Yankee Doodle// History of the Song

Any red blooded American has engrained in their memory the lyrics and tune to the historic folksong, Yankee Doodle. As children we grow up singing and whistling it, and as adults we do the same . (Yeah, don’t act like you’re too cool for that.)

It’s become a symbol and emblem of America and patriotism. Most commonly it’s connected with the American War for Independence and our fight for freedom. Did you know that originally it wasn’t intended for that purpose though?

Its Origins

The original words to the song were written during the time period of the French and Indian war. Its composer was a British Doctor who intended the words to be an insult to the American colonists who were fighting along side the British soldiers. Actually the words of the first verse that we are all so familiar with weren’t even in the original song, but rather it said,

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 devoured. 

Sheep’s head and vinegar
Buttermilk and tansy
Boston Is a Yankee town,
Sing “Hey, doodle dandy!”

Dr. Richard Shuckberg

The mocking words gained increasing popularity among the British, who enjoyed using it to taunt and disparage their colonial counterparts. Later, though, this attempt would only backfire terribly.

As tensions began to rise in the colonies in the years leading up to America’s War for Independence, the British troops continued their barrage of lyrics set to the tune, intended on mocking the colonists. It was during this time that the words we now know and love began to take flight.

Father and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Gooding,
And there we saw 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.

This specific verse was referring to a country bumpkin who went to an Army camp and was astounded at the sights he saw. The word “Yankee” was one that was frequently used in reference to American colonists. It’s really unclear how the name “Yankee” came to be in existence, but regardless of how it did, it was well known to be synonymous with Americans. A “doodle” was a derogatory term meaning someone who was a fool or simpleton. In this way, the British were calling us “American fools”.

Why Macaroni?

Do you remember in the song where it said, “he stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni”? Seemingly it doesn’t make sense at all. What does macaroni have to do with anything?

During the War for Independence, it was very popular and common among the Patriot soldiers to place a feather in their hats. This was known as a cockade, and it served to distinguish between the officers and common soldiers. Different colors were used for different ranks.

In the 1760s, a group of noblemen in England formed an elite club that they called the Macaroni club. The reason for the name was that macaroni was a new pasta that was gaining increasing popularity among the upper class in London. If you ate macaroni it was a sort of symbol of wealth. Those who were in the Macaroni club wore elaborate high fashion clothing and headwear.

When the Patriot soldiers began to use feathers in their tricorn hats, the British mockingly implied they were doing it because they were trying to be upper class in the way they dressed.

The Turning Point

At the Battle for Lexington the British troops marched into town singing and playing a new version of the song:

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

Understandably, the Patriots despised the verse. In no way did they ever intend on allowing the Redcoats to capture their well loved leader. We all know the history and what happened with the battle. The Patriots were forced to retreat initially, but they formed a counterattack. Reports from history tell us that as they launched their counterattack and watched the British regulars retreat, they sang “Yankee Doodle”. This was a move on their part that seemed to say, “What do you think of us now?” It was throwing back in the faces of the British all the mockery that they had endured.

From this point, love for the song only spread. The Patriots spent their down time writing new verses for the song. It became a rallying battle cry. The song that the British had previously enjoyed flaunting in the face of their enemy had now become one that made them sick to hear.

The most popular verse to sing during the war went,

“Sing Yankee Doodle,
That fine tune Americans delight in
It suits for feasts, it suits for fun,
It suits as well for fighting.

Yankee Doodle keep it up,
Yankee Doodle Dandy,
Mind the music and the steps,
And with the girls be handy.”

The fifers and drummers played it as our troops went into battle. The soldiers sang it as they marched and endured the long nights at camp. They shouted it as they stormed into battle. In essence, we took the song and ran with it in defiance, writing our own words of patriotism and freedom.

At the final surrender of the war, as British troops marched past the American and French armies, they refused to look at the Americans. When Lafayette saw how they turned their faces away in disrespect to their former colonists, he became enraged. He quickly sent word for the Patriot band to begin playing their beloved song “Yankee Doodle”. All the band needed was one word from their officers. With vim and vigor, they burst into a rousing rendition of America’s unofficial anthem—the very song that had originally been intended to disparage them. Instantly the British troops turned their heads toward the Patriot soldiers. No longer did they look in the eyes of men bent low under their tyranny, but rather free men—Americans—who had earned their respect and recognition.

The song’s history was wild and somewhat absurd. Who would have thought that a song intended to make fun of us would be exactly the song we would choose to take us through the war? But yet here we are today, just as enthralled with it as the patriots were in the days of our country’s fight for freedom. Forever Americans will proudly answer to the name “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.

What’s your favorite stanza of the song? Let me know in the comments!

5 thoughts on “Yankee Doodle// History of the Song

  1. I actually knew most of what you’ve covered! #Revolutionarywarbuff But I never knew that original version. Very cool to see how that evolved. And I find immense satisfaction that it was turned from an insult to a battle cry of sorts. Very cool post!

    Liked by 1 person

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