The Life and Times of the Star-Spangled Banner

Yankee Doodle

Yankee Doodle is a song with a great deal of mystery around it. We do not know who wrote the words. In fact, there are a number of different versions of the words. We do not know who wrote the tune. We do not know how old the tune is. Many articles were written in the 1800s by people claiming to know the origins of the song, but they all turned out to be based on hearsay or recollections from decades earlier, not on reliable information. No one really knows the origin of the word Yankee, although theories abound. No one really knows what a Yankee Doodle originally meant.

Here is an example of evidence that suggests that the tune may be older than the words. The following verse is said to have been sung to the first half of the Yankee Doodle tune:

Lucy Locket is a character in the Beggar's Opera (see the introduction to Newgate's Garland) and Kitty Fisher was a celebrity from around the time it was first produced. If this verse really was sung to that tune, then the tune would have to go back at least to the 1720s. Various traditional dance tunes are said to be precursors of Yankee Doodle, including Fisher's Jig, which is also supposed to be the tune for the verse just quoted. None of the tunes are really similar.

All the effort that has been spent trying to find the origin of the song has ended in failure. There is nothing really bad about that. It just means that Yankee Doodle is a folk song. A folk song is a song that has been passed around from person to person. Folk songs may also be printed, and we even know the origins of some of them. But when a song is passed around in this way, verifiable knowledge of where it came from often gets lost. Even if we know the original version, the changes that occur as one person learns the song from another often improve it. The end result is often better than the original. Such a song has many authors.

At least one thing can be cleared up. We know why someone might stick a feather in his cap and call it macaroni. About the time of the American Revolution, there was a subculture of young men in England who imitated styles present on the European continent. They wore long curly hair and carried spyglasses. They were considered dandies. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes this about them:

"There is indeed a kind of animal, neither male nor female, a thing of neuter gender, lately started up amoungst us. It is called a macaroni. It talks without meaning, it smiles without pleasantry, it eats without appetite, it rides without exercise."

This is hardly complementary.

The most extreme styles are often the ones that look the most foolish when their time has passed. In Yankee Doodle, the rustic but down-to-earth American is poking fun at the English by associating them with these people, called the macarones. Americans saw the macarones as the silliest among the English. The relationship of the type of pasta to the macarones is that macaroni was popular in Europe before it became popular in England. Since the macarones introduced it to the rest of English society, it was called macaroni.

Here is the verse most people know:

Yankee Doodle went to London

Riding on a pony.

Stuck a feather in his cap

And called it macaroni.

Here is another verse that was sometimes sung:

Yankee Doodle is the tune

Americans delight in.

'Twill do to whistle, sing or play

And just the thing for fightin'.

There are some things about the song that can be cleared up. Something close to the version of the song that we know seems to have been written in 1789. That is when George Washington visited Lexington. The officers mentioned in the song are included in the list of officers who accompanied Washington on this visit. Still, the words for Yankee Doodle are not standardized.

Yankee Doodle, led by a Washington-like figure

Yankee Doodle


Father and I went down to camp,

Along with captain Gooding,

There we see the men and boys,

As thick as hasty pudding.

Yankey doodle, keep it up,

Yankey doodle, dandy;

Mind the music and the step,

And with the girls be handy.

And there we see a thousand men,

As rich as 'Squire David;

And what they wasted every day,

I wish it could be saved.

Yankey doodle, etc.

The 'lasses they eat every day,

Would keep an house a winter;

They have as much that I'll be bound

They eat it when they're amind to.

Yankey doodle, etc.

And there we see an swamping gun,

Large as a log of maple,

Upon a deuced little cart,

A load for father's cattle.

Yankey doodle, etc.

And every time they shoot it off,

It takes a horn of powder;

It makes a noise like father's gun,

Only a nation louder.

Yankey doodle, etc.

I went as nigh to one myself,

As 'Siah's underpining;

And father went as nigh again,

I thought the deuce was in him.

Yankey doodle, etc.

Cousin Simon grew so bold,

I thought he would have cock'd it;

It scare'd me so, I shrink'd it off,

And hung by father's pocket.

Yankey doodle, etc.

And captain Davis had a gun,

He kind of clap'd his hand on't,

And struck a crooked stabbing iron

Upon the little end on't.

Yankey doodle, etc.

And there I see a pumpkin shell

As big as mother's bason

And every time they touch'd it off

They scampered like the nation.

Yankey doodle, etc.

I see a little barrel too,

The heads were made of leather,

They knock'd upon't with little clubs,

And call'd the folks together.

Yankey doodle, etc.

And there was Captain Washington,

And gentlefolks about him,

They say he's grown so tarnal proud,

He will not ride without 'em.

Yankey doodle, etc.

He got him on his meeting clothes,

Upon a slapping stallion,

He set the world along in rows,

In hundred and in millions

Yankey doodle, etc.

The flaming ribbons in their hats,

They look'd so taring fine, ah,

I wanted pockily to get,

To give to my Jemimah.

Yankey doodle, etc.

I see another snarl of men

A digging graves, they told me,

So tarnal long, so tarnal deep,

They 'tended they should hold me.

Yankey doodle, etc.

It scar'd me so, I hook'd it off,

Nor stopt, as I remember,

Nor turn'd about till I got home,

Lock'd up in mother's chamber.

Yankey doodle, etc.