever lived. 

But, as I said earlier, he never resorted to using his position as a means of winning an argument. Well, 

almost never.” All in all, the creative work of Gebest, Lake, and their various assistants succeeded very well 

in illustrating Robert Russell Bennett’s wry theater maxim: “The pits and the budgets are much too small for 

musician’s dreams, but it is up to the orchestrator to keep that fact a secret from the audience.”  











The Music 



The music presented on this recording was selected with the hope of demonstrating the widest range of 

George M. Cohan’s talents as a composer and lyric writer. Included are several old favorites from the 

“Cohan Songbook,” along with some lesser-known gems. As you listen you will become aware of several 

Cohanesque techniques that thread their way through all of his music: First, his use of extremely repetitive, 

short melodic sequences which toggle back and forth between just a few notes. This jingly-ness makes his 

tunes extraordinary “catchy.” Also much in evidence is his frequent quotation of famous earlier tunes like 

“Yankee Doodle,” “Dixie,” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”  This was a clever device used to “coattail” a 

new song on the affection listeners had for these venerable melodies. Another Cohan trait is his adoption of 

some of the martial characteristics of concert band music, particularly the active, melodic bass lines written 

in bumptious counterpoint to his melodies. Cohan obviously loved the marches of John Philip Sousa 

(1854–1932), which featured very similar low-register figurations. Indeed, much of Cohan’s music 

foreshadowed the strong impact the concert band was to have on the American musical theater; he brought 

with him the first brassy blasts of what would become world-famous as “the Broadway Sound.” 


Our program begins with a stirring orchestral arrangement of one Cohan’s few non-show songs, “There’s 

Only One Little Girl for Me.” The publisher of this delight advertised it as “Cohan’s Greatest Song,” 

and that—up to the time of its appearance in 1916—was not too far from the truth. While not a big seller and 

all but forgotten today, it was a tuneful showcase for Cohan’s expanding harmonic palate. The instrumental 

version heard here was created by William “Billy” Schulz (1882–?), a leading New York orchestrator 

between the years 1910 and 1920. The Brooklyn-born Schulz specialized in the conversion of pop songs 

into snappy dance numbers. He scored for virtually all of Tin Pan Alley’s ace songwriters, and was a 

particular favorite of Irving Berlin. “There’s Only One Little Girl for Me,” performed at regulation one-step 

tempo, makes a perfect “curtain raiser” for the Cohanesque program that follows.  


Two of the “immortal” Cohan songs, “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to 

Broadway,” were premiered by their author on the evening of October 10, 1904. The occasion was the 

Hartford, Connecticut, opening of Cohan’s new show Little Johnny Jones. This was his third musical 

comedy, and first full-length one. He was its librettist, lyricist, composer, choreographer, stage director, and 

star. The story was loosely based on the career of Tod Sloan (1874–1933), a jockey then prominent in the 

sporting pages of America’s newspapers. While Little Johnny Jones was received well during its Hartford 

tryout, its initial run on Broadway (at the Liberty Theatre, beginning November 4, 1904) was not a success. 

The New York critics panned it as simple-minded, jangling, and crude; even Cohan’s hometown 

(Providence, Rhode Island) paper piled on: “Mr. Cohan has written a lot of dialogue that has some bright 

spots, but for the most part is commonplace, to put it kindly; and he has provided a dozen and a half 

‘musical numbers’ whose distinguishing feature is ginger. In fact there is more ginger than music. It is all 

very Cohanesque.” After fifty-two performances Cohan and his new producing partner Sam H. Harris 

(1872–1941) pulled their floundering show from New York and put it on the road as a touring attraction. 

While en route it did well, but more importantly, Cohan, determined to have it succeed in New York, spent 

much time re-writing and tightening it. His efforts paid off, and Little Johnny Jones returned triumphantly to 

Broadway for two profitable runs in 1905 (from May 8 to August 26, and November 13 to December 2).  







Cohan’s second major Broadway musical was a commission from the entertainment mogul A.L. Erlanger 

(1859–1930), the leader of the powerful Theatrical Syndicate. Erlanger had recently signed the comedienne 

Fay Templeton (1865–1939), star of the popular Weber & Fields burlesques, to appear in his productions. 

