Behind the Meaning of the Famous Nursery Rhyme “Yankee Doodle”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s a song we all learn as children in America.

It’s a patriotic song—indeed, it’s the official state anthem of Connecticut—and it’s a song that brings a smile to our faces, singing of features in caps and macaroni.

But what does it all mean? To find out, dear reader, let’s dive in and investigate the history and meaning of the famous nursery rhyme, “Yankee Doodle.”

Origins

“Yankee Doodle” predates the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Ever since its writing, the song has been sung as a patriotic anthem. And many scholars believe the tune of the song is even older than the nursery rhyme, itself. The melody perhaps even goes back to folk songs of Medieval Europe. In fact, the melody may date back to an old Irish song, “All the Way to Galway,” in which the second strain is identical to “Yankee Doodle.”

Furthermore, the earliest lyrics of the song come from a Middle Dutch harvest song, which also follows the same tune and likely dates back as far as the 15th century in Holland. That song contained mostly gibberish lines like “Yanker, didel, doodle down, Diddle, dudel, lanther, Yanke viver, voover vown, Botermilk und tanther.” Apparently, farmhands in Holland were paid “as much buttermilk as they could drink, and a tenth of the grain.”

The song is attributed to Richard Shuckburgh, who likely wrote it in America at Fort Crailo around 1755.

Today, the song’s tune is shared with others like “Jack and Jill.” It also reportedly inspired the theme song used for the children’s television show, Barney & the Backyard Gang and Barney & Friends.

What Does “Doodle” Mean?

The term “Doodle” shows up in the English language in the early 17th century. It is thought to be derived from the German word “dudel,” which means “playing music badly.” Another close relation is the term “Dödel,” which means “fool” or “simpleton.” (This is likely also where our slang “Dude” comes from.)

Where Does The Word “Macaroni” Fit In?

According to scholars, the Macaroni wig was an extreme fashion statement in the 1770s and it was known as a slang term for a fop, which was a pejorative word for a man excessively concerned with his appearance and clothes around that time.

The word “dandy” also appears in “Yankee Doodle” and that word, similar to “fop,” denotes someone who placed importance on physical appearance and refined language, as well as leisure activities.

Therefore, the “macaroni” wig was something a “fop” or “dandy” might wear to look important and of a certain status or class. Macaroni was even used as a term to describe a fashionable man, most often derisively, someone who exceeded the ordinary understanding of fashion, grooming, eating, or gambling.

In British vernacular, then, the term “Yankee doodle dandy” meant someone who was unsophisticated but who took on upper-class fashion—as if sticking a feather in your hat may give you supreme status. Therefore, the line in the nursery rhyme was likely an insult from the British to the colonists who the Brits saw as lower-class men who lacked masculinity and true status.

The Original Singers And a Bit of Defiance

“Yankee Doodle” was originally sung by the British military officers to mock the American colonists, the shabby “Yankees,” with whom they fought with during the French and Indian War (1754–1763).

Written at Fort Crailo around 1755 by British Army surgeon Richard Shuckburgh while campaigning in Rensselaer, New York, the British troops sang the song to make fun of their American soldier counterparts, who, the British joked, thought were stylish just by placing a random feather in their likely tricorn hats.

Later, the song became popular amongst Americans as a song of defiance. They would then add verses to mock the British troops and simultaneously pay tribute to General (and first President) George Washington, who was the Commander of the Continental army.

By 1781, the meaning of “Yankee Doodle” had turned from being an insulting tune to one of American pride. That’s subversion, baby.

According to one account, Shuckburgh penned the original lyrics after seeing the Colonial troops under Colonel Thomas Fitch, who was the son of Connecticut Governor Thomas Fitch. And the current version seems to have been filled out and written in 1776 by Edward Bangs, a Harvard sophomore who was also a Minuteman. Bangs wrote the song’s 15 verses, which later circulated in Boston and surrounding areas.

