Skip to main content

The dark history of "Yankee Doodle"

I admit, my ongoing "dark history" posts have been surprisingly popular (to me). Chronicling the unknown, weird, and twisted sides of popular folk songs is not a hobby for me...more like a curious bit of history I have mild interest in. 

So when a friend suggested I do a little on "The Star Spangled Banner," I told her there was too much there to tackle. Though I love the story...the boat, the harbor, the poem, putting it to old music, not having a National Anthem and the debate over what it should be. But I did begin to think about what my next post should be. 

Given all the hoopla over the Washington Redskins NFL controversy lately, I thought this might be a good time--Independence Day--to remind Americans that one of our most beloved nicknames for ourselves is actually mocking us. (Though don't tell a Southerner that "Yankee" is a beloved nickname. They mostly mutter it under their breath at Northerners.) Yes, the New York Yankees are a big joke. Not just their baseball even. Their actual name. 

Yankee is actually a horrible, horrible thing to call someone. Originally. They meant it to be disrespectful. It wasn't something you said to someone you liked. It was a reference to the Dutch...if you recall, they were the first New Yorkers. But, in general, it was a reference to Dutch names or possibly even Dutch cheese. As in "Janke" or "Jan Kees." Essentially, early colonial interactions involving the Dutch leads to the ethnic slur something along the lines of calling Wisconsin residents "cheeseheads." It's not polite. 

In the pre-Revolutionary British Colonies, British military officers mocked the disorganized colonials for going to Canada to fight for the crown (French and Indian War/Seven Years War) but turning and running out of fear of the French. Yankee was now another word for "coward." By the start of the American Revolution, British soldiers were marching to "Yankee Doodle" with lyrics about tarring and feathering John Hancock. 

The version of the song you all know--with the part about the feather in the cap being macaroni--is a reference to feminine, extraordinarily dressed, fashionable young men. A "doodle" is a fool. In short, the British were accusing Americans of dumbly sticking feathers in their caps and thinking they were the height of fashion. With a strong undercurrent of being womanish, unwilling to fight, and probably stupid. 

One "origin" story of how it came to be co-opted and taken up as a patriotic tune by Americans is that Boston newspapers reported that the British had grown tired of the mocking song after the rebel forces did more than their fair share of damage at the Battle of Lexington and Concord. "How ya like them apples?" pretty much. 

"Yankee Doodle," to me, has that special tone when it's played on fife and drum because of the playfulness. If you play it on a pipe organ or in a full symphony it loses the sing-song, mocking quality so important to the history. It's also a symbol of pride and patriotism that it has been turned back around, reclaimed, and loses sting when owned by the Yankees themselves. So the next time you hear the word or the song, remember that it's horribly offensive. Perhaps why certain overseas circles continue to refer to us as such? Maybe. Are you offended? 

Happy July 4th, everybody! 

Yankee Doodle went to town 
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.

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