Casting about for a new vehicle for her and impressed with Cohan’s work with the resuscitated Little Johnny 

Jones, Erlanger sought out the young “comer” and asked: “Do you think you can you write a show without a 

flag?” The Yankee Doodle Boy fired back, “I could write a play without anything except a pencil.”  And 

thus work began on Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, the show that launched one of Cohan’s most 

famous songs, “Mary’s A Grand Old Name.” Featuring what was very likely Cohan’s career-best 

musical comedy libretto, Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway enjoyed a promising Midwestern tour. But 

when the production moved to New York for its January 1, 1906 opening, Abe Erlanger had doubts about 

the prospects for success. Cohan had written the show for only eight chorus girls, and it had fewer songs and 

more dialogue than other musicals; this seemed dangerously at odds with the successful “formula.” But 

Cohan (who directed but did not appear in the show) was confident. He was proven quite correct—the 

show, Miss Templeton, and her young co-star Victor Moore (making his Broadway debut) all made an 

instantaneous smash hit. Here, Bernadette Boerckel winsomely re-creates the role of the housemaid “Mary 

Jane Jenkins” (Templeton) singing “Mary’s A Grand Old Name” in Act I. The orchestration used to 

accompany her is from the original 1905 production.  



George Cohan is often remembered for his unabashed patriotism: He was never shy about wrapping 

himself—or his shows—in the American flag. This habit endeared him greatly to Americans of that 

expansive, intensely nationalistic age (manifested politically by President Theodore Roosevelt and his “Big 

Stick” foreign policy). But this flag-waving also proved to be a lightning rod for more than a few critics, who 

viewed the behavior as a crass and cynical gimmick. The saga of “The Grand Old Rag” is a case in point: 

After a ceremony marking the fortieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War (a conflict his father Jeremiah 

had served in), George Cohan struck up a conversation with a nearby Union Army veteran who was bearing 

a large, tattered American flag. When Cohan asked about it, the old soldier began to tell of the terrible 

battles through which that flag had rallied his regiment. As he ended his stirring war story, the veteran began 

reverently furling the Colors and said, “Yes sir, she is a grand old rag.”  The phrase struck Cohan like an 

electric shock—here was a great song lyric. Or song title. Or both! Within an hour, while riding in an 

automobile, Cohan wrote a song around this idea. Dubbed “You’re A Grand Old Rag,” it extolled the 

greatness of America and her all-conquering banner. Cohan liked his new number so much that he was 

inspired to write an entire new musical comedy around it (possibly the only time a single song inspired a 

whole Cohan show). The resulting musical, George Washington, Jr., starred Cohan and his then-wife Ethel 

Levey (real name: Ethelia Fowler, 1881–1955), as well as his parents, Jerry and Nellie Cohan. George 

Washington, Jr. opened at the Herald Square Theatre on February 12, 1906 (Lincoln’s Birthday) to 

spectacular acclaim. Audiences adored the show, and especially Cohan’s stirring rendition of his “You’re 

A Grand Old Rag.” However, two days later, controversy erupted in the newspapers regarding the song: 

Cohan was accused of deliberately insulting “Old Glory.” The clamor grew so strident that he quickly re- 

titled his number “You’re A Grand Old Flag” (as it is still known) and revised its lyrics similarly. The 

“March Medley from George Washington, Jr.” includes the two hits from Cohan’s score, Ethel 

Levey’s “Virginia Song” and “You’re A Grand Old Rag.” The arrangement performed here was the 

original entr’acte during the show’s 1906 run.  







Today, most of those who know the name of George M. Cohan are unaware of his considerable work as a 

serious playwright.  But beginning in the 1890s he did write many non-musical plays, and several of them 

were very successful. He brought the first of these to Broadway on October 1, 1906. Entitled Popularity, it 

was a conventional melodrama about the lives of New York theater performers. Popularity was not very well 

written, but did sport some novel features: One of the “sets” was simply the backstage of the theater itself, 

and the audience was given the opportunity to interact with the performers as part of the show. Despite 

these innovations, Popularity was a total failure. The critics savaged it, the public stayed away, and after 

twenty-four performances a chastened Cohan closed it. Interestingly, in those days even non-musicals 

featured “incidental music” which was played before the first act, during scene changes, and after the final 

curtain. This music was designed to put the audience in the proper mood for the theme of the play, and in 

large cities, regulation-sized orchestras were used to render it. For Popularity, Cohan had written several 

such incidental “cues.” Despite the embarrassing demise of his play, he liked the first of these—a sort of 

miniature overture—so much that he published it as an independent “rag-time march.” He named it 

Popularity” too. Happily, it did actually become popular; from sheet music sales of the number, Cohan 

was able to completely cover his losses from the stage production. “Popularity” is indeed an attractive piece, 

brim-full of Cohanesque swagger. And the trio section, with its heavy, over-the-bar syncopations, uncannily 

prefigures the “one-step” type of dance rhythm that would not be heard in other composers’ music until the 

early 1910s. The orchestration heard here was recorded by the Victor Talking Machine Company 

Orchestra on October 22, 1906. However, with Popularity’s disastrous closing two days later, the resulting 

“takes” were never released. Our performance marks the arrangement’s debut on record—more than a 

century delayed! 



