A Short Analysis of the ‘Yankee Doodle’ Song

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Yankee Doodle’ is a classic American song, a patriotic tune that is also the state anthem of Connecticut. But where did the words to ‘Yankee Doodle’ come from? And what is the history of this popular tune? Before we delve into an analysis of these issues, here’s a reminder of the best-known verse of ‘Yankee Doodle’:

Yankee Doodle came to town,
Riding on a pony;
He stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.

As so often with classic nursery rhymes, Iona and Peter Opie help us to get to the bottom of the history and origin of ‘Yankee Doodle’. In The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes), the Opies tell us that the Boston Journal of the Times mentioned ‘the Yankee Doodle Song’ in September 1768, calling it ‘the capital piece in the band of music’.

This appears to be the earliest known reference to ‘Yankee Doodle’ in print. A few years later, during the American War of Independence, the British troops took up the words and tune of ‘Yankee Doodle’, singing it in mockery of their American or ‘Yankee’ enemies.

But then, following the British troop’s rather Pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, something appears to have changed. The American troops appropriated – or, perhaps more accurately, re-appropriated – the song and began revelling in it as a paean to their national identity.

The Opies quote from a British officer, who observed in 1777 that ‘the Americans gloried in it’ and that ‘Yankee Doodle’ was ‘played in their army, esteemed as warlike as the Grenadiers’ March’.

So much for the history of the song itself. But what is a ‘Yankee’ and, for that matter, a ‘Doodle’? Let’s take the last of these first. The word ‘Doodle’ first turns up in English in the early seventeenth century, probably derived from the Low German dudel, meaning ‘playing music badly’.

So, the figure named in the song is named for an incompetent musician, although there may also be a link with the German Dödel, denoting a fool or simpleton.

‘Yankee’ is of uncertain origins, but the most plausible suggestion is that it comes from the Dutch Janke, a diminutive of the name Jan (i.e. John), which was a mocking name given to Dutch and English settlers in New England in the seventeenth century.

For ‘macaroni’, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us: ‘A dandy or fop; spec. (in the second half of the 18th cent.) a member of a set of young men who had travelled in Europe and extravagantly imitated Continental tastes and fashions. Also in extended use. Now historical.’

The OED goes on to note that the use of ‘macaroni’ in this sense appears to derive from the name of the Macaroni Club, ‘a designation probably adopted to indicate the preference of the members for foreign cookery, macaroni being at that time little eaten in England.’

The OED also observes that there is almost certainly no connection with the extended use of Italian maccherone (‘blockhead, fool, mountebank’) which Joseph Addison referred to in 1711 in his Spectator.

In a letter of 1764, the author of the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole, in a letter to the Earl of Hertford, referred to the ‘Maccaroni Club (which is composed of all the travelled young men who wear long curls and spying-glasses).’ He doesn’t mention them sticking feathers in their hats, but this was something associated with macaronis of the period, too.

‘Yankee Doodle’, then, is a classic example of a song – and term – that was used in mockery against a group of people, who then subsequently took ownership of the words and made them into a source of pride rather than ridicule.

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