Every year on July 4, we celebrate American independence with barbecues, fireworks, and patriotic songs. One of these songs especially recalls the militia men of New England, who fought for our liberty at Lexington, Concord, Boston, and Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War. “Yankee Doodle” actually has its origins even earlier, during the French and Indian War of 1754–1763. The surprising history of this perennial favorite is reflected in its puzzling lyrics. What does macaroni have to do with feathers in one’s hat?
The definition of the term yankee is “a nickname for a native or inhabitant of New England, or of the northern U.S.” (merriam-webster.com). This word has had many uses, from a Union supporter during the Civil War to the name of the New York major league baseball team to a communications code word for the letter Y. I have been called a Yankee myself on more than one occasion, even though I was born in Virginia and raised in Washington, D.C.—which is, after all, south of the Mason Dixon line.
The tune of “Yankee Doodle” is much older than the lyrics, being well known across western Europe before the 18th century, and similar to the chorus of the Irish tune “All the Way to Galway.” While the exact origin of the word yankee is unknown, Dutch settlers may have brought a harvest song with them to New England, sung to a similar melody and dating as far back as the 15th century. This song featured nonsensical words, mainly in Dutch: “Yanker, didel, doodle down, / Diddle, dudel, lanther, / Yanke viver, voover vown, / Botermilk und tanther.” Farm laborers in Holland were paid with as much buttermilk as they could drink, and a tenth (tanther) of the grain they harvested. In early German, “Dudel” meant playing music badly, and “Dödel” meant fool or simpleton (wikipedia.org).
Both the nickname and the song began as insults—British commanders used “yankee” as a term of abuse to express their low opinion of New England troops—but were soon adopted by colonials as a symbol of pride and defiance. It all started in 1755, during the French and Indian War. When the women of Norwalk, Connecticut saw the ragtag appearance of their militiamen as they marched off to rendezvous with British allies, they placed chicken feathers in their hats to try and spruce them up. As soon as the militia arrived in Fort Crailo, New York, the British regulars began to mock their appearance. After all, a chicken feather is not quite the same as a peacock or ostrich plume. In 1978, “Yankee Doodle” was adopted as the state song of Connecticut.
British doctor Richard Schuckburg at the fort “penned new words [to the well-known melody] to mock his American allies. He portrayed the colonists as rude, crude, and cowardly. In the song, Schuckberg referred to the American fighter as both a ‘doodle’—a country hick—and a ‘dandy’—a conceited jerk,” or fancy dresser who puts on airs. Dandies wore silk and stuck fancy feathers in their hats to appear upper class (think The Three Musketeers). The song derides this attempt by a bumpkin to transform himself into an aristocrat simply by sticking a feather in his cap. The “macaroni” wig was an extreme fashion in the 1770s and became slang for being a fop, a fashionable man who dressed and spoke in an outlandishly affected and prissy manner.
As British troops marched toward Lexington and Concord, their “fifers and drummers teased the colonists by playing “Yankee Doodle” as their columns snaked along rural roads.” But at the battle where the Minutemen routed the British, “legend has it the colonial militiamen returned the musical insult as they counterattacked. They sang “Yankee Doodle” as British soldiers retreated. It was as if the Americans were singing, ‘How do you like us Yankee doodles and dandies, now?’ “Yankee Doodle” soon took hold as an unofficial anthem for what became the American Continental Army.” The song was even played at the British surrender at Saratoga in 1777.
In other words, what began as a British attempt to make fun of their stereotype of the disheveled, disorganized colonial American soldier by portraying him as a Yankee simpleton who thought that he was stylish if he simply stuck a feather in his cap, by the end of the war had become a badge of honor and a song of national pride. The song’s strong rhythm makes it an ideal marching song, and the yankee soldier is imagined dancing to its music and winning over the ladies with his masculine charm.
The 1942 biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy stars James Cagney as Broadway composer George M. Cohan (1878-1942), considered the “father of American musical comedy” who wrote “Grand Old Flag, “Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and many more—including this revision of the beloved American ditty. A statue of Cohan stands in Times Square.
I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, Yankee Doodle, do or die!
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam, born on the fourth of July!
I’ve a Yankee Doodle sweetheart, she’s my Yankee Doodle joy.
Yankee Doodle went to London just to ride the ponies,
I am that Yankee Doodle Boy!
As Andrew Melillo says in his history of the song, “It’s not just a song, it is an anthem of defiance, resistance, and liberty. When you hear ‘Yankee Doodle,’ think of the day when ordinary citizens volunteered, left their homes, took up arms, and marched to distant places in defense of their Colony and the Colonies.”
Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.
Yankee Doodle keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy,
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.