After the great success of Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, Cohan sought to create a sequel to it. Fay 

Templeton was unavailable, so he decided to construct his new show around the burgeoning talents of her 

young co-star, Victor Moore. In Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, Moore (1876–1962) had made his 

smashing Broadway debut as “Kid Burns,” a loveable tough guy. Moore was so successful in this role that 

Cohan reprised “Kid Burns” as the lead in the sequel, which he dubbed The Talk of New York. Moore 

was again a sensation, securing his place as one of Broadway’s greatest comic actors. The new production 

“tried out” in Chicago, and then opened on Broadway at the Knickerbocker Theatre on December 3, 1907. 

Another smash, The Talk of New York ran there for one-hundred-seventy-three performances. Although 

the show is little remembered today, the Overture to The Talk of New York reveals some first-rate 

Cohan melodies (including the beautiful waltz “I Want the World to Know I Love You,” introduced here 

with great warmth by cornetist Kevin Cobb). In this early period of American musical comedy, the overture 

was often treated as walk-in music—a cheery sonic background to introduce a new show’s tunes to patrons as 

they found their seats and visited with friends. It was known that repetition and familiarity were vital 

ingredients in fostering the public’s liking for new music; in theaters, an “overture” (sometimes referred to 

as “the selection”) represented the first chance to acquaint the audience with new songs, hopefully paving 

the way for affection when they reappeared later in the context of the show. Further, an important part of 

the business was the sale of sheet music of songs from a production, and repetition also boosted song-sheet 

sales. For these reasons, overtures from the 1900s and earlier were usually straightforward medleys 

presented with few connective passages, modulations, or even much concern for key relationships between 

the tunes. It was not until the mid-1910s that it became customary in musical comedy for the overture to 

mark the formal start of the program (as had been the case in “higher-toned” opera and operetta). And with 

that advance, the musical comedy overture rose from mere ballyhoo to its modern place as the artistic 

showcase for the talents of a show’s orchestrator.  




One of George M. Cohan’s best and best-loved songs is “Harrigan.” So it is delightful to know that the 

song celebrates a real person who, in life, was as just as lovable as the tune made him out to be. Edward 

“Ned” Harrigan (1844–1911) was a true pioneer of the American theater. Famed as an actor, lyricist, 

playwright, and impresario, from the 1870s through the 1890s his Irish-tinged musical farces were the toast 

of New York. Young George Cohan idolized Harrigan, and in many ways patterned himself after the 

veteran showman. Late in 1907 Cohan began work on a new musical starring Edna Wallace Hopper (1874– 

1959), with a storyline set in the Cohan family’s real-life summer home of North Brookfield, Massachusetts. 

Entitled Fifty Miles from Boston, it opened in the Garrick (formerly Harrigan’s) Theatre on February 3, 

1908. The cast included a character named “Harrigan” who was based on the comic roles that the real 

Harrigan had played in his own shows decades before. New Yorkers attending Fifty Miles from Boston 

quickly caught on to this affectionate reference and were touched by it. And, when Ned Harrigan himself 

was eventually coaxed to his old theater to see the show, bittersweet tears streamed down his face as he 

heard “Harrigan” sung for the first time. Cohan, after his hero’s passing some time afterward, made this 

testament: “Edward Harrigan was a fine artist, a great writer of human comedies and one of the grandest 

men it has ever been my pleasure to meet . . . I live in hopes that some day my name may mean half as 

much to the coming generation of American playwrights as Harrrigan’s name has meant to me.”   



Geo. M. Cohan’s Rag” is an instrumental dance arrangement made from two 1908 Cohan ragtime 

songs, “Belle of the Barber’s Ball” and the chorus of “Oh! You Coon.” This rare number was a highlight of 

the short-lived Cohan & Harris Minstrels of 1909, a production that in many respects marked the demise of 

the oldest of American theatrical genres—the minstrel show. The sequel to the modestly successful Cohan & 

Harris Minstrels of 1908, the 1909 edition opened at the New York Theatre on August 16 of that year. But 

this time Messrs. Cohan and his co-producer/partner/brother-in-law Sam Harris were unhappily surprised 

by dismal ticket sales. After only sixteen performances and the loss of a large sum of money, the two 

showmen were forced to concede that the minstrel format had finally become obsolete (at least in the 

Metropolis). Nevertheless, Minstrels of 1909 had plenty of excellent music, including “Geo. M. Cohan’s 

Rag.” While far removed from the Joplin rag style familiar to modern listeners, it is a fine period example 

of theater orchestra ragtime. Its intense syncopation, eccentric instrumental effects, and brassy out-chorus 

made it a thrilling model of sophisticated stage music ninety-nine years ago.  



