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HISTORIGEEK: Yankee Doodle… The True Story

Ahh.. the Forth of July.

A time to wave the flag, watch parades, and generally celebrate being an American.

A time when most of us have, at least at one point, sung a little ditty called “Yankee Doodle.”

Perhaps you’ve wondered at the strange, seemingly nonsensical lyrics; perhaps you’ve simply sung along at the catchy tune.  Regardless, chances are that you didn’t realize that the tune itself was originally intended as an insult the colonists.  It was originally created by British regulars during the French and Indian War in order to mock their colonial allies.

Let’s look a little deeper and see exactly where those insults lie:

Yankee Doodle went to town
According to The Vulgar Tongue (a dictionary of late 18th century slang), “Yankey Doodle” is “A booby, or a country lout: a name given to the New England men in North America.”  We might call him or her a “country bumpkin.”  In addition, that same dictionary defines “Doodle” as “a silly fellow.”

Riding on a pony
A true gentleman would be riding a horse.

Stuck a feather in his hat and called it “macaroni.”
This has nothing to do with pasta, and everything to do with an English club called “The Maccaroni Club,” whose members dressed in an extremely flamboyant style.  As you can imagine, dressing like a Maccaroni involved slightly more than a slight modification of one’s tricorn.

Yankee Doodle keep it up, Yankee Doodle Dandy
The key term here is “Dandy.”  Dandies were men who dressed quite elegantly, and acted in a refined manner; we would call them “metrosexuals.”  If you listen closely, you can almost hear the quotation marks being placed around the final word in that line.

Mind the music and the step, and with the girls be handy.
The key term here is “mind,” as in “pay attention to” (as in “Mind the gap” on London’s famous subway system).  A true gentleman would have grown up with dancing, knowing each piece of music and choreography intimately; he would no more “mind the music and the step” than we would pay attention to the mechanics of riding a bicycle.

Taken together, you have the image of a rustic colonial attempting to ape the fashions and manner of the mother country, and getting everything horribly wrong.  Instead of a proper horse, he finds a humble pony.  Instead of dressing in the latest fashions, he finds a turkey feather on the ground and thinks that works.  Instead of intimately knowing the latest dance steps, he’s mentally counting to himself “one two three, one two three” and hoping that impresses the ladies.

What happened?

Well, as with many things, the victims of the slur took both the moniker “Yankee Doodle” and the song itself and turned them into a source of pride (sounds suspiciously similar to what happened with the word “geek”).

The tune was simple enough, and lead to the creation of hundreds of verses, with each generation coming up with new verses as the political and social landscape changed.

The original verse remained popular, with the singers completely unaware of the real meaning; George M. Cohan echoing the tune in “Yankee Doodle Boy,” and James Cagney singing those words in a movie entitled “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

And what are we to make of all this?

Well, as we celebrate this country of ours, take a few moments and have a private chuckle whenever you hear that tune.

And then admire that this song that was originally intended to mock the colonists has been turned around, and become one of the most beloved tunes in our American songbook.

Your Obedient Servant,

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