Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

Yankee Doodle

The quintessential Revolutionary War patriotic song, Yankee Doodle, is one of those tunes hard to track down, surrounded as it is by many legendary tales. I will pass on the information from Sylvia G.L. Dannett's book The Yankee Doodler (Music, Theater and Fun in the American Revolution), published in 1973. The tune has been claimed in many different countries. There's a reaper's song in Holland, a vintners' song in France, and similar tunes in Spain, Italy and Hungary. Possibly, it reached England from Holland before the reign of Charles I. It appeared as a nursery rhyme about Oliver Cromwell, with "Nanky Doodle came to town, A riding on a pony, Stuck a feather in his hat, and called it macaroni. ( In early English dictionaries, a doodle was "a sorry trifling fellow".)

Our Yankee Doodle is said to have its origins when in 1755, New England troops joining Braddock's forces at Niagara appeared wearing a motley assortment of clothing from buckskins and furs to uniforms that were "some quaint old-fashioned military heirloom of a century past". A British army surgeon named Dr. Richard Schuckburg, recalling the old song ridiculing Cromwell, wrote new words poking fun at the New England troops, changing "Nankey" into "Yankey". It caught on with the Americans, who added more stanzas, and soldiers were said to have whistled it with such 'mocking vim' that Cornwallis supposedly exclaimed, "I hope to God I shall never hear that damned tune again." In the play The Contrast, the Yankee character Jonathan boasts that although he only knows 190 verses of Yankee Doodle, his sister Tabitha can sing them all. The tune was well enough known that in another play, The Disappointment, or The Force of Credulity, written in 1767, one of the tunes is Yankee Doodle. The play is about a then current mania of searching for Blackbeard's buried treasure, and is sung by an old Dutchman, "O! How joyful shall I be, When I get de money. I will bring it all to dee; O! my diddling honey."

The tune made good martial music, and in 1768 when British troops arrived in Boston Harbor, Yankee Doodle was said to have been one of the most popular pieces of band music. There are several political songs of the era set to the tune, from Adam's Fall: The Trip to Cambridge; The Recess; The Dance; and "Yankee Doodle, or (as now Christened by the Saints of New England) The Lexington March - N.B. The words to be sung thro the Nose, & in the West Country drawl & dialect." The first verse of the song The Recess (1779) dismally reminds us how little things change: "And now our Senators are gone, To take their leave of London, To mourn how little they have done, How much they have left undone!" The Dance version of 1781 appeared soon after the defeat and capture of Cornwallis, and began: "Cornwallis led a country dance, The like was never seen, sir, Much retrograde and much advance, And all with General Greene, sir."

There is a country dance to Yankee Doodle, and Captain George Bush wrote it out in his personal notebook of fiddle tune, copied from a now lost fife tutor printed in 1776 in Philadelphia, the first evidence we have for an American printing before 1794. Otherwise, one of the earliest known printed versions available was in James Aird's "Selections of Scotch, English, Irish and Foreign Airs", published in Glasgow in 1782.

The dance version, as found in Captain George Bush's notebook and other sources is on the music page.