John A. Douglas

Living Passionately In the World of the Moving Image

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STORIES – Mrs. Lee and George M. Cohan

August 1st, 2009 · 1 Comment · Personal Stories

I was notified last weekend that Mrs. Lee recently died at the age of 101. Mrs. Lee was the principal of the elementary school that I attended in the late 1940s in Glen Ferris, West Virginia.

We kids all knew that her real name was Virginia Lee but no kid that I ever knew said her name aloud either in front of her or behind her back. That kind of disrespect was too dangerous for we believed either consciously or subconsciously that she probably possessed powers that were not given to regular folks.Mrs. Lee

She was Mrs. Lee and that was that.

So what does Mrs. Lee have to do with movies? Nothing. But she does have something to do with one movie in particular. That movie is Michael Curtiz’ “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with James Cagney and Joan Leslie.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a film that was built to elicit an emotional response from its audiences be they folks that lived through World War I and/or World War II. The film is filled with inspirational songs that were composed by Gorge M. Cohan and were popular during World War I. “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a film biography of George M. Cohan, was released in 1942 and it put those inspiration songs to work once again to buck up the spirits in those uncertain days of World War II.

Mrs. Lee, who taught music to all seven grades, obviously loved those World War I songs; primarily the ones written by George M. Cohan. Thus songs of World War I were the entire music curriculum at our school. I suppose that there are education experts that would find all kinds of reasons that gung-ho songs of war would be inappropriate for elementary school kids but they would be full of crap.

Those were wonderful songs and they cried out to be sung. So when Mrs. Lee’s talents on the upright piano were combined with the voices of the kids from all seven grades, that was real music. These were not the wimpy and tuneless songs sung in schools these days but were songs you could get your tonsils around.

From Cohan came “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and the showstopper of Glen Ferris Elementary – “Over There.” Mrs. Lee also introduced us to non-George M. Cohan songs like “A Rose in No-Man’s Land” and “Goodbye Broadway, Hello France” plus we had our first taste of a foreign language when we sang “La Vie En Rose.”

But it was those George M. Cohan songs that were one of the supports of my musical foundation. So whenever I re-watch “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and someone on the screen begins to sing one of those wondrous songs, I am taken back to those times in the activity room of that little school house when the youth of our town and a few neighboring towns let loose with “Over There” or one of the other tunes in our repertoire. Those were grand old times.

Over the years I have come to realize that Mrs. Lee not only taught me some swell songs but taught me a lot about the joys of music. Mrs. Lee and George M. Cohan were quite a team.


One Comment so far ↓

  • Bill

    What an amazing post, John! I didn’t know Mrs. Lee. But I gained respect for her from reading your memories of that time in your life.

    Thanks for sharing!

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