Yankee Doodle Anti-Union Boy
Yankee Doodle Dandy was a union buster.
How perfect is that? How deliciously, ironically, tellingly perfect.
George M. Cohan was the composer and lyricist of that patriotic anthem, which still brings tears to the eyes of those who buy into the American myth. James Cagney sang and hoofed to the song in the 1942 eponymous biopic on Cohan. Funny thing is, that’s not even the actual name of the song, which is fitting because it’s all a load of bullshit in any case.
The song’s name, in case you’re interested, is “The Yankee Doodle Boy.”
Ever since Cohan’s lilt hit it big in his 1904 play Little Johnny Jones, the showbiz maestro has himself been identified as the archetypal YDD.
Cohan embodied all those self-aggrandizing traits we of this holy land like to bathe ourselves in. Hard work, ambition, stick-to-it-iveness, a refusal to take no for an answer, and — very, very most importantly — he was able to make himself wealthy beyond belief.
And you know how the vast majority of folks like to make themselves wealthy, don’t you? (That is, besides being born to a loaded sugar daddy-o or marrying same.) The rich get rich by making sure the money tree shakes out over them and them alone and if anyone else tries to catch some of those fluttering bucks, well, sorry about your kneecaps, kid, but keep your mitts off my green.
The Broadway money tree made George M. Cohan fabulously wealthy. No argument here that he earned his dough. Only that he was loathe to let pesky sorts like actors earn theirs.
Cohan, it turns out, was a harsh and vociferous opponent of the nascent Actors Equity Association. See, pre-Equity, stage actors were lucky ever to get paid at all, they often had to supply their own costumes and pay their transportation and rooming costs for traveling shows. Acting as a profession was screaming for unionization. Equity came into being in 1913 and six years later felt strong enough to stage its first big strike. Cohan fought it, and them, tooth and nail.
“I’d rather be an elevator operator” than work on stage as a member of the union, Cohan famously said.
Not that Cohan was against forming associations whose members would benefit from an equitable sharing of the wealth. He helped form ASCAP, The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, a group dedicated to ensuring that high school kids performing the likes of Little Johnny Jones would fork over the pennies they made from it to their rightful recipients — the likes of George Michael Cohan.
Yankee Doodle Dandy, indeed.
Natch, even a century later, we celebrate the Fourth of July by watching Cagney-as-Cohan on TCM and singing Cohan’s songs in the park as fireworks light the night sky. We don’t, I needn’t remind you, sing hosannas to Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, and A. Philip Randolph. And if you don’t know who they are, get cracking and look them up. They’ve done a lot more for you than George M. Cohan ever did.
A. Philip Randolph
You’re a Grand Old Flag, my ass.
[ED: Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the founding of Actors Equity. Go to a play and celebrate why dontcha?]