By 1909 George M. Cohan had become generally recognized as one of the most important figures in the 

American theater. He was acclaimed as a performer, songwriter, playwright, and stage director, and also— 

with partner Sam Harris—as a leading producer and theater owner. Just thirty-one years old, Cohan had 

reached the pinnacle of his profession, and was rich to boot. He was never a man of false modesty, so quite 

naturally titled his tenth musical comedy The Man Who Owns Broadway. The basic plot for this show was 

taken from Cohan’s failed 1906 dramatic play Popularity. With just a dash of humility, he put another 

genuine musical comedy star, the great Raymond Hitchcock (1865–1929), into the title role. The Man 

Who Owns Broadway was produced at the New York Theatre beginning in October 1909, and ran merrily 

into the following year. The Selection from The Man Who Owns Broadway heard on this 

recording gives us a rare glimpse of the charm of this almost completely forgotten Cohan score. This 

medley was created by J. Bodewalt Lampe—the conductor who Cohan credited with “helping” him to invent 

the famous “Cohan style” of stage dancing. As music director of Buffalo’s Court Street Theatre, Lampe 

(1869–1929) conducted for the Four Cohans’ March 1896 appearances. The bill included teenaged George 

in a solo dance spot and, tired of performing to the ancient “Coming Through the Rye,” he asked Lampe to 

have the orchestra play something different at the next performance. The conductor agreed, and substituted 

one of his own compositions. But the cocky kid did not ask to rehearse (or even hear) the new music! At 

the performance Cohan was horrified to find himself on stage trying to do his dance to “the weirdest 

melody I had ever heard.” But rather than walk off, he improvised an entire new choreography to fit it. 

Amazingly, Cohan’s comic, grotesque, rubber-legged steps sent the audience into hysterical applause. 

Eureka! As he recalled in 1924, “For twenty solid years I did this same dance to the same music. . . . The 

‘Cohan style’ they used to call it. But little did they guess that the thing was nothing more or less than an 

accident brought about by an orchestra playing a two-four melody instead of six-eight. Before the following 

season [1897] was over I had risen from the ranks of the ordinary ‘hoofers’ and had become known as a 

great eccentric dancer.”    



Al Jolson fans will probably be the only living beings already familiar with “That Haunting Melody”; 

their hero “covered” it in his very first phonograph recording, made for Victor on December 22, 1911. 

That hit record was a result of the sensation Jolson (real name: Asa Yoelson, 1886–1950) was making with 

the number in a non-Cohan musical called Vera Violetta. In the show, Jolson—in blackface—played an 

African-American waiter named “Claude,” and delivered “That Haunting Melody” in minstrel-style 

“dialect.” Because of this connection, it has been suggested that George Cohan wrote the song especially for 

Jolson, or at least for use in the production. But Jolson’s performance on the disc (Victor 17037) bears little 

resemblance to the way Cohan had written his song. Further, “That Haunting Melody” had appeared in 

print well before the opening of Vera Violetta. So it seems more likely that Jolson had simply run across the 

sheet music and decided to interpolate it into the new musical. Cohan’s thoughts on the matter are not 

known, but it is interesting to note that for the rest of Cohan’s life, his songs were never again performed or 

recorded by Al Jolson. (“Jolie’s” famous rendition of “Give My Regards to Broadway” was recorded years 

after Cohan’s death.) In any event “That Haunting Melody,” performed from the original score, is a work of 

considerable subtlety. A true ragtime song, and full of syncopation, it makes a smooth, mysterious, and 

infectious addition to any Cohan retrospective.  



