The exact origin of the word “Yankee” is obscure, but by the 1770s it referred to the English colonists, particularly New Englanders. A “doodle” was a silly person or country bumpkin.
“Yankee Doodle” was a well-known song in the New England colonies before the battles of Lexington and Concord, but only after the skirmishes there was it appropriated by the American militia. Tradition holds that the colonials began to sing the tune as they forced the British back to Boston on April 19, 1775. Troops under the command of Brigadier General Hugh Percy played “Yankee Doodle” as they marched from Boston to reinforce British soldiers already fighting the Americans at Lexington and Concord. Whether sung or played on that occasion, the tune’s martial air was intended to deride the colonials.
Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle Dandy,
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.
There are numerous conflicting accounts of the origin of “Yankee Doodle.” Some credit its melody to an English air; others to Irish, Dutch, Hessian, Hungarian, and Pyrenean tunes; or to a New England jig. Its first American verses are attributed to British military surgeon Dr. Richard Schackburg. Tradition holds that Schackburg penned his lyrics in 1755 while attending a wounded prisoner of the French and Indian War at the home of the Van Rensselaer family.
“Yankee Doodle’s” catchy tune has been adapted and expanded numerous times. It is documented that the Americans sang the following verse at Bunker Hill:
Father and I went down to camp,
along with Captain Gooding,
And there we see the men and boys
as thick as hasty pudding.
And there was Captain Washington,
And gentlefolks about him,
They say he’s grown so tarnal proud,
He will not ride without ’em.
By 1777, “Yankee Doodle” had become an unofficial American anthem. Following General John Burgoyne‘s surrender of British troops to the Continental Army on October 17, 1777, British officer Thomas Anburey wrote of the Yankees.
“Yankee Doodle” is also said to have been played at Yorktown, along with “The World Turned Upside Down,” when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at the end of the war.
After the Revolutionary War, “Yankee Doodle” surfaced in stage plays, classical music, and opera. The writer, producer, and composer George M. Cohan adapted “Yankee Doodle” for his Broadway play Little Johnny Jones, the story of an American jockey who goes to England to win a derby. A portion of Cohan’s 1904 play was incorporated into the biographical 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy staring James Cagney as Cohan, and again into the 1955 movie The Seven Little Foys starring Bob Hope and Cagney. [Eddie Foy (1854-1928) was a vaudevillian who performed with his seven children.]
“Yankee Doodle,” Joe Bedrosian, performer, Fresno, California, April 24, 1939. California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell
- “Yankee Doodle” remains immensely popular. Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1820-1860 & 1870-1885 boasts thirty-five sheet music versions. Search on Yankee Doodle to find them.
- The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799 is an online collection of Washington’s papers. Search the collection by keyword or browse the various series by date. The timeline and essays provide context for the papers and point out many of the most significant documents.
- Browse the documents of the Documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789 for a wide variety of material related to the beginnings of the nation’s government. This collection also contains a timeline of events related to the Republic’s birth.
- The teachers site is designed to help teachers, students, and life-long learners use American Memory. From its Collection Connections section, select, for example, Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention 1774-1789 for a wide variety of suggestions on how to incorporate materials from that collection into a curriculum.
- For more information on individuals and events related to the era, search Today in History on names of key figures such as Crispus Attucks, John Hancock, Isaiah Thomas, Nathanael Greene, Richard Montgomery, the Green Mountain Boys, John Paul Jones, and George Rogers Clark.
- Patriotic Melodies, a part of the Library’s Performing Arts Encyclopedia has a presentation on “Yankee Doodle.” To learn more about the song, view sheet music and song sheets, and listen to sound recordings.