Sheet music was the engine of the music business at the turn of the 20th century. Although phonographs had already begun to appear in a few homes, in 1900 the most popular music player was still the piano. The best way to hear a new song was to buy the sheet music—loose sheets of paper with the music and lyrics of a single song—and play it or sing it yourself. Music fans bought, borrowed, traded, and collected sheet music just like today’s listeners do with recordings, and popular songwriters became celebrities, household names, and, in some cases, millionaires.
George M. Cohan was already a Broadway star in 1906, but sheet music made him a legend. As a performer and songwriter, he had been part of several successful shows and had written a number of hit songs, including "Give My Regards to Broadway." However, when he introduced an upbeat, patriotic song called "You’re a Grand Old Rag" in his new musical George Washington, Jr., he became a nationwide sensation. The song’s popularity quickly spread beyond New York and across the country, especially after he changed "Rag" to "Flag." Soon it was being sung in homes, social clubs, and taverns throughout the U.S. When the nation experienced a surge of patriotism on entering World War I in 1917, "You’re a Grand Old Flag" surged with it and became the first song from a musical to sell over a million pieces of sheet music.
As you listen to this song, think about what makes a song successful, and decide if today’s popular music might be any different if you had to play it or sing it all by yourself.
For more background information on this period, visit these presentations.
- American Memory Timeline (Progressive Era to New Era)
- America’s Library — Jump Back in Time (Progressive Era)
- Ragtime Dance