Story and Origins of Famous Songs Yankee Doodle

About the history, origins, and story behind the famous song Yankee Doodle which inspired soldiers during the American Revolution.


"YANKEE DOODLE," Dr. Richard Shuckburgh--c. 1758

"Yankee Doodle," the irreverent song that inspired Washington's troops during the Revolutionary War, was written, most experts say, by a British Army surgeon during the French and Indian Wars. His intention was to poke fun at the uncouth colonials. When the War of Independence began, the colonials grabbed the weapon that had been pointed at them and turned it upon the British.

The tune of "Yankee Doodle" goes back a long time. Whatever its dim origins, it was popular in America by the middle of the 18th century and was often used as the accompaniment to a contredanse.

It is possible, too, that some of the verses for the song were around during Cromwell's time. For example, the Cavaliers may have used it to ridicule Cromwell's "macaroni," the knot to which the plume in his hat was attached. The word Yankee could have been a nickname for Cromwell, although more likely it was an Indian corruption of anglais, the French word for "English." Jonathan Hastings, a New England farmer who was said to have attended Harvard College, was using the word Yankee in 1713 to brag about such colonial goods as Yankee cider. The students at Harvard called him Yankee Jonathan, implying he was a country bumpkin, and gradually the term was extended to apply to all New Englanders.

Dr. Richard Shuckburgh, who wrote the first New World version of "Yankee Doodle," was camped with General Amherst's troops--which included colonials--near Albany during the French and Indian War. The colonials were dressed in an assortment of nonmilitary garments and were a motley group compared to the spiffy British troops in their regulation uniforms. To pass the time, Shuckburgh wrote a song ridiculing the colonials' lack of style and sophistication. His lyrics were also quite bawdy, full of army-camp humor.

Infuriated by the insult, the colonials eventually adopted "Yankee Doodle" and, by changing the words, made it their own defiant rebel song. Edward Bangs, a Harvard student and possibly a minuteman, wrote the version now sung after George Washington took command of the army on July 3, 1775. The title of the new version was "The Farmer and His Son's Return from a Visit to the Camp."

Additional verses and variations were created by both the British and the Americans during the war. To taunt the Americans, the British played "Yankee Doodle" in front of Boston churches during services. The words to one of their verses were:

Yankee Doodle came to town,

For to buy a firelock.

We will tar and feather him,

And so we will John Hancock.

On their way to Lexington, Lord Percy's troops played "Yankee Doodle"; and when they were turned back at Concord, the Yankees following them also played "Yankee Doodle." General Gage became so tired of hearing it during retreats that he said, "I hope I never hear that song again."

"Yankee Doodle" was played at Bunker Hill and when General Burgoyne surrendered after the Battle of Saratoga. It may also have been the victory song played by the Americans when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

The song was included in Samuel Arnold's comic opera Two to One (1784). In the opera, a character named Dicky Ditto sings to the "Yankee Doodle" tune vulgar lyrics beginning, "Adzooks, old Crusty, why so rusty?"

When Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams were in Ghent, Belgium, to sign the peace treaty after the War of 1812, the people of that city asked the Americans what national tune they could play to honor them. Clay suggested "Yankee Doodle." He couldn't remember the tune, though, and had to call upon his servant Bob to whistle it for the Belgians.

Since then, "Yankee Doodle" has had its ups and downs, but generally it has been considered a bona fide national song, even if it isn't regarded as seriously as "America, the Beautiful" or "The Star-Spangled Banner."

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