Created | Updated May 14, 2013
Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on a pony
Stuck a feather in his hat
And called it Macaroni.
- Traditional American song
Yankee Doodle remains today one of the world's most popular tunes. It's in the Top Ten of Most Easily-whistled Tunes, is taught in many elementary or music schools worldwide, and has a number of things named after it, including a film1, a 19th-century satire magazine2, a coffee shop and even a modern Internet shop.
Face it, Yankee Doodle is immortal.
And yet this very song has also given rise to a number of perplexing questions that we have asked ourselves and plagued others with when we were children. Like, for instance, who or what was Yankee Doodle? Why are Americans referred to as Yanks? And what had the pasta macaroni to do with a feathered hat?
The History of the Song
Strangely enough, despite the fact that the popularisation of Yankee Doodle took place in America, the song in fact originated from Europe. It is said that its history can be traced back to 15th-century Holland, where it was a harvesting song that began with the words 'Yanker dudel doodle down'. At the same time, the tune was used with a nursery rhyme called 'Lucy Locket' in England.
The tune's journey down the road of derision began when the lyrics accompanying it were changed to ridicule Puritan church leader Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell, also known as Lord Protector of England, served England's Short Parliament and Long Parliament for about twenty years before civil war broke out in 1642. He rapidly proved himself a capable military leader; however, despite having succeeded in putting an end to the Rump Parliament and establishing himself as sole ruler, he just as quickly discovered that a large army and a monetarily-strapped government did not go together. Perhaps it was because of this - or maybe his botched attempt at placating the army, the nobility, Puritans and Parliament, which resulted in the alienation of all four groups - that prompted some historical wiseguy to poke fun at Cromwell in the form of a song. The word 'Yankee' was a mispronunciation of the Dutch word for 'English3, and 'doodle' referred to an idiot - perhaps for Cromwell's failures?
However it was not until the French and Indian War that Yankee Doodle made its fateful trip to the continent that would make it famous - America.
Yankee Doodle goes West
1689 was the year of the French and Indian War. Both the English and the French had colonies in North America by that time; both parties wanted control of the continent, never mind that it was the Indians who actually controlled the territory. A war inevitably erupted between the two neighbours, each with its own Indian allies.
The New England (colonial) troops who joined General Edward Braddock's forces, unlike their rakishly uniformed British comrades, looked as though they'd gone native - fashioning buckskins and furs instead of spiffy army uniforms. And who could blame them? These were the pioneers - the ones who were granted pioneer deeds and who had to toil to make the land habitable and capable of sustaining life, unlike their European counterparts whose dress had become decadently ostentatious. Of course, that didn't stop the British from deriding the American colonists for being yokel-ish by comparison. Military surgeon, Richard Schuckburgh4, obviously did not hold this bunch of ragtag colonists in high regard for he wrote5:
There is a man in our town,
I pity his condition,
He sold his oxen and his sheep
To buy him a commission.
The British gleefully jumped at this chance to insult the bumpkin colonists, and in no time at all the song had dozens of additional stanzas6 - among them, the famous lines about the Yankee idiot who went about on a pony and called his hat a pasta. The song gained the decidedly derogatory title 'A New England Noodle', and was the insult of the day. The song quickly gained popularity in England, and by 1767 was familiar enough to the Americans that Andrew Barton cited it in his comic opera, Disappointment, or The Force of Credulity.
From Insult to Pride and Popularity
When the Revolutionary Wars broke out in 1775, the Brigadier General Hugh Percy's troops marched from Boston playing Yankee Doodle to reinforce the British soldiers already in battle with the Americans at Lexington and Concord. Ironically, this was the war that gave America its independence from the British. Even more ironically, the New England colonists not only came to dismiss it as an insult, but came to take pride in being called Yankees, and appropriated the song as their anthem of defiance and liberty. It is said that this was the song the colonists sang as they drove the British back to Boston on 19 April 1775. The British must have been mortified when the triumphant Americans played it at the surrender of Lord Cornwallis to George Washington at Yorktown. British officer Thomas Anburey wrote:
...the name [of Yankee] has been more prevalent since the commencement of hostilities... The soldiers at Boston used it as a term of reproach, but after the affair at Bunker's Hill, the Americans gloried in it. Yankee Doodle is now their paean, a favorite of favourites [sic], played in their army, esteemed as warlike as the Genadier's March - it is the lover's spell, the nurse's lullaby . . . it was not a little mortifying to hear them play this tune, when their army marched down to our surrender.
Later on in the Civil War, the Confederates took the song and turned it into an insult directed to Union soldiers and northerners. Fuelled by the southern hatred for the northerners, this song survived not only the war but the Reconstruction period that followed, and even after that.
What comes around goes around. Southerners had insulted their northern counterparts with Yankee Doodle during the 19th century; when the world saw its first World War the British reclaimed the insult and took to referring all American soldiers, be they northern or southern, Yankees. George M Cohan's war song Over There, which popularised the term Yank7 sealed the fate of the Americans as Yankees. Eventually this term came to refer to all citizens of the US8, especially by the derisive Latin Americans (who called them Yanqui) following the Cuban revolution.
