NEW YORK—Most Americans grew up singing the song Yankee Doodle for fun and learning, but during the American Revolution it played a much different role in society.
The song was popularized during the revolution, which lasted from 1775–1783, but the lyrics changed depending on who was singing it.
In fact, singing any kind of song during those times “was not necessarily an innocent act” according to the Library of Congress (LOC). Many songs were used as tools for satire, mockery, and insult, and Yankee Doodle was no exception.
During a special Independence Day performance at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library in Manhattan, historical entertainers in period costume explained the meaning behind the song’s title.
Yankee was taken from the first European settlers of New York, the Dutch. Their words for John (Yan)—which they thought too many British named their sons, and stinky cheese (kee)—which they felt the British ate too much of, are what formed the word Yankee. Doodle was simply a way to call someone a simpleton or idiot.
In between singing verses of the song with children and curious adults at the Museum on July 4, the performers in revolutionary-era garb decoded the meaning of some of the lyrics. Most notably, they explained that different versions of Yankee Doodle were sung by soldiers in the revolution.
Originally used by the British soldiers as a drumbeat for war marches, the song was quickly claimed by the rebels as their own. They made scores of new verses, according to the LOC, most of which hurled insults at and mocked the British while lauding their commander, George Washington.
In the end, the rebels had the last laugh.
By 1781, when the British surrendered at Yorktown, being called a “Yankee Doodle” had gone from being an insult to a point of pride, and the song had become the new republic’s unofficial national anthem.
Full version of Yankee Doodle:
Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni’.
Yankee Doodle keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy,
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.
Fath’r and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Gooding,
And there we saw the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding.
And there we saw a thousand men
As rich as Squire David,
And what they wasted every day,
I wish it could be saved.
The ‘lasses they eat it every day,
Would keep a house a winter;
They have so much, that I’ll be bound,
They eat it when they’ve mind ter.
And there I 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,
and makes a noise like father’s gun,
Only a nation louder.
I went as nigh to one myself
As ‘Siah’s inderpinning;
And father went as nigh again,
I thought the deuce was in him.
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.
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
And there I see a pumpkin shell
As big as mother’s bason,
And every time they touched it off
They scampered like the nation.
I see a little barrel too,
The heads were made of leather;
They knocked on it with little clubs
And called the folks together.
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’.
He got him on his meeting clothes,
Upon a slapping stallion;
He sat the world along in rows,
In hundreds and in millions.
The flaming ribbons in his hat,
They looked so tearing fine, ah,
I wanted dreadfully to get
To give to my Jemima.
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 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.