The battles of Lexington and Concord resulted in at least one important capture by the Colonial troops, for it was at this time that Yankee Doodle became an American song. Since the days of the French-Indian War the song had been used by the British to make fun of the colonials, “in their ragged regimentals”. The term “Yankee” was indeed an insulting epithet when Captain Preston hurled it at the crowd during the Boston Massacre. One of the favorite pastimes of the British troops had been to gather in front of the New England churches and sing Yankee Doodle while the church-goers were singing their Psalms. Then, in 1775, when Lord Percy led the reinforcements out of Boston on the 18th of April, bound for Lexington to help those who had gone before them to capture John Hancock and Samuel Adams, they kept step to the strains of Yankee Doodle. When the British retreated from Lexington and Concord, affairs were in a complete turn-about, for the Yankees appropriated the song for themselves, and sang it back at the British as they fled. Since then it has been an American song. It is difficult to determine what words to Yankee Doodle may have been sung on various occasions, for there are so many different sets of verses. The stanza that is best known today
Yankee Doodle came to town
Riding on a pony
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni
may have originated as early as 1764, for the word macaroni probably refers to the fop or dandy who was a member of an affected class of Englishmen about 1760.
Possibly the British marched to Lexington singing the following words, for they refer to their specific errand:
Yankee Doodle. came to town
For to buy a firelock:
We will tar and feather him
And so we will John Hancock.
Washington’s arrival at the Provincial Camp near Cambridge, July 2, 1775, may account for a reference in one of the most widely current sets of Yankee Doodle verses. O. G. Sonneck believed that the famous “Father and I Went Down to Camp” words were composed by a Harvard student, Edward Bangs, at the camp either in 1775 or 1776:
Father and I went down to camp,
Along with Captin [sic] Gooding:
There we see the men and boys
As thick as hasty-pudding.
Yankee Doodle keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy;
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.
And there we see a swamping gun,
Large as a log of maple,
Upon a duced little cart,
A load for father’s cattle.
And every time they shoot it off,
It takes a horn of powder,
It makes a noise like father’s gun,
Only a nation louder.
And there was Captain Washington,
And gentlefolks about him;
They say he’s grown so tarnal proud,
He will not ride without ’em.
He got him on his meeting clothes,
Upon a slapping stallion;
He set the world along in rows,
In hundreds and in millions.
There were other verses in similar vein. Many have supposed that because this doggerel derided the Americans, it must have been written by an Englishman, or at least by a British sympathizer. Sonneck took an opposite view: “[The text] is so full of American provincialisms, slang expressions of the time, allusions to American habits, customs, that no Englishman could have penned these verses…. To be a British satire on the unmilitary appearance of provincial American troops . . . the verses would have to be derisively satirical, which they are not. They breathe good-natured humor and they deal not at all with the uncouth appearance of American soldiery, but with the experience of a Yankee greenhorn in matters military who went down to a military camp and upon his return narrates in his own naïve style the impressions made on him by all the sights of military pomp and circumstance.
Yankee Doodle became the battle song of the Revolution. It was sung by the troops and played as a march by their bands of fifes and drums. Throughout the war it faithfully lived up to one of the stanzas sung to its strains:
Yankee Doodle is the tune,
That we all delight in;
It suits for feasts, it suits for fun,
And just as well for fightin’.