Exploring the Origin of the Song, Yankee Doodle

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Exploring the Origin Of the Song, Yankee Doodle

Although it was one of the most famous and popular songs in the American colonies, "Yankee Doodle's" original author and words are not known. Some trace this melody to a song of French vineyard workers; some to a German harvest tune, some to a Spanish sword dance, some to a Dutch peasant song. However, the most likely source is an English nursery rhyme 'Lucy Locket' (American Popular Songs 451).

It is said that in 1755 while attending to a wounded prisoner of the French and Indian war at the home of the Van Rensselar family, Dr. Richard Schakburg composed these lyrics. The song is about a little boy and his father visiting one of the army camps of the brigade during the American Revolution. When there, the boy saw the men dancing with the ladies, he saw Captain Washington giving out orders to his men , and various other things which include the swamping gun which uses a horn of powder to be loaded. In stanza 8 the barrel being talked about with the clubs is a drum which was used to call everyone together. The boy also saw men with red ribbons around their waists playing corn stalk fiddles, and also troopers on their horses shooting their rifles.

The colonists probably got the song during the French and Indian war, when Richard Schakburg, a British army physician, was so amused at the sight of the ragged and disheveled troops under General Braddock that he decided to mock them. He improvised a set of nonsense lyrics to an English tune with which he had long been familiar; he palmed off this concoction on the colonial troops as the latest English song. The nonsense song of Doctor Richard Schakburg was "Yankee Doodle." As stated directly from Our Familiar Songs and Those Who Made Them,

Dr. Richard Schakburg was a regimental surgeon, afterwards appointed Secretary of Indian affairs by Sir William Johnson. This piece-up of broken humanity was a wit and musical genius, and the patchwork appearance of these new subjects amused him mightily. As they marched into the handsome and orderly British lines, the traditional picture of Cromwell, an American colonial General on the Kentish pony, with a macaroni to hold his single plume, came into mind in contrast with the extravagant elegance of Charles and his Cavaliers. He planned a joke upon the instant. He set down the notes of 'Yankee Doodle,' and wrote along them the travesty upon Cromwell. Dr. Schakburg gave the tune to the uncouth musicians as the latest martial music of England. The land quickly caught the simple and contagious air, and soon it sounded through the camp amid the laughter of the British soldiers. (583)

It grew so popular with British troops in the colonies that they used it to taunt the colonists for the next two decades, even sometimes outside churches during religious services (American Popular Songs 452). It was a prophetic piece of fun, and its significance became apparent twenty-five years later when, to the tune of "Yankee Doodle," Lord Cornwallis of the British army, marched unto the lines of these same old continentals to surrender his army and his sword (Our Familiar Songs and Those Who Made Them 584).

In 1776 the song was interpolated in an early American comic Opera, "The Disappointment of Andrew Barton." One year later the song received attention in the press for the first time by the 'Journal of the Times'. At the outbreak of the revolution, the colonials appropriated "Yankee Doodle." It was heard at every battle, and became a favorite in every camp, both in defeat and in victory. At the final surrender in 1781, on April 19, General Cornwallis pleading illness, did not appear. His substitute General O'Hara; prepared to give up his sword to General Washington, but was referred to General Lincoln. General Lincoln, when receiving the sword handed it back at once . As the British soldiers lay down their arms, their band played an old English melody entitled, "The World Turned Upside Down."...
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