|Fireworks display at the Washington Monument on July 4, 1986.|
Photo by Sgt. Lono Kollars, courtesy of the DOD.
Today we celebrate Independence Day in the United States. This commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, declaring the independence of the Thirteen Colonies from the Kingdom of Great Britain. While the United States has many patriotic songs - The Star-Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful, to name a couple - one that is still sung is Yankee Doodle.
Yankee Doodle is an Anglo-American song that is also the state anthem of Connecticut. It is Number 4501 on the Roud Folk Song Index, a database of over 300,000 songs that have been collected from all over the world from oral traditions in the English language.
|The Old Van Rensselaer House where Dr. Richard Shuckburg is said to have written|
Yankee Doodle, Albany, New York 1907. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.
It was originally sung by British troops mocking the ragtag colonial troops. The Continental Army was impoverished, and their dress was shabby and tattered. What they had going for them was spirit, but to the British troops, they were quite absurd.
Although there is some disagreement on the origins of the word "yankee" (and isn't there always?), in the final consensus it appears the word came from the Dutch. The Flemish called the Dutch disparagingly either Janke, literally "little John", or Jan Kaas, literally "John Cheese". The Dutch turned around and applied it to the English colonists. It was used as far back as 1683 by Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam (New York) for the English colonists in neighboring Connecticut. During the Revolutionary War it became a negative and unfavorable term for all the colonists.
|"The Spirit of '76", originally called "Yankee Doodle", by A.M. Willard, circa 1875.|
This is one of the most famous paintings of the Revolutionary War. Image courtesy this site.
The term doodle means fool or simpleton, a sorry and trifling fellow. It first appeared in use in the early 17th century, possibly from the Low German dudel or dödel meaning the same. The first verse of the song is as follows:
Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.
Macaroni? Well, it seems that the macaroni reference is yet another slur. Macaroni (sometimes maccaroni) was a pejorative term for one "who exceeded the ordinary bounds of fashion". So the song implies that the "doodles" were so foolish as to think that sticking a feather in their hat would make them a macaroni, which they were low-class enough to aspire to. Again, insinuating that the colonists were trying to be something which they were not.
In 1764 Horace Walpole mentioned "The Maccaroni Club (which is composed of all the traveled young men who wear long curls and spying-glasses)". Basically it was a label for men and women who tried to affect the dress, mainly a hairstyle, of the upper classes. In 1770, Oxford magazine wrote, "There is indeed a kind of animal, neither male nor female, a thing of the neuter gender, lately started up amongst us. It is called Macaroni. It talks without meaning, it smiles without pleasantry, it eats without appetite, it rides without exercise, it wenches without passion."
It was quite the vogue in the 1770s. The images below (from the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale, except for the last one) show how these fashionistas were caricatured and satirized:
|"The Macaroni", printed for John Bowles in London, July 3, 1773. Note the|
tricorn hat on top of his massive hair, the curls to the side, and the rosettes on his shoes.
|"The Paintress of Maccaroni's", printed for Carington Bowles, London, April 13, 1772.|
The paintress has been suggested to be Angelika Kauffman.
|"What is this my Son Tom", published by R. Sayer and J. Bennett, London, 1774.|
This was London, and you can see the difference in styles between father and son.
Image courtesy Library of Congress. The poem reads:
Our wise Forefathers would express
Ev'n Sensibility in Dress;
The moden Race delight to Shew
What Folly in Excess can do.
The honest Farmer come to town
Can scarce believe his Son his own.
If thus the Taste continues Here,
What will it be another Year?
According to the Library of Congress, Oscar Sonneck researched the origins of the song in 1909. He found a reference to it in an early U.S. opera, The Disappointment, in 1767. He concluded that it was written by Shuckburg, or a version of it was, during the French and Indian wars at the home of the Van Rensselaer family. This family was an influential family of patroons in New York, and Shuckburg was a British army surgeon.
Underscoring the silly, foppishness of the original song, it was the inspiration for a song from a musical called Little Johnny Jones by George M. Cohan. This opened on Broadway in 1904, and was made into a movie titled Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942 starring James Cagney. A "dandy" is a clotheshorse, a fop, a fashion plate. The song that Cohan wrote was called The Yankee Doodle Boy, and drew from the lyrics and melody of Yankee Doodle.
So there we have it. An old, much-loved song that made fun of the militia. I guess the colonists had the last laugh, though, and perhaps that's why a song intended to ridicule became a symbol of the underdog.