Cohan first brought Yankee Doodle to Broadway in 1904 when he adapted the tune for his play, Little Johnny Jones, which tells the tale of an American jockey who sojourns to England to win a derby. A portion of this was incorporated into the James Cagney movie Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and thirteen years later, The Seven Little Foys, starring Bob Hope and James Cagney.
The Various Names of Yankee Doodle
The name of the song the world has come to know as Yankee Doodle went through numerous changes throughout the course of its history. Among the known names are:
- 15th Century: Yanker dudel doodle down (Holland)
- 15th Century: Lucy Locket (England)
- c 1775: The New England Noodle
- Before April 1775: Yankee Doodle, aka the Lexington March9
- 1775/1776: The Yankee's Return from Camp (attributed to Edward Bangs)
How many stanzas are there to the song?
It is not known how many stanzas the original Cromwell insult was; Dr. Schuckburgh's version insulting the colonists was probably not much longer than a few stanzas, inclusive of a chorus. However, because Yankee Doodle had a catchy march tune, it was easily expanded and adapted by all and sundry. The Americans added to the song many stanzas about the revolution, including one about Captain Gooding, and later a few on Captain George Washington after he received his commission and took command of the Continental Army at Cambridge Common.
Nobody really knows for certain just how many stanzas make up Yankee Doodle as many were penned and, as in the case of Edward Bangs's famous The Yankees' Return from Camp, were all but forgotten. However, that never stopped anyone from speculating. Tyler's play, The Contrast (1887), featured a speech by a character that went:
Some other time, when you and I are better acquainted, I'sll sing the whole of it — no, no, that's a fib — I can'st sing but a hundred and ninety verses; our Tabitha at home can sing it all.
At the last count, it is estimated that Yankee Doodle has perhaps as many as 190 stanzas. However, the version that survived consists of about 15 stanzas, inclusive of the chorus.
Yankee Doodle, keep it up
Yankee Doodle Dandy
Mind the music and the steps
And with the girls be handy.
Who was Yankee Doodle and where was he going?
Yankee Doodle, as explained earlier, was a New England colonial idiot who rode a pony into town – steeds were only for British officers; colonists had beasts of burden which were employed for everything from carrying loads to ferrying their riders. Because the colonists were often hard at work tilling the ground and making the land habitable, a trip into town was considered a big event. He was apparently a dandy – someone who frittered away his income on clothes that would make him look 'above his station' – although he was equally clueless about fashion.
Why did Yankee Doodle call his hat a pasta?
He did not! He called it Macaroni. Big difference.
The 18th century saw the degeneration of European fashion into utter decadence. The centres for haute couture in that age were France and Italy; Macaroni referred to the fancy and overdressed style of Italian clothing the British imitated, as well as the dandies who adopted this style of dressing. Ridiculously elaborate headdresses were the In Thing for the women and the men's headgear was only slightly less ostentatious. Of course, the colonists, being pioneers, barely had time for themselves, let alone to adhere to the latest fashion – which was why they were still fashioning three-cornered tricorne hats long after the high-crowned beaver hat had replaced them in Europe10. The pompous British made fun of these relatively backward colonists by joking that only a New Englander could stick a feather in his tricorne or coonskin hat and fancy himself to be as spiffy as the European fashionplates.
The first line of the chorus, 'Yankee Doodle, keep it up' further drives in this point – go on, Yanks, keep up the pretence of being even remotely fashionable.
What's this about the music and the girls?
'Mind the music and the steps' was a snooty reference to the difference between European and American dances. Graceful dances such as the minuet and waltz reigned supreme in refined Europe; the American folk dances were livelier and considered barbaric in comparison. The bit about the girls ('And with the girls be handy') is a further bit of insult to the colonists. It suggests that the pioneer women had loose morals, and that the chastity of the woman at home was to be seriously doubted.
Who was Captain Gooding?
No one really knows who Captain Gooding was. The Continental Army consisted of about 14,000 officers, inclusive of militia. However, a peek at the war pension rolls reveals that there were men named Gooden, Godwin and Gooding, so 'Gooding' might be a general name for somebody who fought in the Continental Army.
(The last two lines of the stanza – 'There we seen the men and boys/As thick as hasty pudding' – referred to a quick-recipe British dessert, 'hasty pudding', which was popular around 1742. Seeing as the British were intent on insulting the colonists, 'thick as hasty pudding' could also have very well implied that the New Englanders weren't too bright)
Yankee Doodle is an old song, one that has survived the test of time – roughly five centuries and many major wars, inclusive of the two World Wars. It has evolved from a nursery tune to an insult to an anthem – and at last to a popular traditional song – but not entirely without casualty. More than three quarters of the lyrics written to the tune have been lost forever. Or is it really all that great a loss?
The triumphant colonists who adopted Yankee Doodle may have got their priorities right:
Yankee Doodle is the tune
That we all delight in
It suits for feasts, it suits for fun
And just as well for fightin'.
Patriotic Hymns and Songs: Yankee Doodle. IN The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.
Higginbotham, D. 1996. American Revolution. Grolier Multimedia Library.
Himes, A, Yankee Doodle Dandy: YDC Goes to Town with an American Classic. LinguisticWonders Series.
Leach, DE, 1996. French and Indian Wars. Grolier Multimedia Library.