Behind the Song: Yankee Doodle Dandy

We just celebrated the 4th of July over the weekend.  Today I want to share the story behind one of our patriotic songs, Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Yankee_DoodleWe all think about the Revolutionary War when we hear the song, however, the folk song dates back to even before the Revolutionary War.

Yankee Doodle Dandy dates back to the Seven Years War.  The earliest known version of the lyrics dates back to sometime around 1755, but the lyrics are much different from those we know today.

Some sources claim the song first appeared as a nursery rhyme ridiculing England’s Oliver Cromwell as “Nankee Doodle.”

The origins of the term Yankee are unknown, but some attribute to Dutch origins. The first recorded use of the word was in 1758 by British General James Wolfe.  He used the word to refer to the New England soldiers that were under his command in the colonies.

The author of the lyrics is unknown, but some attribute them to Dr. Richard Shuckburgh, a British Army Surgeon.  The story says he wrote the song after seeing the appearance of the Colonial Troops under the director of Col. Thomas Fitch V.   The Colonel was the son of the Connecticut governor, Thomas Fitch.

The British military officers originally sang the song to mock the colonial Yankees, with whom they served beside in the French Indian War {also known as the Seven Years War}.

Macaroni fashion
Macaroni fashion

The tune, which comes from the nursery rhyme Lucy Locket, became popular among the British as well as the colonial rebels.

The American army embraced the derisive song and when Gen. Cornwallis’ troops surrendered at Yorktown to end the war, they march out of the fort

playing “The World Turned Upside Down.” They were met by an American band playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

So what is a doodle?  The term first appeared in the 17th Century but is thought to derive from the low German term “dudel”, meaning playing music badly.  In the 17th Century, people considered a doodle a simpleton.

Macaroni also had a different meaning than the pasta we think of today.  In the 17th Century, it referred to “a fancy style of Italian dress imitated in England at the time.”  The Macaroni wig was an extreme fashion in the 1770s.

There are at least sixteen official verses to the song, however, with the numerous variations and parodies, it is estimated that there may be as many as 190 verses in all.  Of course, the first verse if the best known of all of them.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is also the state anthem for Connecticut.

The movie Yankee Doodle Dandy tells the story of George M. Cohen, who often performed the song.  James Cagney does a wonderful job in the movie version, posted at the bottom.