The evening of April 7, 1917 found George M. Cohan at his Manhattan apartment with his family. He had 

returned from his usual Saturday visit to the Cohan and Harris offices with a newspaper that shrilled, 

“WAR WITH GERMANY DECLARED!” Cohan restlessly paced the living room, and then closed 

himself into his study. Early the following morning he emerged and called a family meeting: He had just 

finished a new song and wanted everyone to hear it. Dropping a large kitchen pot over his head and slinging 

a broom over his shoulder, he began to march about bellowing, “Johnnie get your gun, get your gun, get 

your gun! . . . ” By the time he had finished this world premiere of “Over There,” his little daughter 

Mary was in tears! Shortly thereafter, the song fell flat when Cohan gave it its first public performance at a 

troop rally in Virginia. But finally, in the fall of 1917, “Over There” began to click: It was successfully sung 

by the film actor Charles King (1895–1957) at a huge Red Cross benefit concert, and then—better still—it 

was taken up with gusto by the vaudeville star Nora Bayes (1880–1928) who plugged it relentlessly (her 

photo graces the cover of the sheet music’s first edition). Overnight it seemed, “Over There” had the nation 

singing, humming, whistling, and—most important, marching. Cohan had published the song through his 

own sheet music subsidiary. But soon the rival Leo Feist firm offered him an unprecedented $25,000 for 

the song, and he accepted. (Characteristically, the Yankee Doodle Boy donated every cent to charity.) Of 

the more than one thousand songs written about the “Great War” during 1917–18, “Over There” was by 

far the most popular and longest-lived. By the end of the conflict it had sold more than two million copies 

of sheet music and an even larger number of phonograph records (numerous singers covered it, including 

Caruso). Today, “Over There” remains one of the few generally recognized “artifacts” of that terrible 

conflict. The rousing orchestral arrangement recorded here was specially written in 1917 for George M. 

Cohan’s own public performances of the song. Coda: In 1936, the United States Congress awarded a 

special Medal of Honor to George M. Cohan in recognition of “Over There”’s extraordinary role in 

helping America win the World War. But Cohan had a curious aversion to ceremonies (and a dislike for 

the Roosevelt Administration); finally in 1940 he traveled to Washington, D.C., and accepted the medal 

personally from President Franklin Roosevelt. After returning home, all Cohan could say was, “Funny 

about them giving me a medal. All I wrote was a bugle call.”  



One of George M. Cohan’s most important—and largely overlooked—contributions to American music was 

his role as a mentor to Irving Berlin. Berlin (real name: Israel Baline, 1888–1989) had idolized Cohan’s 

music since his days as a singing waiter in the Lower East Side’s seedy Pelham Café. As Berlin rose from 

waiter to chorus boy to minor Tin Pan Alley song plugger and lyric writer, he somehow came to the 

attention of Cohan. There were many similarities between the two men: both were self-educated, wrote 

words and music for their own songs, and both could play the piano in only one key—F sharp major. Cohan 

took a great shine to the young Russian immigrant, and opened many doors for him. He introduced Berlin 

to publishers, producers, star performers and, in 1911, sponsored his membership in the elite Friars Club. 

Around that time Cohan also surprised Berlin with a bulkier gift: a Weser transposing piano. This 

ingenuous instrument allowed a one-key-only pianist to mechanically shift the keyboard so that the music 

coming out could be made to sound in any key desired. (Cohan owned three of these instruments.) This 

piano, in the words of the biographer Laurence Bergreen, freed Berlin to “. . . develop the harmonies, 

nuances, rhythms, and fill notes he needed to embellish his tunes. At the touch of a lever, he could test a 

chord or a phrase in a different key; he could experiment with interactions between chords and melodies 

without having to seek out a collaborator whose patience and endurance was as great as his.” Not 

surprisingly, Irving Berlin’s early songs were very much influenced by Cohan’s, especially in their penchant 

for expressing patriotic themes. At last, in the fall of 1917 Berlin had a chance to return some of the favors: 

Cohan was laboring on a new show—a revue slated for a New Year’s Eve opening, and for the first time he 

was without inspiration. As Cohan recalled several years later, “I was all in, dead tired, and for the first time 

in my life acknowledged the fact, but only to myself. My mind was dull, the piano seemed out of tune, or 

out of sympathy, I couldn’t tell which. The melodies were commonplace, the lyrics were worse. ‘What’ll I 

do?’ I thought. An idea flashed in my mind. I ran to the telephone. ‘Get Irving Berlin on the wire,’ I 

hollered, and waited for the connection. ‘Hello Irving! How’d you like to do a revue with me?’ ‘I’ll be right 

over,’ he sang back.” And thus, for the only time in Broadway history, these two icons of words and music 

collaborated on a show, dubbed The Cohan Review of 1918. Berlin was tremendously honored by the 

invitation, and worked studiously on his assigned parts of the project. He was rather astounded by his idol’s 

fast and casual working methods; when a fortune-teller number was required for Act I, Cohan went 

backstage and reappeared twenty minutes later with “The Eyes of Youth See the Truth.” This 

gorgeous and unusual song was such a stylistic departure for Cohan that it is often incorrectly attributed to 

Irving Berlin (furthering the confusion is the fact that in 1919 Berlin wrote his own song—a waltz—that he 

named “Eyes of Youth”); but “The Eyes of Youth See the Truth” heard here is indeed a George M. Cohan 




By the early 1920s George M. Cohan’s presence on Broadway more and more came to represent nostalgia. 

