"Mind the Music and the Step-"-Yankee Doodle Sings History
by Kathy Warnes
“Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle, Dandy…”
The story of how Yankee Doodle has “kept it up” for centures and gained a musical foothold in American music history has as many versions as the song itself. Some accounts say that Yankee Doodle originates in the English Civil Wars, and other accounts say that it started its historic journey in Irish, Dutch, Hessian, Hungarian, and Pyrenean folk tunes.
Yankee Doodle Encounters the French
Yankee Doodle crossed the Atlantic Ocean lodged in the minds, hearts, and musical memories of immigrants to the New World and propelled by human nature, it reincarnated as a satirical war song during the Seven Years’ War. One version of the Yankee Doodle story originated in the early part of June 1755, when British and Colonial American forces were gathering at Albany, New York, under Governor William Shirley preparing to attack the French forces at Fort Niagara and Fort Frontenac.
The well dressed, well drilled, and to many military minds, overly red coated British forces looked askance down their well prepared noses at the free spirited American soldiers who gathered at the left wing of the British Army to help them fight the French. Americans preferred individual preferences instead of regulation uniforms, their choices ranging from flowing wigs to close cropped hair and clothing in similar disarray. This how the original Yankee Doodle might have been sung:
" 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."
Yankee Doodle as a British Joke
A British surgeon and musician named Richard Schackburg decided to play a joke on the rag tag Americans. He told them that he had written the words to accompany a respected tune that the British Army had traditionally used. He introduced them to Yankee Doodle and even though Yankee Doodle may have been intended as a joke at their expense, the rag tag Americans seriously adopted the tune and words as their own.
Dr. Schackburg’s first verse:
“Yankee Doodle came to town,
A riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his hat,
And called it Macroni…”
The good doctor’s words were meant to make fun of the Americans. The British called the Americans Yankees as their insulting name for New Englanders and later expanded to all English colonists, and doodle meant a ‘foolish person.” Sticking a feather in a Yankee hat and calling it macaroni meant that Americans improvised and thought feathers could replace the English wig or hairstyle called macaroni. Another version of the story has it that macaroni meant a fancy or dandy style of Italian dress popular in England at the time. When the American Yankee Doodle stuck at feather in his cap and called it macaroni, he proclaimed himself to be a gentleman of social standing.
Yankee Doodle’s original words were set to Lydia Fisher’s Jig and it went: Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it; Nothing in it, nothing on it, But the binding ‘round it.”
Yankee Doodle Takes Both Side in the American Revolution
The rag tag “Yankee Doodle” Americans helped the British drive the French out of British North America and the ever resourceful Americans turned the song against the British when as tradition says, Yankee colonists sang it as on April 19, 1775, they pushed the British back to Boston.
"Father and I went down to camp,
along with Captain Gooding,
And there we see the men and boys
as thick as hasty pudding."
Not to be out sung, troops under British General Hugh Percy played “Yankee Doodle” as they left Boston and marched to reinforce the British soldiers fighting the Americans at Lexington and Concord. As the Revolutionary War progressed, so did the verses to Yankee Doodle. Another verse marked General George Washington taking command of the Continental Army.
"And there was Captain Washington,
And gentlefolks about him,
They say he's grown so tarnal proud,
He will not ride without ’em."
Another Yankee Doodle tradition holds that the British often marched to a version of the song about Thomas Ditson of Billerica, Massachusetts. In March 1775, the story goes that Thomas was tarred and feathered for trying to buy a musket in Boston, but he did fight later at Concord.
"Yankee Doodle came to town,
For to buy a firelock,
We will tar and feather him,
And so we will John Hancock."
Based on the story of Thomas Ditson, the town of Billerica, Massachusetts and the Billerica Colonial Minute Men claim that the tar and feathering of Thomas Ditson marked the point that Americans made Yankee Doodle their own song and tossed the American version of the song back to the British. By 1777, Americans had adopted Yankee Doodle as their unofficial anthem, and tradition has it that American bands played Yankee Doodle at General John Burgoyne’s surrendered at Saratoga.
By the time that Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown to end the Revolutionary War in 1781, Yankee Doodle had become popular enough to be played along with the “World Turned Upside Down.” Yankee Doodle had transformed from an insult to a patriotic song and it became the unofficial national anthem of the United States of America.
Play Yankee Doodle for Me
After the Revolutionary War, Yankee Doodle continued to appear in stage plays, music and opera. A Boston Writer supposedly discovered the elements of Yankee Doodle in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Beethoven’s Fantasia, Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, a song by Adolphe Adam, and a psalm by Marcello.
On July 24, 1851, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the United States portion of the Industrial Exhibition which was being held in Hyde Park, London from May 1 to October 115, 1851. A Mr. Prissons from New York had a large double grand piano and when he heard that the Queen and Prince Albert were coming to the American section, he secured four performers and had them all waiting. As Queen Victoria and Prince Albert came down the aisle, Mr. Prissons gave the signal and the four pianists played Yankee Doodle together. The Queen leaned on the arm of her Prince and they both listened and clapped enthusiastically. Mr. Prissons, seizing on the opportunity, when the pianists were finished played a Yankee Doodle encore himself and received a standing ovation. At this point in time, Yankee Doodle marked a meeting of American and British minds.
Yankee Doodle Plays in More Wars
During the Civil War, Confederates sang lyrics mocking the North, and Union Democrats sang lyrics mocking the South. Here is a verse from one of the Confederate Yankee Doodle versions.
Confederate Yankee Doodle
"Yankee Doodle had a mind
To whip the Southern "traitors,"
Because they didn't choose to live
On codfish and potatoes.
Yankee Doodle, doodle-doo,
Yankee Doodle dandy,
And so to keep his courage up
He took a drink of brandy.
Yankee Doodle, doodle-doo,
Yankee Doodle dandy,
And then he took another drink
Of gunpowder and brandy."
Yankee Doodle became as identified with the North as Northern Dan Emmet’s new song Dixie land symbolized the South. The two songs are often performed together with great flourishes and they were performed this way often during the ragtime craze of the 1890s. A new war, the Spanish American War and a new version of Yankee Doodle appeared briefly in 1898. The Spanish American War was called Yankee Dewey. Here is the first verse:
"Yankee Dewey went to sea,
Sailing on a cruiser,
He took along for company,
Of men and guns a few sir!
Yankee Dewey, Ha! Ha! Ha!
Dewey you’re a dandy.
With men and guns and cruisers too,
You’re certainly quite handy!"
Yankee Doodle, Still Stepping Along
In 1904, George M. Cohan resurrected Yankee Doodle one more time in his stage musical Little Johnny Jones and yet once again in 1942, Yankee Doodle took a starring song role in the biography of George M. Cohan called Yankee Doodle Dandy. Roger Ramjet, a 1960s children’s show uses the Yankee Doodle tune for its theme song and so does the children’s show Barney & Friends. Yankee Doodle is the Connecticut State Song.
The Voice of America begins and ends its broadcasts with the interval signal of Yankee Doodle. Yankee Doodle is a song of American pride and patriotism to be sung as such, but considering its history, with a little tongue in cheek in the tune.
Chalk, Gary. Yankee Doodle. DK Children, 1993
Kellogg, Steven. Yankee Doodle. Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Schackburg, Richard. Yankee Doodle. Aladdin, 1994.