‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’: A Musical Tribute on Flag Day

(AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)

Today is Flag Day, which commemorates the official adoption of the Stars and Stripes on June 14, 1777. Today is also the U.S. Army’s birthday. It’s a great day to fly the U.S. flag, reflect on what is best in America’s history, and listen to a musical tribute to our flag.


Enthusiastic patriot and multitalented entertainer George M. Cohan wrote the once-hugely popular song “You’re a Grand Old Flag” in 1906. The flag he praised was first adopted officially by the Continental Congress on this day in 1777. It was a little different then, with 13 stars instead of 50, but there were always thirteen red and white stripes and stars on a blue background. Cohan’s song expresses the pride the flag and all it stands for inspires in the breasts of loyal Americans:

Ev’ry heart beats true

Under red, white and blue

Where there’s never a boast or brag

But should old acquaintance be forgot

Keep your eye on the grand old flag!

Men fought and died for that flag. At Trenton and Yorktown, in Mexico and France, at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, during battles at Meuse-Argonne and Iwo Jima, in Korea and Vietnam, from the Philippines to Afghanistan, the brave soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines of America bore that flag proudly, on staffs or shoulders. That flag, for more than two centuries, stood for freedom—not just at home but abroad. At ball games, schools, government buildings, homes, monuments, graves, and battlefields, the Stars and Stripes have represented everything that is bravest and best about America.

It is fitting that today should be the birthday of the U.S. Army too. The U.S. Army website explains that, while the opening shots of the Revolution were fired by militiamen in April 1775, an official army was not established until June 14, when the Continental Congress issued a fateful resolution. The next day, Congress appointed George Washington to command the new Army that was to ensure the birth of a new nation, aiming to provide liberty and justice for all.


One of the most successful American songwriters of the 20th century certainly loved our flag. George M. Cohan was a talented man, who wrote his own plays and music—and then starred in the shows, singing, dancing, and acting. His hits included “Over There,” “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway,” and “Mary’s a Grand Old Name.” And after a moving encounter with a Civil War veteran, Cohan penned one of his most famous songs, a tribute to our nation’s flag. From the Library of Congress:

You’re a Grand Old Flag’ was written by George M. Cohan for his 1906 stage musical George Washington, Jr. The song was introduced to the public in the play’s first act on opening night, February 6, 1906, in New York’s Herald Square Theater. It was the first song from a musical to sell over a million copies of sheet music.

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’.


As Library of Congress noted, music like “You’re a Grand Old Flag” created a shared identity of popular culture for Americans. It’s a culture we should resurrect today. In 1942, actor James Cagney starred as Cohan in the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, a sort of musical cinematic biography of Cohan’s life. Below is Cagney’s iconic performance of “You’re a Grand Old Flag” from that movie:

Happy Flag Day, and thank you to all those who have served or are serving in the U.S. Army!


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