“American Liberty, or A Specimen of Democracy.” So read the sign hung around the neck of the hapless hayseed accused of trying to buy a gun from a British soldier in Boston in March of 1775. And that was not the worst of it. Tarred and feathered, the farmer was then carted through busy streets by twenty fifers and drummers of the 47th Regiment who added insult to injury by briskly piping “Yankee Doodle.” Mocking the yokels was a favorite practice of British regulars, but the citizens of Boston, needless to say, were not amused.
Nor was John Andrews, who in the same month complained of the disruption of a church service by the 4th Regiment playing the tune nearby. This unholy practice was a frequent irritation and the song, a familiar taunt. When British troops first arrived in Boston in October 1768, they had marched across the Common “with muskets charged, bayonets fixed, colours flying, drums beating, and fifes and c. playing ‘Yanky Dudle.'” The term “Yankee” is of disputed origin; a “doodle” is, of course, a bumpkin, a do-nothing, an omadhon. Little wonder that the colonists sorely resented the cocky assurance of the Crown’s occupying forces.
Before being wielded so annoyingly in Massachusetts, “Yankee Doodle” already had a long history as a weapon of derision. It is thought to antedate the American Revolution by at least a century, descended perhaps from the air “Nancy Dawson.” Some historians date it as early as the Middle Ages and locate it in Germany, France, Hungary, Holland, or Persia. An early version mocked Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads as “Yankees ” or “Nankeys.” The lyrics taunting the poor “specimen of democracy,” however, are attributed to British army surgeon Dr. Richard Schuckburgh, who during the Seven Year’s War tended wounded militiamen on the van Rensselaer estate near Albany and amused himself by poking fun at their rustic manners and dress. Lord Percy’s reinforcements on the road from Boston to Lexington in 1775 probably sang this addition to Schuckburgh’s words:
Yankee Doodle came to town,
For to buy a firelock:
We will tar and feather him
And so we will John Hancock.
On the road back, minutemen sniped at them with the same song on their lips. Joining in that pursuit was Harvard student Edward Bangs, who later witnessed Washington’s arrival at the Provincial Camp near Cambridge and celebrated it with “Father and I Went Down to Camp,” the version most American in its sympathies.
“Yankee Doodle” quickly became the Continental Army’s favorite march. It sustained the green troops at Bunker Hill. It mortified Burgoyne’s men at Saratoga. And it savaged the surrendering army at Yorktown, where–the unkindest cut of all–French bands struck up the tune after General Washington denied Lord Cornwallis the privilege of doing so. The transfer of ownership was complete.
Of the many versions written during and after the Revolution, the best known was Francis Hopkinson’s “The Battle of the Kegs,” a lampoon published in the Pennsylvania Packet on March 4, 1778. It tells of Connecticut patriot David Bushnell’s launching of a fleet of seagoing mines–primed powder kegs–against British ships moored in the Delaware River on January 5. Infantrymen fired at the mines to disarm them, wracking Tory nerves and tickling Patriot funnybones. “The Battle of the Kegs” was much loved by the Continental Army, who naturally admired anything that took the tuck out of the Redcoats. Whatever the words, “Yankee Doodle” burrowed into the revolutionary consciousness of the American people. Then and now, patriots passionately agree that it’s “just the thing for fighting.”
Father and I went down to camp
Along with Captain Goodwin,
And there we saw the men and boys
As thick as hasty puddin’.
Yankee Doodle keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy,
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.
And then the feathers on his hat
They looked so `tarnal finey
I wanted peskily to get
To give to my Jemimy. [CHORUS]
And there we saw a thousand men,
As rich as Squire David,
And what they wasted every day
I wish it could be saved. [CHORUS]
And there they’d fife away like fun,
And play on corn stalk fiddles,
And some had ribbons red as blood
All bound around their middles. [CHORUS]
Uncle Sam came there to change
Some pancakes and some onions,
For molasses cakes to carry home
To give his wife and young `uns. [CHORUS]
And there they had a swamping gun
As large as a log of maple
Upon a deuced little cart,
A load for father’s cattle. [CHORUS]
And every time they’d shoot it off
It took a horn of powder,
It made a noise like father’s gun
Only a nation louder. [CHORUS]
And there was Captain Washington,
With gentlefolks about him,
They say he’s grown so `tarnal proud
He will not ride without them. [CHORUS]
And there was Captain Washington
Upon a strapping stallion,
And giving orders to his men,
I guess there was a million. [CHORUS]
There came General Washington
Upon a snow white charger
He looked as big as all outdoors
And thought that he was larger. [CHORUS]
Yankee Doodle is the tune
Americans delight in,
`Twill do to whistle, sing or play,
And is just the thing for fighting. [CHORUS]
* * * * *
The Battle of the Kegs
`Twas early day as poets say,
Just when the sun was rising,
A soldier stood on a log of wood
And saw a sight surprising.
A sailor too in jerkin blue
This strange appearance viewing,
First damned his eyes in great surprise,
Then said, “Some mischief’s brewing.”
“These kegs now hold the rebels bold,
Packed up like pickled herring,
And they’ve come down to attack the town
In this new way of ferrying.
Therefore prepare for bloody war,
These kegs must all be routed,
Or surely we despised shall be,
And British courage doubted.”
Now up and down throughout the town
Most frantic scenes were acted,
And some ran here and some ran there
Like men almost distracted.
Some, “Fire!” cried, which some denied
But said the earth had quaked
And girls and boys with hideous noise
Ran through the town half naked.
The rebel vales, the rebel dales,
The rebel trees surrounded,
The distant woods, the hills and floods,
With rebel echoes sounded.
The fish below swam to and fro,
Attacked from every quarter,
“Why, sure,” thought they,” the devil’s to pay
Amongst folks above the water.”
The cannon roar from shore to shore,
The small arms make a rattle,
Since wars began I’m sure no man
Ere saw so strange a battle.
These kegs `tis said, though strongly made
Of rebel staves and hoops, sir,
Could not oppose their powerful foes,
The conquering British troops, sir!
A hundred men, with each a pen,
Or more, upon my words, sirs,
It is most true, would be too few,
Their valor to record, sirs.
Such feats did they perform that day
Upon those wicked kegs, sirs,
That years to come, if they get home,
They’ll make their boasts and brags, sirs.