YANKEE DOODLE’S MACARONI: TUNES OUR FOUNDING FATHER’S HUMMED
Who hasn’t wondered what the words to the song, Yankee Doodle, mean? No matter, I’m going to tell you anyway.
Yankee Doodle was the American Patriot’s go-to song. They sang it marching into battle, in battle, and marching home from battle. It was upbeat and funny, so you could party to it. And it was loud and annoying, which made it great for humiliating defeated British soldiers.
No question, an all-American song.
But Yankee Doodle didn’t start out as ‘the’ Patriot theme song; in fact, it was written by a British army surgeon in 1763 to make fun of the Americans. He thought that the American militia looked so ridiculous that he called them Yankee ‘fools,’ or as the British would say, Yankee ‘doodles.’
‘Going to town’ meant pretty much then what it means now. ‘Just to ride a pony?’ An American minuteman might ride a draught horse or a mule; riding a pony would be the equivalent of taking a Masserati for a spin. And if he stuck a feather in his cap, it was only because he was too ignorant to realize that he should have used ‘a plume’.
As for the ‘macaroni’, in the mid-1700’s, a lot of English gentlemen went to the European capitals and came back trying to impress their friends with the fancy dress and foods they had discovered. They failed to impress anybody; instead, they made buffoons of themselves, sticking plumes in their big white wigs, riding expensive ponies, and eating (you guessed it) macaroni.
But how did the song go from ridiculing ‘Yankee fools’ to becoming the Patriots’ rallying cry? That happened when the American bumpkins chased the Redcoats back to Boston after Lexington and Concord, and then did serious damage to the British attackers at Bunker Hill. Our boys knew that they had turned the tables on the most powerful military force in the world, so they celebrated by turning the song on them, as well.
Prior to the War of Independence, colonial Americans’ taste in music pretty much mirrored the taste of the British who ruled them, with Handel and Pachebel making their strongest showings among the wealthier colonists. The Messiah‘s first performances in the American Colonies took place in a New York City tavern in 1770; then, as today, every performance was sold out. Pachebel’s Canon in D was performed throughout the Colonies by none other than Pachebel’s own son.
American taste among the less wealthy tended toward popular folk tunes, like Greensleeves and the theme song of the Three Stooges, which many of us know by its original title, Three Blind Mice. Both tunes had been popular in England since the reign of the Tudors. Greensleeves might even have been written by Henry VIII, while Three Blind Mice was written about Henry’s daughter, Mary. During her short reign, Queen Mary tried to convert England back to Catholicism by burning Protestants at the stake. Her beleaguered subjects started calling her ‘Bloody Mary’ or, even more insultingly, ‘The Farmer’s Wife.’ Three Protestant vicars were so ‘blinded’ by their faith that they thought they could storm London with an army and unseat the Queen. Of course, the Queen’s army defeated them outside London, and she ‘cut off their tails with a carving knife.’ Actually, she burned them at the stake, but that didn’t fit as neatly into the nursery rhyme.
Another popular tune of the late 1700’s was The Anacreontic Song, or what today we would call the tune to the Star Spangled Banner. True, the words to the Star Spangled Banner were written on a British warship that was bombing Baltimore in 1814, but the tune had been written in 1770 for the Anacreon Society, a London gentleman’s club. In short order, the tune became so popular in America that after the War for Independence it was adapted for a song for John Adams’ presidential campaign, and later for a separate song in honor of Adams’ political nemesis, Thomas Jefferson. Then, when Francis Scott Key wrote his poem, his brother-in-law suggested that it would become a big hit if Key told everybody to sing his words to the tune of The Anacreontic Song.
The rest, as they say, is history.