That decade was the busiest ever in the history of “The Great White Way”—over four hundred new 

productions opened. A dozen of these crossed the magical five-hundred-performances mark. This was the 

beginning of Broadway’s “Golden Age”—that now-fabled era of Kern, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers 

& Hart, Vincent Youmans, and others. It was into this glittering atmosphere that the old pro, George M. 

Cohan, ventured forth with Little Nellie Kelly. This show, unofficially dedicated to his parents (the leads 

were named “Nellie” and “Jerry”), opened November 13, 1922. While Cohan’s score (of eighteen songs) 

was beautiful, the book showed little advance from his early 1900s efforts: Set in the Bronx, it joyfully 

swarmed with a millionaire, wholesome working girls, charming Irish cops, and various stock city characters, 

all with hearts of gold. But somehow, once again the Cohan alchemy worked—Little Nellie Kelly was a 

“wow!” The New York World enthused, “This is not revue. Yet it is not conventional musical comedy. It is 

a little bit of drama, a great deal of comic pertness, a scenic delight and through all runs an almost continual 

strain of lovely music. . . .” Little Nellie Kelly ran on Broadway for two-hundred-seventy-eight 

performances—a Cohan record surpassed only by the combined 1904/05 runs of Little Johnny Jones. But it 

was to be the veteran showman’s last successful musical. Audiences of 1922 certainly must have found the 

book and score to be old fashioned. But they did not mind—yet: The “Roaring Twenties” had still not 

overwhelmed the gentler era of entertainment that George M. Cohan represented. But when Little Nellie 

Kelly at last ended its run in the summer of 1923, it was clear that Cohan’s day as the “The Man Who 

Owns Broadway” was finally over too. Here, with the Overture to Little Nellie Kelly, we capture a 

fleeting glimpse of the autumnal beauty of this forever-vanished show.  



The final track on this CD is an historic recording of George M. Cohan speaking as the guest of honor at 

the Catholic Actor’s Guild annual dinner on April 24, 1938. Held at the Hotel Astor in New York, more 

than one thousand guests attended to pay tribute to the Yankee Doodle Boy. The proceeds were donated 

to charity, and many of the old showman’s longtime friends and associates (including his former partner, 

Sam Harris) were present to salute him. Rising to address the throng, Cohan reminded them of his late 

father’s role in the founding of the Guild. Poignantly, the last of the Four Cohans, brings his remarks—and 

an era—to an emotional close by paraphrasing the legendary curtain speech he had used with the family’s act 

so long before: “My father thanks you, my mother thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”  































Founded in 1985, The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra is the world’s only year-round, professional 

ensemble specializing in the authentic re-creation of “America’s Original Music”—the sounds of early 

musical theater, silent cinema, and vintage ballroom dancing. PRO came into being as the result of Rick 

Benjamin’s discovery of thousands of early 1900s orchestra scores of the Victor recording star Arthur Pryor. 

In 1988 the Orchestra made its formal debut at Alice Tully Hall—the first concert ever presented at Lincoln 

Center by such an ensemble. Since then PRO has appeared at hundreds of leading arts venues, including 

the Ravinia Festival, the Smithsonian Institution, the Chautauqua Institution, the Brucknerhaus (Austria), 

the New York 92nd Street Y, and the American Dance Festival. In 1999, PRO’s music inspired the master 

choreographer Paul Taylor’s new dance, Oh, You Kid!, which was premiered at The Kennedy Center 

jointly by the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the Paragon and has since toured the world. In late 2003 

the Orchestra premiered Rick Benjamin’s reconstruction of Scott Joplin’s 1911 opera Treemonisha to 

acclaim at the Stern Grove Festival. More recently, PRO had the honor of appearing twice as special guests 

of the Minnesota Orchestra in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.   