Adding to the subversion of the song, according to a Boston newspaper, after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, one British soldier asked another how he liked “Yankee Doodle” now? To which the latter responded, “Dang them [the American troops]. They made us dance it till we were tired.”

America’s Yankee Doodle Town

There is an alternate verse of the song that is said to have been a favorite for the British to march to. It stems from an incident involving one Thomas Ditson of Billerica, Massachusetts. British soldiers are said to have tarred and feathered Ditson because he tried to buy a musket in Boston in 1775. Ditson later fought at Concord. For this reason, Billerica is known as the home of “Yankee Doodle.”

That verse went:

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

(Hancock famously signed the Declaration of Independence with the largest signature.)

On July 25, 1999, a bill was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives to recognize Billerica, Massachusetts as “America’s Yankee Doodle Town.”

The Lyrics

According to scholars, the earliest known version of the lyrics is from around 1755 (though the official date is disputed) and they begin:

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.

(To buy a commission meant to purchase status or standing in the military.)

The song also appears in 1762 in one of America’s first comic operas, The Disappointment, which lyrics about the search for the pirate Blackbeard’s buried treasure by a team from Philadelphia.

There is another pro-British version that goes:

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.

The British Surrender

“Yankee Doodle” was played in victory at the British surrender in Saratoga, New York in 1777. One of the verses sung that day goes:

Yankey Doodle came to town,
How do you think they serv’d him?
One took his bag, another his scrip,
The quicker for to starve him

And according to legend, after the aftermath of the important battle, the Siege of Yorktown, the surrounding British soldiers would not look at the victorious Americans, instead only giving eye contact to the French soldiers present. American ally, the Marquis de Lafayette, was angered by this and ordered his nearby band to play “Yankee Doodle” to taunt the British. Finally, upon hearing the song, the British soldiers looked upon the victorious Americans.

Final Version

In the end, the full (lengthy) version of the song has come to read like this:

Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.


[Chorus]
Yankee Doodle keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy,
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.


Father and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Gooding,
And there we saw the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding.


[Chorus]

And there we saw a thousand men
As rich as Squire David,
And what they wasted every day,
I wish it could be savèd.


[Chorus]

The ‘lasses they eat every day,
Would keep a house a winter;
They have so much, that I’ll be bound,
They eat it when they’ve a mind to.


[Chorus]

And there I see a swamping gun
Large as a log of maple,
Upon a deuced little cart,
A load for father’s cattle.


[Chorus]

And every time they shoot it off,
It takes a horn of powder,
And makes a noise like father’s gun,
Only a nation louder.


[Chorus]

I went as nigh to one myself
As ‘Siah’s underpinning;
And father went as nigh again,
I thought the deuce was in him.


[Chorus]

Cousin Simon grew so bold,
I thought he would have cocked it;
It scared me so I shrinked it off
And hung by father’s pocket.


[Chorus]

And Cap’n Davis had a gun,
He kind of clapt his hand on’t
And stuck a crooked stabbing iron
Upon the little end on’t


[Chorus]

And there I see a pumpkin shell
As big as mother’s basin,
And every time they touched it off
They scampered like the nation.


[Chorus]

I see a little barrel too,
The heads were made of leather;
They knocked on it with little clubs
And called the folks together.


[Chorus]

And there was Cap’n Washington,
And gentle folks about him;
They say he’s grown so ‘tarnal proud
He will not ride without ’em.


[Chorus]

He got him on his meeting clothes,
Upon a slapping stallion;
He sat the world along in rows,
In hundreds and in millions.


[Chorus]

The flaming ribbons in his hat,
They looked so tearing fine, ah,
I wanted dreadfully to get
To give to my Jemima.


[Chorus]

I see another snarl of men
A-digging graves, they told me,
So ‘tarnal long, so ‘tarnal deep,
They ‘tended they should hold me.


[Chorus]

It scared me so, I hooked it off,
Nor stopped, as I remember,
Nor turned about till I got home,
Locked up in mother’s chamber.


[Chorus]

Check out the song performed here below!

Photo by Gettyimages.com

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