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Military Songs

American Revolution and Before
- Yankee Doodle

On 19 April 1775, the British column under the command of General Hugh Percy, gleefully played "Yankee Doodle" in mocking derision of the colonials as it marched from Boston to reinforce units already engaged with the Americans at Lexington andBritish Retreat from Lexington Concord.  When the British later retreated under withering fire from the New England minute and militia companies, it was the Americans who fifed the tune in celebration.  A Boston newspaper later reported: "Upon their return to Boston, one asked his brother officer how he liked the tune now, 'D--- them,' returned he, 'they made us dance it till we were tired' - since which Yankee Doodle sounds less sweet to their ears."

The tune for Yankee Doodle, the most popular and famous of all the Revolutionary War songs, was possibly two-hundred years old at the time.  Some have claimed to trace its origin to a sixteenth century Dutch harvesting song; others to a French wine-making ballad.  Also, though it is uncertain, the tune may have been
used as the music for an insulting set of lyrics about Oliver Cromwell, "The Roundheads and the Cavaliers," during English Civil War, and later as the melody of a bawdy British nursery rhyme, "Lucy Locket," from the early 1700s as well.  

Image of a Yankee DoodleIt's traceable origins however, go back to Richard Shuckberg, a British Surgeon nursing wounded during the French and Indian War in upstate New York.  Shuckberg wrote a number of derisive verses to the tune about the American militia, insultingly termed doodles or fools, who were serving alongside the British regulars.  As tensions in colonial America grew, Shuckberg's lyrics found favor with both Tories and the occupying British forces. 
British soldiers added a new verses of ridicule to the song including one after they tarred and feathered Thomas Ditson of Billerica, Massachusetts for attempting to purchase a gun:

Yankee Doodle came to town,
For to buy a firelock,
We will tar & feather him,
And so we will John Hancock.

In 1775, what are thought to be Yankee Doodle BroadsideShuckberg's French and Indian War lyrics were published as "Yankee Doodle, or (as now Christened by the Saints of New England) The Lexington March. NB. The words to be sung thro' the nose, & in the West Country drawl & dialect." 
Possibly in reply to the publication of these derisive lyrics, a patriotic broadside titled, "The Farmer and his Son's Return from a visit to the Camp," was distributed with words very similar to those we know today.  Interestingly, three verses in the original mock George Washington.  Although within a year Washington would be looked upon as a near god and those verses would be altered considerably, the New England troops of 1775, who were accustomed to electing their officers, bristled that the Continental Congress had appointed a Virginian as their Commander. 

By the time of the Battle of Bunker Hill, "Yankee Doodle" had become the most popular fighting song of the Continental Army.  And after it was played by General Gate's forces as he accepted the British surrender at Saratoga, the tune became an abomination to most of the Redcoats.  After the battle, one of Burgoyne's officers, Thomas Aubrey, reported, "the name Yankee has been more
Surrender at Saratoga prevalent since the commencement of hostilities.  The soldiers at Boston used it as a term of reproach, but after the affair at Bunker's Hill, the Americans gloried in it. Yankee Doodle is now their paean, a favorite of favorites, played in their army, esteemed as warlike as the Grenadier's March — it is the lover's spell, the nurse's lullaby. . . [and] it was not a little mortifying to hear them play this tune, when their army marched down to our surrender."

Tradition has it that four years later at Yorktown, when Cornwallis's similarly mortified army unsuccessfully attempted to turn away from the American forces to offer their surrender to the French, Lafayette ordered the American band to strike up "Yankee Doodle" to further grind salt into the British wounds.

Yankee Doodle
Post-1776 Lyrics

Father and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Goodwin,
And there we saw the men and boys,
As thick as hasty pudding;

Yankee Doodle keep it up,
Yankee Doodle Dandy,
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy

 And there was Gen'ral Washington,
Upon a snow white Charger,
He looked as big as all out doors,
Some thought he was was much larger.


The flaming ribbons in his hat,
They look'd so taring fine ah,

I wanted pockily to get,
To give to my Jemimah.


And there was Col'nel Putnam too,
Drest in his regimentals,
I guess as how the British King,
Can't whip our Continentals


And there we seed a swampin’ gun,
Big as a log of maple,
They tied it to a wooden cart,
A load for Father's cattle.


And ev'ry time they fir'd it off,
It took a horn of powder,
It made a noise like Father's gun,
Only a nation louder.


I went as near to it myself,
As any body dare go,
And Father went as near again,
I thought he dar'nt do so.


Cousin Simon grew so bold,
I thought he would have cock'd it;
It scar'd me so I shriek'd it off,
And hung by father's pocket.


And there I see a pumpkin shell,
As big as mother's bason,
And every time they touch'd it off,
They scamper'd like the nation.


And there I see'd a little keg,
All bound around with leather,
They beat it with two little sticks,
To call the men together.


And there they fif'd away like fun,
And play'd on cornstalk fiddles,
And some had ribbins round their hats,
And some around their middles.


But I can't tell you half I see'd,
They kept up such a smother,
I took my hat off, made a bow,
And scamper'd home to Mother.


The Yankee Doodle verse that we are most familiar with today ("Yankee Doodle went to town, A-riding on a pony, Stuck a feather in his hat, and Called it macaroni.") was probably never sung during the revolution.  It does not appear in any printed version of the song until 1842

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