The History of "Yankee Doodle"

Reenactment of Revolutionary war soldiers

Joe Sohm / Getty Images

The American patriotic song "Yankee Doodle" is one of the most popular songs of the U.S. and is also the state song of Connecticut. However, despite its popularity and remarkably pervasive staying power, it started out as a song that made fun of American troops.

British Origins

Like many of the songs that have become characteristic of American patriotism, the origins of "Yankee Doodle" lie in old English folk music. In this case, and somewhat ironically, the song emerged before the American Revolution as a vehicle for the British to mock American soldiers. "Yankee," of course, began as a negative term making fun of Americans, although the exact origins of the word are debatable. "Doodle" was a derogatory term that meant "fool" or "simpleton."

What would eventually become a patriotic American folk song, actually began with a disparaging term aimed at belittling the might and possibilities inherent in the early American movement. As the colonists started to develop their own culture and government, across the ocean from their British countrymen, some of them no doubt started to feel as though they didn't need the monarchy in order to prosper in the fledgling America. This no doubt seemed ludicrous to folks back home in the heart of one of the world's most powerful empires, and the colonists in America were easy targets for mocking. 

But, as has long since become the tradition in the States, those people who were being ridiculed by the slanderous term took ownership of it and metamorphosed the image of the Yankee Doodle into a source of pride and promise.

The American Revolution

As the Yankees began to take the British in the Revolution, they also took over command of the song and began singing it as a proud anthem to taunt their English foes. One of the earliest references to the song was from the 1767 opera The Disappointment, and an early printed version of the song dates back to 1775, mocking a U.S. Army officer from Massachusetts.

The American Version

Although the exact origins of the tune and original lyrics of "Yankee Doodle" are unknown (some sources attribute it to the Irish or Dutch origin, rather than the British), most historians agree that the American version was written by an English doctor named Dr. Shackburg. According to the Library of Congress, Shackburg wrote the American lyrics in 1755.

The Civil War

Considering the popularity of the melody, new versions evolved throughout America's early years and were used to mock various groups. For example, during the Civil War, people in the South sang lyrics mocking the north, and Union Democrats sang lyrics mocking the South.

Tradition and Tomfoolery

Even though it began as a song mocking American soldiers, "Yankee Doodle" has become a symbol of American pride. The unforgettable melody has been adapted and performed in theater, by big bands, and other variations of musical performances since its popularization. Today it's a fun patriotic song, and most people only know a few verses of only one version of the song.

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