Monday, July 4, 2011

Retro Matinee Feature Showing: Yankee Doodle Dandy

Have you ever taken a photograph of a statue not fully understanding who the figure is? I have: of George M. Cohan in New York City's Times Square. I can't help but notice the word "Disney" flashing over his name. Having watched Yankee Doodle Dandy starring James Cagney, I can no longer say that's the case.

There's a scene at the end of the film where in the later years of Cohan's life some teenagers stumble upon his farm and have no idea who he is, which so troubles him. Have we forgotten him too? Is he standing amid the lights and constant activity of one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city begging, remember me?

His New York Times obituary read,

"George M. Cohan, the Yankee Doodle Dandy of the American stage who gave his country its greatest song of the first World War died his home overlooking Central Park...

The great song and dance man--perhaps the greatest in Broadway history--was 64 years old...A year ago--Oct. 19, 1941--the man who wrote "Over There" and received a Congressional Medal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt for writing it...

Although he was famous for his songs and dances in many shows, for his impersonation of President Roosevelt in "I'd Rather Be Right" and of the country editor in Eugene O'Neill's "Ah Wilderness!" it was as the author of "Over There," the stirring march of the First World War, that he was internationally respected. Not since the Civil War had so popular a patriotic song been forthcoming. It was his unfulfilled ambition to give American another "Over There" for this war, a war thus far without a song to match it."

When I first started American Dream Finder, I reflected on Wynton Marsalis' words in my post Classic Obsessions.

"It saddens me for us as a nation because we have such a rich cultural heritage and...we would make such better decisions if we could understand what brings us together.

The arts are our collective human heritage. You're a better person if you know what Shakespeare was talking about. If you know what Beethoven struggled with, if you know about Matisse. If you know what Louis Armstrong actually sang through his horn, you're better. It's like you get to speak with the wisest people who ever lived."

I still think about his words a lot. He is so right, but who will pass on this knowledge?

We're notoriusly bad at history, and American students were recently said to be less proficient in history than any other subject, the New York Times reported. Most fourth graders were unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure. As a history lover, it saddens me.

I'm thinking a lot about patriotism too, and what George M. Cohan did to instill a sense of, and his contributions to the arts, which too readily feel the budget cut's ax.

I love my country, and hope you do too. I think some bad decisions are being made, as they are always made, and it's our job as citizens to help steer it to the right course. I hope you feel that way too.

I'm also remembering those whose independence was lost while ours was gained. I try and pay respect to their spirit by being respectful of the land, air, animals and water they so revered. I hope you feel that way too.

I hope you have a great Independence Day.


  1. Just about three weeks ago, at a backyard party, I sat with well-educated people with their MBAs under their belts and we were talking about the questions on the citizenship test. Although the questions are easy, they can present a problem to most Americans. How many Senators are there? The three branches of government? Which amendment protects your freedom of speech? The first ten amendments to the constitution are called?

    This guy next looked at me askance when I said that the constitution was around the 1780s, prob. in 1787. He argued for 1776. Clearly, he forgot about the Declaration of Independence which started the revolution in 1776. Never mind the dates. This mistake tells me that people, many people perhaps, don't even know the sequence of events in American history. Revolution first, and then a constitution. The civil war comes after the revolution. Lincoln was not a contemporary of Washington...

    Bottom line is, one has to care about what has happened before us because from those times we get our own times. Many Americans don't even know about the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the 1960s that changed our country forever.

  2. As a political science major, these questions are not hard for me to answer, but for most they might be.

    I recently saw the great historian David McCullough at the 92nd Street Y talk about his new book about Americans to going to Paris in the 20th century, not for ambition to make money, but to better themselves and their skills in medicine, art, writing, etc. He spoke about how crucial we realize that what exists now wasn’t always the case. I think there's an entitlement culture with many respects (I think of our blatant disrespect of the environment and limited natural resources, or bad financial habits that in some cases are our own fault). We do not appreciate what was before us.

    I also recall his words about history not being about dates, obscure facts and quotes, but cause and effect, consequences, and such. And how it's also about money, love, drama, sciences.

    We were speaking yesterday about how many don't even know what 1776 represented. Every holiday has lost its meaning.