A Colonial Insult?
The “Yankee Doodle” tune was already well known by the 1750s. But tradition says that in 1755 a British doctor named Richard Schuckburg penned new words 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. No one has ever figured out exactly where the term “Yankee” comes from.
One guess is that “Yankee” started as the nickname “Little Jan” used by Dutch settlers at the time. But the Brits used it to mock all American colonists. Later, of course, it became the name of a very famous New York baseball team.
The song “Yankee Doodle” seems as American as apple pie, the Fourth of July, and flying the Stars and Stripes, doesn’t it? It’s a song every school kid, gray-haired grandpa, and kazoo band can sing and play together with gusto.
Yankee Doodle, keep it up
Yankee Doodle dandy
Mind the music and the step
And with the girls be handy.
But did you know that the words to this song were written as a slap in the face—to Americans? “Yankee Doodle” is a famous example of an insult that backfired.
Here’s the story behind the song.
The original 13 American colonies were: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island.
From 1754–1763, British troops and American colonists fought shoulder-to-shoulder against the French and their Indian allies. Americans called the conflict the French and Indian War. At the time, the colonies—stretching from New Hampshire in the north to Georgia in the south—belonged to Great Britain.
As you probably know from movies or maybe even social studies class, by 1770 the government of Great Britain’s King George III and some American colonists were not getting along very well. Many Americans were muttering about forking over extra taxes to help pay for British wars, including the French and Indian War. British leaders thought it only fair the Americans pay their share of war expenses. Tensions rose. Colonial leaders like Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and John Hancock began to talk about rebellion.
The feud came to a head in 1775. In the early morning of April 19, some 700 British soldiers in bright red uniforms marched out of Boston. The British mission was to snatch weapons and ammunition they believed the Americans had stashed in the countryside. Two colonial spies, Paul Revere and William Dawes, rode out to spread the alarm that the British “regulars” were on the way.
At the time, Great Britain fielded the most powerful army and navy in the world. Their officers and well-trained troops felt little fear of the Minutemen—colonial farmers and townsfolk who volunteered as soldiers.
Lexington & Concord
After American forces beat the British at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, British officer Thomas Anburey wrote:
“Yankee Doodle” is now their [song of triumph], a favorite of favorites…. After our rapid successes, we held the Yankees in great contempt, but it was not a little mortifying to hear them play this tune, when their army marched down to our surrender.
Reports say that British fifers and drummers teased the colonists by playing “Yankee Doodle” as their columns snaked along rural roads. In the small town of Lexington, the British soldiers confronted a line of Minutemen on the village green. A gun went off, British muskets opened fire, and in an instant eight Americans were dead or dying. British forces then continued on toward Concord and destroyed what weapons they found.
Now the British army had to march back to the safety of Boston. Colonial militiamen swarmed to the attack, taking up positions along the route. They hid behind trees and rock walls, picking off soldier after soldier. Some British troops broke ranks and ran. Others, angered by American tactics, broke into houses and set them on fire. Eventually, more British troops arrived from Boston to rescue the survivors.
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?” The American Revolution had begun. “Yankee Doodle” soon took hold as an unofficial anthem for what became the American Continental Army.
Over time, new verses of “Yankee Doodle” were added, changed, moved, and removed. A verse about George Washington, for example, was tacked on after he took command of the Continental Army in June 1775. Interestingly, one of the most familiar verses did not appear until 1842. Today, it is the first verse of the song that every American knows:
Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni*.
* This “macaroni” does not refer to a pasta noodle. It was a term for dressing so fancy that a person looked silly.
The last major battle of the Revolutionary War took place near Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. American troops and the French navy bottled up and blasted a big chunk of the British army there. Some witnesses reported that “Yankee Doodle” accompanied that British surrender, too. The Treaty of Paris, officially ending the war, was signed two years later. The United States of America was now its own, independent country.
As you can see, the history of a song can be long, crooked, and crazy. And in the case of “Yankee Doodle,” a song now sung as a happy ditty was at one time a song of mockery, and then a song of war.