Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Yankee Doodle

The Spirit of '76- Archibald MacNeal Willard
 Yankee Doodle is a song most American school children learn sometime between the ages of 5 and 8. Most adults recognize the song, if not all the lyrics. I hope that most people probably know that, at least in legend, the song and phrase “Yankee Doodle” were both created by the English to be derogatory and insulting to Americans.
By examining the common lyrics, it’s not difficult to see the slight. Even the version school children learn is a little insulting. It reads:

Yankee Doodle went to town,
Riding on a Pony;
He stuck a feather in his cap,
And called it macaroni.
On my first post on this blog, I attempted to trace the meaning of the very complicated term “Yankee.” Although, no one really knows its exact origins, it essentially refers to someone of New England. The term “Doodle” is easier to understand. It simply means something like idiot, half-wit, or simpleton. As in all the many versions of this song, the term Yankee Doodle is synonymous with a country bumpkin, or what some would call a “hick.”
The entire scene these first four lines paint is of someone who is simple and uneducated. He rides on a pony instead of a horse. When he calls his feathered cap macaroni, he is not referring to the pasta, but rather to a fashion popular in England during the mid 18th century.
A Macaroni was someone who dressed and acted at the extremes of fashion, often to the point of being somewhat ridiculous. The term is actually related to the Italian pasta (oddly), because eating macaroni was fashionable for well traveled European men of the 18th century. These rich young men would describe fashionable things as being extremely “macaroni.” In fact, they belonged to a group popularly known as the Macaroni Club.

One of these very Macaroni styles was wearing an extremely tall powdered wig topped by a small hat which could only be removed with a pole. These guys seem somewhat like our 20th century “metro-sexual.” Fashion, hygiene, and popular trends were identity defining among these men. In fact other English of the 18th century made use of the macaroni style in satire. However, in Yankee Doodle, the line is used to suggest that this Yankee is so simple he actually believes putting a feather in his plain old cap equals the extremes of European fashion.

Macaroni Style from Fashion-era
According to legend, British troops created the lyrics during the French and Indian War between 1754 and 1763 to describe their under-trained, uneducated, home-spun colonial allies. Several prominent Americans like Benjamin Franklin even tried to play up to this character while in Europe during the Revolution by dressing in animal furs and acting as if he were from the extreme frontier. Apparently, this is what many Europeans expected colonial Americans to look like.

It’s interesting that this little anthem turned from being a derogatory insult into a national ballad of pride. In fact, it is said the tune was played so much during the Civil War that General Grant admitted he only knew two songs. The first was Yankee Doodle, he said, and the second one wasn’t.

However, as with most things in history, the origins of the lyrics and the tune are cloudy. Even how the song switched sides during the Revolution is a little murky. However, the two schools of thought point to either an English or an American origin for the song. Hence, whether it was truly originally created to be used to insult the colonials is even in question.

In his book Liberty and Freedom, David Hackett Fischer argues that the legend is correct. Yankee Doodle was a song created by an Englishman targeting colonial Yankees for their backward ways. In fact, he credits Dr. Richard Shuckburgh, an English surgeon stationed in New York during the French and Indian War, with the creation of the tune and certain lines.

During the French and Indian War, British regular troops were shipped over the Atlantic to protect the original American colonies from the French and their Native American allies. Of course, they were not doing this out of kindness or concern. Great Britain was mostly acting out of self interest by protecting their profitable colonial territories from a rival European power.

Hackett explains, according to the records of three New York families, the lines of Yankee Doodle written by Shuckburgh between 1759 and 1760 while he was stationed in Albany. Hackett States:

“The Regulars laughed at the antics of the Yankee militia. Their quaint clothing, curious speech, and clumsy manners became the butt of British humor.”
One must understand that the early colonies were very agricultural and rural. Though Yankees could be fierce warriors, they were very different than British regulars. Colonials were more used to irregular guerilla warfare and scouting, if experienced in warfare at all. They did not all have uniform clothing, weapons, or training. Each colonial area provided what they could to their militia. Among these provisions would have been odd assortments of hunting rifles, few bayonets, and perhaps scraps of military dress. Obviously most Yankees were more used to shooting rabbits, deer, and squirrels, than enemy soldiers.

Assembled as a whole in Albany, the New England militias must have looked like a rag-tag, back woods, odd looking, sounding, and probably smelling collection of provincials. In fact, from the prospective of the British, they probably were.

