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.
REMEMBER SYBIL LUDINGTON
I’ve been astounded recently by the way the left has been so successful at using “hate speech” and school shootings to convince young people to demand that their own First and Second Amendment rights be taken away. Somehow, they have managed to bamboozle a large slice of the young generation into simultaneously believing that they are wise and mature enough to start voting and even writing laws at 16; yet they are so childish and irresponsible, they can’t be trusted to handle a firearm until they’re 21 or to hear an opposing opinion without rushing to a safe space to cuddle a puppy.
When young people don’t know their rights, where those rights came from, and how much was sacrificed to secure them, it’s easy to convince them to trade them away for empty promises of comfort and security. These days, students barely learn the most basic facts about American history, let alone all the great stories you discover when you dig into the details. This seems like the perfect week for a lesson in how America came to be born. And I’ll try to put it into terms they can relate to.
Maybe – possibly – today’s students can identify Paul Revere (although I doubt they had to memorize the poem, the way we did.) But how many know there was another heroic midnight rider who warned that the British were coming, only this one was a teenage girl from Duchess County, New York? She’s just one of many American heroes that kids don’t learn about because modern textbooks scrub history of everything interesting or inspiring to promote trendy social and political agendas that downgrade America. But kids, history is simply everything that ever happened to everyone before you came on the scene. Seek it out. Trust me: it can be pretty cool, and you can actually learn things from it.
For instance, listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of…Sybil Ludington? As the oldest of 11 children, Sybil had to take on a lot of responsibility at a young age. She was barely 16 on the night of April 26, 1777. She had just tucked all her siblings into bed when, suddenly, there came an urgent knock at the door. It was a messenger, coming to warn her father, Col. Henry Ludington, that British troops were invading.
His troops weren’t expecting an attack and were scattered all over the countryside. Gathering them meant a dangerous ride over pitch-black roads, through enemy soldiers, wild animals, and hostile Indians (sorry: “Native Americans.”) Understandably, the messenger refused an order to go. But Sybil volunteered. Her father protested, but she pointed out that she knew where all his men lived. As any father of a strong-willed daughter will recognize, he’d long since learned that arguing with her was futile. So Sybil mounted up and rode off.
It was a rainy night. The British had already set nearby Danbury, Connecticut, on fire, and the flames cast an eerie, red glow on the fog. It spurred Sybil on as she galloped from house to house, banging on doors and shouting that the British were coming. According to legend, at one point, a highway robber tried to intercept Sybil, but she raised her father’s musket and sent him running. Yet another reason why teenagers should think twice before demanding that the Second Amendment be taken away from them.
By dawn, Sybil and her horse were cold, wet, and exhausted. She’d roused over 400 troops, who joined the Battle of Ridgefield and helped drive the British all the way back to Long Island Sound. Gen. Washington personally honored Sybil for her heroism.
Today, there are historic markers all along her route, and statues of her in New York and Washington. But I’ll bet most young people never even heard of Sybil Ludington, a teenager much like them. Maybe it’s because nobody wrote a famous poem about her midnight ride -- even though it was over twice as long as Paul Revere’s.