Grand old flag swells heart with pride

Published 6:28 pm Saturday, July 4, 2015

How many times has your heart filled with pride and thankfulness when our beautiful American flag is displayed during a parade? Or just waving in the breeze against a background of blue sky? Or when people stand with hats or hands over their hearts singing the National Anthem?

A few years ago, a solicitation for funds for a veterans’ organization appeared in my mailbox. Included was a folder with a picture of our American flag. It was held high in the hands of a soldier leading a parade. Under it were the words, “Hats off, the flag is passing by.” Inside was the poem of that title written by author and poet Henry Holcomb Bennett. The first patriotic lines are: “Hats off! Along the street there comes a blare of bugles, a ruffle of drums, a flash of color beneath the sky: Hats off! The flag is passing by!”

First published in “The Youth’s First Companion” in January of 1898, it then soon appeared in several student readers. The poem makes my heart tremble at the thought of so many brave warriors who fought and so many who died to preserve our freedom under that majestic flag.

Has your heart been roused with patriotism upon hearing George M. Cohan’s song, “You’re A Grand Old Flag”? Incidentally, Cohan was born on July 4, 1878, in Providence, R.I. The original title of the song was “You’re A Grand Old Rag,” which came from a Civil War veteran’s comment as he held an old tattered flag in his hand. I think it would be difficult for anyone who saw actor James Cagney and chorus’ performance of the song to keep their feet still as he bellowed, “You’re a grand old flag. You’re a high flying flag and forever in peace may you wave.” The song continues citing the merits of the “emblem I love.” It was the first song from a musical to sell more than a million pieces of sheet music.

On one July 4 Sunday morning, rising from the pew during a worship service to begin singing the line, “O beautiful for spacious skies…” from “America the Beautiful,” I felt a rush of patriotism and thankfulness. My imagination whirled, as I saw fields of grain gently rippling with a breeze, mountains of unbelievable heights, a bright blue sky with mounds of fluffy clouds, and waves tumbling toward the white sandy beaches of the of the Gulf of Mexico. Reflecting on those moments, I knew that my heart sang the song along with my voice.

I pondered over Katharine Lee Bates’ inspiration for those lyrics. Perhaps she traveled widely to gain knowledgeable of the country. Born in 1859, she taught English at Wellesley College and published the poem in 1893. It was later revised for lyrics. Though she is not a familiar name to most of us, the inspirational words she penned became a popular ballad during her lifetime. They continue to thrill Americans down to this day.


Nina Keenam is a former newspaper reporter. Her column appears on Saturdays.