“Yankee Doodle” is one of America’s oldest marching airs. It was written several years before the American Revolution, but like so much folk music, its exact origin is obscure despite massive scholarly research. Some trace it to a Dutch peasant song or a work song from the French vineyards or from the Irish. Perhaps the most likely origin is an English nursery rhyme, “Lucy Locket.”
Regardless of its origin, we know that the British used the tune to insult Americans before the Revolutionary War. A popular story traces the origin of the song back to the French and Indian War (roughly the 1750s) and a Dr. Richard Shuckburgh, a British army physician, camped with General Amherst’s troops–which included colonials while at the home of the Van Rensselaer family. He was so amused at the sight of the disheveled and ragged colonial militia that he allegedly decided to mock them by setting some nonsense lyrics to a familiar English tune to make fun of the colonials who fought alongside the British troops.The colonials were dressed in an assortment of nonmilitary garments and were a motley group compared to the spiffy British troops in their regulation uniforms. To pass the time, Shuckburgh wrote a song ridiculing the colonials’ lack of style and sophistication. His lyrics were also quite bawdy, full of army-camp humor.
American musicologist Oscar Sonneck set out to document its origins. He discovered a reference to it in 1767’s The Disappointment, one of the first American operas. The British had a pretty superior attitude towards the colonists, so it’s not surprising that the song was popular with British troops. They used it to taunt the colonists by singing it loudly outside church services. The first attention in the press was in 1768 when the Boston Journal of the Times commented about a British band that “….the ‘Yankee Doodle’ song was the Capital Piece of their band music.” Parodies appeared as early as 1770.
There are many theories regarding the origins of the words “Yankee” and “Doodle.” One theory suggests that “Yankee” (or “Yankey”) was derived from “Nankey,” which can be found in an unpleasant jingle about Oliver Cromwell. Another possibility holds that the Indians corrupted the pronunciation of “English,” resulting in “Yengees.” By the mid-1700s it certainly referred to America’s English colonists.
“Doodle,” as found in old dictionaries, meant a trifler, idler, simple fellow, fool. “Dandy,” on the other hand, survived also as a description of a gentleman of affected manners, dress, and hairstyle. All taken, “Yankee Doodle” is a comic song and a parody. Indeed, the British made fun of rag-tag American militiamen by playing “Yankee Doodle” even as they headed toward the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
Infuriated by the insult, the colonials eventually adopted “Yankee Doodle” and, by changing the words, made it their own defiant rebel song. Edward Bangs, a Harvard student and possibly a minuteman, wrote the version now sung after George Washington took command of the army on July 3, 1775. The title of the new version was “The Farmer and His Son’s Return from a Visit to the Camp.”
Additional verses and variations were created by both the British and the Americans during the war. To taunt the Americans, the British played “Yankee Doodle” in front of Boston churches during services. The words to one of their verses were:
Yankee Doodle came to town,
For to buy a firelock.
We will tar and feather him,
And so we will John Hancock.
On their way to Lexington, Lord Percy’s troops played “Yankee Doodle”; and when they were turned back at Concord, the Yankees following them also played “Yankee Doodle.” General Gage became so tired of hearing it during retreats that he said, “I hope I never hear that song again.”
A sheet music version was published in London in 1775 (the subtitle says “NB. The Words to be Sung thru the Nose, & in the West Country drawl & dialect”). These lyrics are thought to have been derived from earlier narrative versions that might have been sung as early as the 1740s or 50s, but there is no surviving documentation. The 1775 version begins:
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 wou’dn’t fight the Frenchmen there For fear of being devour’d.
“Yankee Doodle” was played at Bunker Hill and when General Burgoyne surrendered after the Battle of Saratoga. It may also have been the victory song played by the Americans when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.
The song was included in Samuel Arnold’s comic opera “Two to One” (1784). In the opera, a character named Dicky Ditto sings to the “Yankee Doodle” tune vulgar lyrics beginning, “Adzooks, old Crusty, why so rusty?”
The sheet music and lyrics to the opera “Two to One” are available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We also have sheet music from James Aird’s book “A Selection of Scotch, English, Irish and Foreign Airs.”and several manuscripts and broadsides with either sheet music and or lyrics.
Here are three verses, evidently composed by a tory, which were repeated from memory by a Union soldier, who said he learned them from his grand-mother.
Yankee Doodle took a saw,
With a patriot’s devotion,
To trim the tree of liberty
According to his notion.
He set himself upon a limb,
Just like some other noodle,
He cut between the tree and him,
And down came Yankee Doodle.
Yankee Doodle broke his neck,
And every bone about him.
And then the tree of liberty
Did very well without him.
Of humble origin and perhaps questionable in matters of lyrical “taste,” “Yankee Doodle” has survived as one of America’s most upbeat and humorous national airs. In the fife and drum state of Connecticut, it is the official state song. George M. Cohan revived the tune in his “Yankee Doodle Boy” (also known as “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”) of 1904. John Philip Sousa employed it in many of his arrangements. He even used it as a counter-melody in his march “America First.”
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