What’s the song “Yankee Doodle” all about?


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Dear Straight Dope: Do you know of a version of “Yankee Doodle” that has the lyric “Yankee Doodle went to London’? What town are they referring to in the traditional version, “went to town”? Daniel Yerkich

SDStaff Dex replies:

There are lots of versions comprising hundreds of stanzas. Maybe one of them refers to London, but I’m betting you’re thinking of a different song altogether — more on that in a moment. First, though, some background on the song and the misconceptions surrounding it.

The origins of the words and music of “Yankee Doodle” aren’t known exactly, despite massive scholarly research. They appear to be pretty old. Some trace it to a Spanish sword dance, others to Dutch peasant song or a work song from the French vineyards, or to a tune from the Basques or the Hungarians or 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. He was so amused at the sight of the disheveled and ragged colonial soldiers that he allegedly decided to mock them by setting some nonsense lyrics to a familiar English tune. “Yankee” of course refers to New Englanders; the origin of “Doodle” is unknown. Which words were used originally isn’t known, since none made their way into print until much later, and as I say there were many versions.

The British had a pretty superior attitude towards the colonists, so it’s not surprising that the song (whatever its origin) was popular with British troops.  They used it to taunt the colonists for the next twenty years, sometimes 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 “that ‘Yankee Doodle’ song was the Capital Piece of their band music.” Parodies appeared as early as 1770.

Again, we do not know the lyrics at that time, but 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.

If that’s an example of what the British sang during the occupation of Boston in 1768, I’m not surprised to learn that the tune alone, without the words, would have been offensive to the colonists, who were proud of their brave showing in Canada.

Still, there was no denying “Yankee Doodle” was a catchy tune. In 1767, the melody appeared in an early American comic opera, The Disappointment, as a nonpolitical, slightly naughty ditty. During the Revolutionary War, the Americans appropriated the tune and embraced it, making it their own, turning the insult into a celebration of their defiance. A newpaper account about a month after the fighting at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, reported that “Yankee Doodle” was played by the fife and drums; and added with glee, “Upon their return to Boston [pursued by the Minutemen], one [Briton] asked his brother officer how he liked the tune now, — ‘D–n them,’ returned he, ‘they made us dance it till we were tired.’ — Since which Yankee Doodle sounds less sweet to their ears.”

A pro-British ballad was published in June 1775, just after the Battle of Bunker Hill, presumed to be to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” The first stanza:

The seventeen of June, at Break of Day,
The Rebels they supriz’d us,
With their strong Works, which they’d thrown up,
To burn the Town and drive us.

After the colonists’ performance at Bunker Hill, these “doodle dances” became less amusing to the British. There are a number of different versions, and it’s not known which came first or when. With a variety of texts, it became the principal American battle theme of the Revolution, and eventually a greater symbol of humiliation to the British than it had been to the Americans. Oscar Sonneck, the great musicologist, writing around 1909, quotes Thomas Anburey, a British officer: “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 Hill, the Americans gloried in it.”

When George Washington was appointed commander in chief, he was ridiculed to the tune of Yankee Doodle by an anonymous Tory in a loyalist ballad:

Then Congress sent great Washington,
All clothed in power and breeches,
To meet old Britain’s warlike sons
And make some rebel speeches

Washington’s camp became the locale for the “official” text, so that’s how we finally get around to your original question of what the “town” is — it’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, the camp’s location in the early days of the war. Edward Bangs, a sophomore at Harvard who had served at Lexington as a Minuteman, is often cited as the author of this version. The text, with variations, was often reprinted during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Here are the first few stanzas of one early version:

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

There was Captain Washington
Upon a slapping stallion,
A-giving orders to his men,
I guess there was a million.

Yankee Doodle &c.

And then the feathers on his hat,
They looked so ‘tarnal fine, sir,
I wanted pockily to get
To give to my Jemima.

Yankee Doodle &c.

And then we saw a swamping gun,
Larde as a log of maple;
Upon a deuc-ed little cart,
A load for father’s cattle.

Yankee Doodle &c.

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.

Yankee Doodle &c.

It goes on for another eight or ten verses. I can understand why they’re not often sung today.

Now for the misconception. A popular story has it that the term “macaroni” in the verse we know best today (“stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni”) was intended to poke fun at the unsophisticated colonials.  In the early 1700s, the term “macaroni” was applied derisively to English dandies who affected foreign mannerisms and fashions, particularly French or Italian, which most British regarded as outlandish. Associating the term with the American colonists was a double insult. Not only were the Yankees putting on airs, they thought the way to do it was to put feathers in their caps, the rubes!

Just one problem. We are far from certain when Yankee Doodle first came riding on his pony (rhymes with macaroni). That version didn’t appear in print until 1842. Sonneck wrote that in the heyday of Oliver Cromwell (early 1640s to 1658), there was a ditty called “The Roundheads and the Cavaliers” that resembled “Yankee Doodle” in words and meter though not in tune:

Nankee Doodle came to town
Upon a little pony
With a feather in his hat
Upon a macaroni.

Did “macaroni” mean “fop” in this context? Beats me. But if Sonneck is to be believed, the pony/macaroni thing was around long before wiseguy Brits began writing smart aleck lyrics about their American cousins.

Histories of American song list plenty of other versions and verses. I suggest Music for Patriots, Politicians, and Presidents by Vera Brodsky Lawrence, which includes photos of some of the old sheet music and broadsides. One that I found amusing arose in the South during the Civil War:

Yankee Doodle had a mind
To whip the Southern traitors,
Because they did not choose to live
On codfish and potatoes.

Yankee Doodle, fa, so la,
Yankee Doodle dandy,
And so to keep his courage up,
He took a drink of brandy.

So that’s the story of Yankee Doodle — but still no London. Patience, I’m getting to it. Totally separate from all this is the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” by George M. Cohan (sung and danced wonderfully by Jimmy Cagney in the movie of the same name). The song is a takeoff on the original “Yankee Doodle” and features the well-known verse:

Yankee Doodle went to London
Just to ride the ponies
I am that Yankee Doodle boy.

Is that what you’re thinking of?

SDStaff Dex, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.