Though Hackett states it is quite possible Shuckburgh penned the verse of Yankee Doodle we all know so well, in The Story of Our National Ballads, CA Browne argues that the original opening verse was probably different. Set to the tune of an old English country dance, Shuckburgh might have actually written:

Father and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Gooding.
There we see the men and boys,
As thick as hasty pudding.

Apparently, Shuckburgh attempted to convince the colonial leaders that the song was a well respected military tune in England. Though, the regulars knew this was a joke, the colonials took up the song as their own. According to Browne, the song called at that time “The Yankee’s Return to Camp” found constant use in the militia camps. Of course the British, including Shuckburgh, must have thought this was hilarious.

However, this is somewhat disappointing. This means the most well known verse containing the pony, feather, cap, and macaroni was not the original. In fact, Roger Lee Hall, author of The Boston Yankee Ballad writes that this version does not show up in print until 1884 in a book entitled The Nursery Rhymes of England. Though, he also quotes author James J. Fuld, who explains that most authorities now believe the song was of American origin.

In fact, Hall quotes the author of Music for Patriots, Politicians, and Presidents, who states that the original verses of Yankee Doodle can actually be attributed to a sophomore at Harvard University named Edward Bangs. Edward served as a minuteman at the Battle of Lexington. The verses Edward Bangs wrote were printed in a popular broadside, which was created between 1775 and 1776. Hall records Edward’s original lyrics as being:

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.

Hall does not discount that Shuckburgh may have had a hand in the creation of Yankee Doodle. However, he states that it was not until the version created by Edward Bangs was printed that this song became popular. In addition, he states that the Bangs version would have been the most well known during the Revolution.
The broadside and lyrics attributed to Edward Bangs
It is now unclear whether the song was originally created by the British or the Americans. However, as the animosities created during the French and Indian War led to the conflicts which began the American Revolution, Yankee Doodle was being used as a morale lowering weapon. According to CA Browne, British troops occupying Boston prior to the massacre in 1770 were already playing Yankee Doodle to annoy and harass the Bostonians. They even played it outside colonial church services and aboard British ships anchored Boston harbor. Browne even goes so far as to state that the British marched out of Boston to reinforce their forces at the Battle of Lexington to the tune of Yankee Doodle.

It seems the song finally switched sides after the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. Thomas Aubrey, a British officer during the Revolution, writes about this transition in his series of letters entitled Travels Through the Interior Parts of America.

In his writing, Aubrey claims that the term Yankee was originally created by the Cherokee to mean coward, though this is only one of many theories. He said that the soldiers stationed in Boston during the commencement of hostilities often used the term as an insult. However, he also writes:

“But after the affair of Bunker Hill, the Americans glorified in it. Yankey-doodle is now their paean, a favorite or favorites, played in their army, esteemed as warlike as the Grenadier’s March – it is the lover’s spell, the nurse’s lullaby. After our rapid successes, we held the Yankees in great contempt; but it was not a little mortifying to hear them play this tune, when their army marched down to our surrender.”
Though the colonial militia lost the Battle of Bunker Hill, Aubrey is probably referencing the 1781 British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia. General Cornwallis, claiming illness, refused to ride out and surrender his sword to General Washington. He had his second in command deliver the weapon is his stead. Even then, it was delivered first to the wrong man.

As the British officers and German mercenaries marched by the assembled American and French leaders, the British refused to salute the colonial generals and commanders. Washington had ordered the army to remain courteous in victory. The English band played an old song called, “The World Turned Upside Down.” In response, as Aubrey stated, the Continental army responded with Yankee Doodle. It was the old morale-busting weapon of the British now turned against them.

If Dr. Shuckburgh did invent the lyrics to Yankee Doodle, he did not live to see how his song would be used or what it would eventually become. The tune changed in both lyrics and meaning as the French and Indian War led to the American war for independence. Even if most of the known lyrics were written later by Americans, the song and term “Yankee Doodle” changed from colonial insult to national ballad as Americans embraced the peculiar, awkward, somewhat provincial, yet entirely independent character the song describes.

Even though Yankee Doodle no longer really holds its position as the “in your face” patriotic theme it once was, from my perspective I find it amazing that it has survived in any form in our blind-to-our-past modern American culture. Though we still sing the song to our children, I wonder if most people know the significance of the words, how they were directed, and eventually how they were used. I cringe a little as it sometimes seems hard to find that independent Yankee Doodle character represented in our 21st Century national identity. As I mentally scan through TV channels, news broadcasts, newspapers, the internet, and other forms of poplar media; It immediately becomes clear, perhaps we are now confused as to who is the Yankee and who is the Macaroni.