In addition to its world-wide concert hall, university, and festival appearances, PRO has acquired a 

considerable following both here and abroad through its radio programs on the New York Times’s 

WQXR, National Public Radio, the British Broadcasting Corp., and the Voice of America networks. Since 

1989 the Walt Disney Company has relied on the Orchestra for the recorded theme music at its Main 

Street, U.S.A. attractions, and in 1992 PRO proudly served as “Ambassador of Goodwill” for the United 

States at the World’s Fair in Seville, Spain. Over the years the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra has been heard 

on the soundtracks of many films and television programs, and its audio and video recordings have been 

widely praised and considered instrumental in rekindling interest in the rich history and tradition of the 

American theater orchestra. (Website: http// 


Conductor Rick Benjamin has built a career with the discovery and performance of American music 

from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He is the founder and director of the Paragon 

Ragtime Orchestra, which uses his extraordinary 9,000-title collection of antique theater and dance 

orchestra music (c. 1870–1925) as the basis of its repertoire. In addition to his work with Paragon, Mr. 

Benjamin maintains active careers as a pianist, arranger, and tubist. As a guest conductor he has led many 

symphonic ensembles, including the National Orchestra of Ireland in Dublin, the New Jersey Symphony 

Orchestra, the Aalborg and Aarhus Symfoniorkesters in Denmark, the Olympia Symphony (Washington 

State), the National Orchestra of Iceland, and the Erie Philharmonic. Mr. Benjamin is a leading researcher 

in the field of silent film music; he has unearthed the original orchestral accompaniments to many 

important motion pictures of the 1900s, ’10s, and ’20s, and has conducted for more than five-hundred-sixty 

screenings across North America and Europe. His articles on popular music appear in several international 

publications, and lecture tours have taken him to more than a hundred colleges and universities throughout 

North America. Mr. Benjamin’s multi-year reconstruction of the Scott Joplin opera Treemonisha was 

premiered to great acclaim in 2003 at San Francisco’s Stern Grove Festival, and was recently performed by 

the Cape Town Opera in South Africa. He is continuing work on his books The American Theater 

Orchestra and Encyclopedia of Arrangers & Orchestrators: 1875–1925.  











Bernadette Ulrich Boerckel is a high school English, drama, and journalism teacher at Warrior Run 

High School in Pennsylvania who performs in musicals, operas, and operettas throughout the mid-Atlantic 

region. As a soloist, she has an extensive repertoire that includes the Mozart Requiem, the Rutter 

Magnificat, and Saint-Saëns’s Christmas Oratorio. This is her second recording with the Paragon Ragtime 




Colin Pritchard is an actor/dancer/singer living in New York who has garnered rave reviews for his 

portrayal of George M. Cohan in theatrical productions. He has performed internationally and across the 

U.S. in such shows as 42nd Street, A Chorus Line, Singin’ in the Rain, Contact, Thoroughly Modern Millie, 

Crazy for You, No, No, Nanette, and Hairspray, among others. When not performing, he teaches tap 

dancing, and follows politics and international affairs. He holds a degree from the School of Foreign Service 

at Georgetown University. 



The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra 

Rick Benjamin, director  


Caroline Chin, first violin and concertmaster 

Bryony Stroud-Watson, second violin 

Corrina Albright, viola 

Alistair MacRae, ’cello 

Deb Spohnheimer, bass 

Leslie Cullen, flute and piccolo 

Sarah Beaty, clarinet 

Kevin Cobb, cornet 

C.J. Camerieri, cornet 

Tim Albright, trombone 

James Musto III, drums and bells 

Diane Scott, piano 




The Yankee Doodle Singers 

Tim Albright, Bernadette Boerckel, Gary Boerckel, C.J. Camerieri, 

Kevin Cobb, Diane Scott, Deb Spohnheimer, Ted M. Tobani 



Bernadette Boerckel, soprano 

Colin Pritchard, baritone 






George M. Cohan 

Maybe Someone Ought to Wave a Flag. Vaudeville Archive Records 1009. 

A Tribute to George M. Cohan. Folkways F-RFS604. (LP) 


The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra 

Black Manhattan: Theater and Dance Music of James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook, and Members of 

the Legendary Clef Club. New World Records 80611-2. 

From Barrelhouse to Broadway: The Musical Odyssey of Joe Jordan. New World Records 80649-2. 

Knockout Drops: American Popular Music from the Ragtime Era. PRO 6002. 

More Candy: Theater & Dance Music from the Ragtime Era. Rialto Records 6003. 

On the Boardwalk: Music from the Arthur Pryor Orchestra Collection. Newport Classic NCD 60039. 

On the Level: Songs of Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. Gretel Bailey Records GBR-1. 

’Round the Christmas Tree: Vintage Yuletide Favorites. Rialto Records 6004. 

