who was yankee doodle?
Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni’.
Yankee Doodle keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy,
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.
Fath’r and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Gooding,
And there we saw the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding.
And there we saw a thousand men
As rich as Squire David,
And what they wasted every day,
I wish it could be saved.
The ‘lasses they eat it every day,
Would keep a house a winter;
They have so much, that I’ll be bound,
They eat it when they’ve mind ter.
And there I see a swamping gun
Large as a log of maple,
Upon a deuced little cart,
A load for father’s cattle.
And every time they shoot it off,
It takes a horn of powder,
and makes a noise like father’s gun,
Only a nation louder.
I went as nigh to one myself
As ‘Siah’s inderpinning;
And father went as nigh again,
I thought the deuce was in him.
Cousin Simon grew so bold,
I thought he would have cocked it;
It scared me so I shrinked it off
And hung by father’s pocket.
And Cap’n Davis had a gun,
He kind of clapt his hand on’t
And stuck a crooked stabbing iron
Upon the little end on’t
And there I see a pumpkin shell
As big as mother’s bason,
And every time they touched it off
They scampered like the nation.
I see a little barrel too,
The heads were made of leather;
They knocked on it with little clubs
And called the folks together.
And there was Cap’n Washington,
And gentle folks about him;
They say he’s grown so ‘tarnal proud
He will not ride without em’.
He got him on his meeting clothes,
Upon a slapping stallion;
He sat the world along in rows,
In hundreds and in millions.
The flaming ribbons in his hat,
They looked so tearing fine, ah,
I wanted dreadfully to get
To give to my Jemima.
I see another snarl of men
A digging graves they told me,
So ‘tarnal long, so ‘tarnal deep,
They ‘tended they should hold me.
It scared me so, I hooked it off,
Nor stopped, as I remember,
Nor turned about till I got home,
Locked up in mother’s chamber.
Singing a song in Revolutionary America was not necessarily an innocent act. At the time, almost everyone sang in public on occasion, either for entertainment, for worship, or as part of their work. However, songs were also important instruments of satire and mockery. People used them to make fun of public figures, to pass ugly rumors, or to playfully insult their enemies—and sometimes their friends.
As opposition to British rule in the American colonies heated up, satirical songs took on a new edge. Rebellious colonists sang songs insulting Britain’s king, George III, as a drunken tyrant, and British soldiers answered with songs ridiculing the Americans as backwoods yokels.
One of these songs, which told the story of a poorly dressed Yankee simpleton, or “doodle“, was so popular with British troops that they played it as they marched to battle on the first day of the Revolutionary War. The rebels quickly claimed the song as their own, though, and created dozens of new verses that mocked the British, praised the new Continental Army, and hailed its commander, George Washington.
By 1781, when the British surrendered at Yorktown, being called a “Yankee Doodle” had gone from being an insult to a point of pride, and the song had become the new republic’s unofficial national anthem.
In the 18th century when “Yankee Doodle” was written, a “macaroni” was a derisive term used toward men who dressed in a foppish or dandyish manner. The song says, “Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” in order to poke fun at a guy who was sticking a fancy and probably expensive feather into his cap in order to look more fashionable.
The colonists took up the song as their own anthem in much the same way that many groups have at some point co-opted derisive terms aimed at them. They told the same joke about themselves but without the negative edge.
As for why “macaroni” came to be used in this way, it originates with the noodle. At the time macaroni was not common outside of Italy. Those who had toured Europe might have encountered it, and viewed it as foreign and exotic. From this, the name of the noodle came to be applied to anything stylish. It seems a little odd at this remove but it’s really no stranger than most slang terms– even “cool” doesn’t make sense if you take it literally.
The song has of course significantly outlived the slang term. When you hear “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni“, think something like “stuck a feather in his hat and though it made him look hot”.
The song is British in origin, though the tune is likely older and more international. It was originally sung to mock the colonial fighters with whom the British fought during the 7 Years War.
The colonials took the insult and made it their own.
Tunes are often re-used. Even the the tune for the Star Spangled Banner is a British drinking song, To Anacreon in Heaven.
Have you ever noticed Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star; Baa Baa Black Sheep; and the Alphabet Song are the same tune, which is the French tune Ah! vous dirai-je, maman, later arranged by Mozart?
Or that the American song My Country ’tis of Thee uses the tune for the British national anthem, God Save the Queen (King)?
Interested in history? Read about A triad of the greatest people ever existed whom history has more or less forgotten here.