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Yankee Doodle Went to Town, A-Riding on a Pony, Get to Know What This Song Meant, It All Seems Much Less Phony

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By Tom Konecny

You sang “Yankee Doodle’s” seemingly nonsensical words in childhood. Even though you’re older now, you still love the ever-so patriotic melody. What exactly is the meaning behind this beloved American song? Its origin may surprise you, and a little perspective on its lyrics goes a long way.

The tune is believed to be older than the words, possibly dating to 15th-century Holland. We all know the term Yankee refers to Americans, Northerners, or at least New Englanders. Doodle is thought to have come from the Low German word dudel, which means “playing music badly” or dödel, signifying a “fool” or “simpleton.”

Macaroni needs a little more explanation. The Macaroni wig was top fashion in the 1770s for elite groups, yet regularly mocked by the London press. They used the term macaroni to describe a fashionable man who dressed and spoke in an effeminate manner. Dandies were viewed as men who, among other things, placed prominence on physical appearance. A British middle-class man who tried to look the part of someone with great importance was a self-made dandy who literally stuck feathers in his hat.

Putting all this together, it’s easy to believe how British conversation viewed the term “Yankee doodle dandy” as a bit of mockery – as if simply placing a feather in one’s cap would make a person noble.

“Yankee Doodle” became a pre-Revolutionary War tune sung by British military officers to mock the colonial “Yankees.” Though British served beside them in the French and Indian War of 1754-63, they viewed them as disheveled and disorganized. The song’s first words were written around 1755 by British Army surgeon Dr. Richard Shuckburgh. British troops sang the tune to ridicule their stereotype of an American soldier, insinuating that colonists were low-class men lacking masculinity or style.

However, a funny thing happened on the British path of sarcasm and scorn:  Americans turned the tables. They used the song as form of defiance, adding extra verses to mock British troops and salute George Washington as Commander of the Continental Army. In fact, it was a Harvard sophomore – serving as a Minuteman – who wrote a ballad with 15 verses in 1775 or 1776 which gained in popularity. By 1781, the song had transformed from one of attacking American dignity to that of national pride.

Today, you can’t see “The Spirit of ’76” painting (above) without conjuring echoes of the peppy, danceable melody which sounds sweet to any American’s ears. The words may be bewildering, but there’s no debating its stronghold on patriotic hearts from sea-to-shining sea.

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