That Demon Rag! Dorian DIS-80107 (reissued as PRO 6001). 

The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra (finally) Plays “The Entertainer.” Rialto Records 6005. 

The Whistler and His Dog: More Music from the Arthur Pryor Collection. Newport Classic NCD 60069. 



Baral, Robert. Revue. New York: Fleet Publishing Corp., 1962. 

Benjamin, Rick. The American Theater Orchestra. In preparation.  

Bennett, Robert Russell. Instrumentally Speaking. Melville, NY: Belwin-Mills Pub. Corp., 1975 

Bergreen, Laurence. As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.  

Burton, Jack. The Blue Book of Broadway Musicals. Watkins Glen, NY: Century House, 1952.  

Cohan, George M. Twenty Years On Broadway, and the Years it Took to Get There. New York: Harper & 

Brothers, 1925. 

Ewen, David. The Complete Book of the American Musical Theater. Revised edition. New York: Henry 

Holt & Co.: 1959. 

Ewen, David. Great Men of American Popular Song. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972. 

Jasen, David A. Tin Pan Alley. London: Omnibus Press, 1990. 

Lake, Mayhew Lester. Great Guys: Laughs and Gripes of Fifty Years of Show-Music Business. Grosse 

Pointe Woods, MI: Bovaco Press, 1983. 

Mackie, William H. The Orchestra Leader’s Guide. Philadelphia: J.W. Pepper, 1916. 

Marks, Edward B. They All Had Glamour. New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1944. 

McCabe, John. George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 

Inc., 1973. 

Moody, Richard. Ned Harrigan. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1980. 

Morehouse, Ward. George M. Cohan: Prince of the American Theater. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 


Morrison, William. Broadway Theaters: History and Architecture. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999. 

Page, Brett. Writing for Vaudeville. Springfield, MA: The Home Correspondence School, 1915. 

Rust, Brian and Debus, Allen G. The Complete Entertainment Discography. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington 

House, 1973. 

Witmark, Isidore and Goldberg, Isaac. From Ragtime to Swingtime: The Story of the House of Witmark. 

New York: Lee Furman, Inc., 1939.  


The Internet Broadway Database (IBDB). 

Virtual Vaudeville. 

George M. Cohan in America’s Theater. 



Rick Benjamin: track 5  

Alfred Dalby (1875–?): track 9 

Charles J. Gebest (1873–1937): tracks 2, 3, 6, 7, 10, 11 

M.L. Lake (1879–1955): track 13  

J. Bodewalt Lampe (1869–1929): track 8   

Frank Saddler (1864–1921): track 4 

William Schulz (1882–?): track 1 

uncredited (attributed to Frank Saddler): track 12 

Frederick Watson (1885–1935): track 14  


Performance editions prepared by Rick Benjamin. 

All orchestrations from the Rick Benjamin Collection.  


Album concept by Rick Benjamin 

Produced and engineered by Judith Sherman 

Engineering and editing assistance: Jeanne Velonis 

Digital mastering: Paul Zinman, SoundByte Productions, Inc. New York City 

Recorded June 5–6, 2008 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City 

Cover photo: George M. Cohan (1908), Paragon Ragtime Orchestra Collection. 

Design: Bob Defrin 


Piano provided by Steinway & Sons 



Special thanks to Darrell Baker, John S. Maddox Jr., Vince Giordano, and Mike Glazer.  


This recording was made possible by a grant from the Francis Goelet Charitable Lead 




Herman E. Krawitz, President; Lisa Kahlden, Vice-President; Paul M. Tai, Director of Artists and 

Repertory; Mojisola Oké, Bookkeeper; Anthony DiGregorio, Production Associate. 



Richard Aspinwall; Milton Babbitt; Jean Bowen; Thomas Teige Carroll; Emanuel Gerard; David Hamilton; 

Rita Hauser; Lisa Kahlden; Herman E. Krawitz; Fred Lerdahl; Robert Marx; Arthur Moorhead; Elizabeth 

Ostrow; Cynthia Parker; Larry Polansky; Don Roberts; Marilyn Shapiro; Patrick Smith; Paul M. Tai; Blair 



Francis Goelet (1926–1998), Chairman 


For a complete catalog, including liner notes, visit our Web site: 

New World Records, 75 Broad Street, Suite 2400, New York, NY 10004-2415 

Tel (212) 290-1680  Fax (212) 290-1685 


P & © 2008 Anthology of Recorded Music, Inc. All rights reserved. Printed in U.S.A.