Yankee Doodle Dandies: An era of patriotic music inspires Colonists

On Maryland History

January 14, 1991|By Peter Kumpa

AMERICANS can claim "Yankee Doodle" as one of their very own -- native born, not foreign. The tune ranks as one of the most popular in Colonial times, during the Revolutionary War and well after it. It was the original carrier of American patriotism, a thumb-your-nose outcry against a parent country.

Once, it had been taken for granted that the simple ditty was of English origin, probably from a nursery rhyme. Other theories had the song arising from Dutch, French or even German sources. Exhaustive research by Prof. S. Foster Damon, a musical detective, however, showed that the words of "Yankee Doodle" were known in the Colonies by 1745, while both words and the music were in wide circulation by the 1760s. The song was part of the first American opera in 1767, "The Disappointment" by Andrew Barton. By the following year, it was mentioned in the Colonial press for its popularity. This was well before the appearance of those nursery rhymes, "Lucy Locket" and "Kitty Fisher," which supposedly inspired the "Yankee Doodle" tune.

TC Ironically, it was British troops that first made the song popular by using it as a mocking parody of the shoddy Colonial militia. The words, by Dr. Richard Shackburg, a military surgeon, made Americans out to be dim-wittted country bumpkins. Marching to Lexington in April 1775, on the way to capture John Hancock and Samuel Adams, British troopers sang:

"Yankee Doodle came to town

Riding on a pony

Stuck a feather in his cap

And called it macaroni."

The origin of the word Yankee is unknown, though it probably comes from an Indian word used to describe early settlers. A doodle was a common word used to describe a fool or a simpleton. And macaroni was the name used for an English dandy, a fancy overdressed gentleman.

After Bunker Hill, the American Colonials took the song back from the British, threw it in their faces and used it as rallying cry for war. It was to show that the bumpkins could beat their fancy British cousins. It was surely played at Yorktown at the surrender of Cornwallis.

But "Yankee Doodle" didn't die with the war. With new lyrics, it became a political campaign favorite. In 1800, it was the "American Spirit," then there were versions called "Harrison", "Farmer Clay," "Rough and Ready," for Gen. Zachary Taylor, "The Latest Yankee Doodle," for Gen. Winfield Scott, "Breckinridge and Lane" and even "Taft and Sherman." It still remains a viable tune for any political time.

Those first rebellious Americans took delight in insulting the British by taking their sacred songs and using them for their own advantage. The British national anthem, "God Save the King," soon had a number of rebel versions. One of the first saluted the original 13:

"God save the 13 states,

Long rule the United States,

God save our states;

Make us victorious

Happy and glorious,

No tyrants over us,

God save Our States."

Another version was "God Save Great Washington." In 1784, Samuel F. Smith penned the words to the same tune that is still sung with pride today. "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty," are the familiar opening lines.

The first popular protest song was written by John Dickinson in 1768. It was called "The Liberty Song," and was set to the melody of the British Naval hymn, "Heart of Oak." Adopted by the Sons of Liberty as their official song, it vowed that "brave Americans" were "in freedom born, and in freedom would live and only as free men would their money give."

The war itself brought an explosion of patriotism expressed through patriotic songs. These were circulated quickly through broadsides in the cities up and down the Atlantic coast. They promoted defiance of the British and steadfastness for the American cause. Usually, they borrowed familiar English tunes. In "Young Ladies in Town," American girls were urged to wear their "homespuns" and not parade in brocades and ribbons. These young ladies were assured they would be part of new, if simpler, fashion but loved all the more for it. The song concluded: "Though the times remain darkish, young men will be sparkish, and love you most stronger than ever."

Many songs celebrated battles like Trenton and Saratoga. Others praised Washington, Lafayette, John Paul Jones and Nathan Hale. With fife and drum, others were personal, like "My Dog and Gun," and "The Girl I Left Behind." The last song, an old Irish import, remained a favorite into the next century and was used as a march for West Point's graduating class.

Americans took the music of a song written for a London society of art lovers for a variety of nationalistic themes. Somehow, "To Anacreon in Heaven," touched the Colonial psyche, difficult to sing as it is now and was then.

Long before Francis Scott Key picked the tune for "The Star Spangled Banner," it was used by others. To cast glory on the ratification of the Constitution, Francis Hopkinson used the melody "The New Roof." The songwriter, Thomas Paine, thought it appropriate for his rouser, "Ye Sons of Columbia."

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