Around the Fourth of July, we hear a lot of songs about all the great things about America: “God Bless America,” “God Bless The USA,” “America the Beautiful.” All week long, our resident musicologist Pat Reeder has been reminding us that there are many more we seldom hear. But before them all, even before “The Star-Spangled Banner,” there was the original American patriotic anthem, “Yankee Doodle.” But it didn’t start out as a celebration of Americans, but as a mockery of them.
Since 1776, the song “Yankee Doodle” has been as much a symbol of America as the flag. Every child learns it from the cradle. But many of us grew up without ever knowing what it really means. Like, why did he call his cap macaroni? Did he use cheese for hair mousse? Well, I’ll finally give you the answers to those questions and more.
“Yankee Doodle” actually dates back long before 1776. It most likely started as a German nursery rhyme, since “dudel” is an Old German word for “fool.” It first became associated with America when British soldiers made up their own lyrics to it to mock the ragtag American Revolutionaries. That baffling line – “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” – makes sense when you know that a macaroni wig was one of those ridiculously large powdered wigs that dandies of the time wore. The Brits were ridiculing Americans as a bunch of hayseeds, so dumb they’d think sticking a feather in their hat would make them look sophisticated. Imagine a Huffington Post article about Trump voters from Alabama, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of just how much arrogant condescension they intended to convey with that.
Unfortunately for the British, it turned out wars weren’t settled according to who had the spiffiest uniforms (in fact, red coats just made you a brighter target.) Those unfashionable Americans were fighting for their homes, their families and their freedom. So they did what Americans have done ever since: they took the ridicule aimed at them, threw it back in the faces of those who mocked them, and got the last laugh.
The Americans took the song “Yankee Doodle” that was meant to belittle them and adopted it as their anthem. They marched to it in the streets, sang it in bars, and made up their own new lyrics to promote the cause of freedom and glorify leaders like General Washington, “upon his strapping stallion.” It wasn’t long before the British learned to dread the sound of that tune, especially when it was played on a fife and drum, accompanied by American militiamen. A Boston newspaper reported that Minutemen who captured two British officers forced them to dance to “Yankee Doodle” until they collapsed. After that, the Brits admitted that that mocking little song didn’t sound so sweet to them anymore.
Well, now you know how “Yankee Doodle” came to be the unofficial American battle anthem that later inspired another great patriotic song for this time of year, George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” As Cohan proudly sang, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, a Yankee Doodle, do or die…A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam, Born on the Fourth of July!”
Of course, Cohan was actually born on the third of July. But that’s another story for another day.