A short history of “Yankee Doodle”

One of my current projects is a book called Yesterday’s Songs Transformed, a history of how songs have been rewritten, repurposed, and parodied through the ages. It’s a lot of fun to research, if nothing else. Here’s a section of my draft on “Yankee Doodle” and some of the changes it went through.

Undoubtedly the most rewritten and transformed song of the American Revolution was “Yankee Doodle.” Its origins are uncertain, but its earliest versions mocked Americans as country bumpkins. The tune is older than any form of the words. A British Army surgeon, Dr. Richard Shuckburgh, is credited with writing one of the mocking versions, though the song has gone through so many changes that it isn’t clear which words are his. These may have been his words:

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 prov’d an arrant Coward,
He wouldn’t fight the Frenchmen there
For fear of being devour ‘d.

A widely published fifteen-verse version came the closest to being the definitive Yankee Doodle mocking the colonists. Here’s a somewhat cut version:

Father and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain 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 thousand men,
As rich as “Squire David”;
And what they wasted every day,
I wish it could be saved.
The lasses they eat every day,
Would keep an house a winter;
They have as much that I’ll be bound
They eat it when they’re a mind to.
And there we see a swamping gun,
Large as a log of maple,
Upon a deuced 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 hundred and in millions.
I see another snarl of men
A digging graves, they told me,
So tarnal long, so tarnal deep,
They ’tended they should hold me.
It scar’d me so, I hook’d it off,
Nor stopt, as I remember,
Nor turn’d about till I got home,
Lock’d up in mother’s chamber.

This verse was supposedly sung by the Redcoats on their way to Lexington:

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

After Bunker Hill, they were more respectful:

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

The Americans adopted the song for their own, and the American band played it as Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. Oddly, they didn’t come up with any new set of defiant, patriotic lyrics, or at least none that caught on widely. The closest thing was this version, which is just a lighter form of mockery:

Yankee Doodle came to town
A-riding on a pony.
He stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni.
   Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
   Yankee Doodle dandy,
   Mind the music and the step,
   And with the girls be handy.

For all those who have wondered why anyone would call a feather pasta, “macaroni” was a term for a fop or dandy.

In 1788 Massachusetts ratified its state Constitution, and this almost journalistic version appeared soon after:

The ’Vention did in Boston meet,
But State-house could not hold ‘em,
So then they went to Fed’ral-street,
And there the truth was told ‘em.
   Yankee doodle, keep it up!
   Yankee doodle, dandy,
   Mind the music and the step,
   And with the girls be handy.
They ev’ry morning went to prayer,
And then began disputing,
‘Till opposition silenc’d were,
By arguments refuting.
Then ’squire Hancock like a man,
Who dearly loves the nation,
By a concil’atry plan,
Prevented much vexation.
He made a woundy fed’ral speech,
With sense and elocution;
And then the ’Vention did beseech
T’ adopt the Constitution.
The question being outright put,
(Each voter independent)
The Fed’ralists agreed t’ adopt
And then propose amendment.
The other party seeing then
The people were against ’em,
Agreed like honest, faithful men,
To mix in peace amongst ‘em.

In the interest of brevity, let’s skip a few verses:

Then from this sample let ’em cease
Inflammatory writing,
For freedom, happiness, and peace
Is better far than fighting.
So here I end my fed’ral song,
Compos’d of thirteen verses,
May agriculture flourish long,
And commerce fill our purses!

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