Friday, November 4, 2011

Yankee Doodle: A History

W. M. Hunt, Drummer Boy, c. 1882
Yankee Doodle is a song every American child used to know, not only as a song, but as a clapping game, and even as a kind of skipping children's dance. At various times, it has been glorified as a national nickname, and turned into the subject of Broadway plays and Hollywood musicals. But most of all, perhaps best of all, it has been shortened into a term that describes the American spirit: 

We are Yankees. Proud yankees. Damn yankees. A people full of something the world knows as "Yankee ingenuity." And sometimes, we are known simply as "Yanks."

By whatever moniker or form you know the term "yankee," they all find their way back to one man with an inconceivable feather in his cap called macaroni. What does it all mean? Keep on reading...

Just how old is "Yankee Doodle"?
Yankee Doodle is such an old song that in some verses, General Washington is only a captain! Funnily enough, this error helps us to date the song as its roots rest in the camp of the British soldier and not with General Washington's Minute Men:

And there was Captain Washington,
With gentlefolks about him,
They say he's gown so 'tarnal proud
He will not ride without them.

Yankee Doodle or The Spirit of '76, by A.M. Willard
 In war, rank is always important, so what this early version of the song reveals is just how little regard loyalists to the Crown had for Washington and the Continental Army. As a result, British officers and officials were loathe, early on, to grant Washington his title not just in passing but also (especially?) within formal documents.

This issue of rank was at the heart of Washington's refusal to meet with representatives of the British government in August, 1775 to discuss a possible and early peace (i.e. capitulation). Correspondence bearing such a plan from Admiral Howe addressed to Washington did not acknowledge Washington as a general so Washington refused to acknowledge the communiqu├ęs. The sticking point may seem petty but such details – such respect or lack thereof – are at the heart of the give and take we call "negotiation."

Another version of the song reflects a different type of dissatisfaction with Washington's appointment as Commander-in-Chief:

There came Gen'ral Washington
Upon a snow-white charger
He looked as big as all outdoors
And thought that he was larger.

Given the hardship Boston had suffered over the years at the hands of King George's punitive legislation, some assumed the new general would be from Massachusetts; and some did not. John Adams, who suggested Washington for the job, was from Massachusetts and believed appointing a southerner would help unite all the colonies against the Crown.

So what was a Yankee doodle?
Early Yankee Doodle song sheet, Library of Congress
In the 17th and 18th centuries, a doodle was a term referring to fools, not totally unrelated to the nonsensical scrawls we call doodles. The word is thought to come from the German dudel meaning fool  (wikipedia). As a term if derision, it probably was a common one. 

In the 18th century, there also was something called a macaroni wig, an extremely curly wig whose popularity was limited to 18th century fops, that generation's equivalent of fashion extremonistas.

When the English army surgeon Dr. Richard Shackburg (or Shuckburgh) penned his lyrics (c. 1755), he was taking aim at the rough and tumble soldiers of the New World, not the kind of professional soldier that formed much of the British Army.

Shackburg met many such backwoods soldiers during the French-Indian War. One in particular, according to Wikipedia, stood out: Col. Thomas Fitch and his colonial unit. Fitch was the son of the Connecticut governor and would have represented an example of the colony's finest. Clearly, Shackburg was unimpressed.

Another pre-Revolutionary verse, dating to 1755 or 1758, takes aim at the courage of a certain colonial named Ephraim whom, claims the song, was an utter coward: 

Brother Ephraim sold his Cow
And bought him a Commission;
And then he went to Canada
To fight for the Nation;

But when Ephraim he came home
He proved an arrant Coward,
He wouldn't fight the Frenchmen there
For fear of being devour'd.

Some scholars believe the verse refers to Ephraim Williams who actually died in a battle at Lake George (wikipedia). If this is true, then some sources believe this is the same Ephraim Williams who, in his will, left his property for the founding of a school – Williams College.

Another early verse used as a marching song for the British army during their occupation of Boston (after the battles of Lexington and Concord, and Bunker or Breed's Hill) makes fun of John Hancock, one of the wealthiest Colonial merchants and a staunchly radical patriot:

Yankee Doodle came to town,
For to buy a firelock,
We will tar and feather him,
And so we will John Hancock.

As for the "Yankee Doodle" in the above stanza who came to town to buy a firelock and was subsequently tarred and feathered, one legend says this refers to a Billerica, MA patriot, Tom Ditson, who not only was tarred and feathered for his political beliefs but can be counted on the muster roll as having fought at the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
When turn around is fair play ...
A very special version of Yankee Doodle was played at the surrender of  the British Army's surrender at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the last battle of the American Revolution (

Cornwallis led a country dance
The like was never seen, sir,
Much retrograde, and much advance,
And all with General Greene, sir.

Yankee Doodle also is the official state song for the state of Connecticut (courtesy Connecticut Sons of the American Revolution).

Here are the complete lyrics of Yankee Doodle, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The US Fife & Drum Corps, presidential inauguration 2009

sources used for this blog:
Library of Congress

Want to see the US "Old Guard" Fife & Drum Corps play? 
Click here!

Let it fly! is collecting the history behind Yankee Doodle Dandy and other patiotic songs.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I'm currently reading “An Englishman's Travels in America” by J Benwell ( He has this to say about the writing of the song:

    In the attacks made upon the French posts in America, in 1755, those
    against Niagara and Frontenac were made by Governor Shirley, of
    Massachusetts, and General Jackson, of New York. Their army during the
    summer lay on the eastern bank of the Hudson, a little south of Albany.
    Early in June, the troops of the eastern provinces began to pour in
    company after company, and such an assemblage never before thronged
    together on such an occasion. "It would have relaxed the gravity of an
    anchorite," says the historian, "to see the descendants of the Puritans
    marching through the streets of the ancient city, and taking their
    stations on the left of the British army--some with long coats, and
    others with no coats at all, and with colours as various as the rainbow;
    some with their hair cropped like the army of Cromwell, and others with
    wigs, the locks of which floated with grace round their shoulders. Their
    march, their accoutrements, and the whole arrangement of the troops,
    furnished matter of amusement to the British army. The music played the
    airs of two centuries ago; and the _tout ensemble_, upon the whole,
    exhibited a sight to the wondering strangers to which they had been

    Among the club of wits that belonged to the British army, there was a
    Doctor Shackburg attached to the staff, who combined with his knowledge
    of surgery the skill and talent of a musician. To please the new-comers,
    he composed a tune, and, with much gravity, recommended it to the
    officers as one of the most celebrated airs of martial music. The joke
    took, to the no small amusement of the British. Brother Jonathan
    exclaimed, it was "nation fine;" and in a few days, nothing was heard in
    the provincial camp but the air of "Yankee Doodle."

    Little did the author, in his composition, then suppose, that an air,
    made for the purpose of levity and ridicule, should be marked for such
    high destinies. In twenty years from that time, the national march--now
    universally recognized by the patriots--inspired the heroes of Bunker's
    Hill; and, in less than thirty, Lord Cornwallis and his army marched
    into the American lines to the tune of "Yankee Doodle."