Sunday, July 4, 2010

He Called It Macaroni

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

Macaroni? He named his feather after pasta?

I'm American, and I've sung this song all my life. But I never understood what Yankee Doodle's feather had to do with spaghetti.

The verse sounds odd to our ears, but made perfect sense to English people in the mid 1700's, when the song was written.

At that time, a "Yankee", from the Dutch Jan Kees, or John Cheese (see definition here), was an inhabitant of New England, a pejorative name bestowed by the urbane New York Dutch on their rustic, Puritan Connecticut neighbors, and by extension, to all Americans.

The word "doodle" first appeared in the seventeenth century, from the German word for "simpleton" or "fool".

From my last post, "macaroni" was an extreme of English male dress, circa 1760. The style's most salient characteristic, a large, ungainly wig, caused "macaroni" to become a synonym for foppishness. Put the two words together, and "Yankee Doodle" was a derisive term for a backwoods American fool so unsophisticated he thought decorating his cap with a feather was the height of fashion.

Historians generally credit Doctor Richard Shuckburgh, a British Army surgeon, with creating the song sometime during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The date is in dispute, given in various places as 1755, 1756 or 1758.

The New York State archeologist, Paul Huey, believes he has narrowed the date to June, 1758. At that time, a large British force had mustered at Fort Crailo near Albany, New York, to prepare for the attack on Fort Ticonderoga. The ragged, ill-equipped and ill-trained New England militiamen who joined the expedition provided a stark contrast to the well-dressed, well-drilled British soldiers. Dr. Shuckburgh wrote the first set of lyrics mocking these ragtag troops. The tune apparently comes from the nursery rhyme Lucy Locket.

Something about the song resonated in colonial America, and Yankee Doodle took on a life of its own. Many sets of lyrics exist. If you’re curious about all the verses (and there are a lot of them), you'll find a list here:

Everyone sang Yankee Doodle. British soldiers often sang it as a marching song. The American colonists sang it, too, but with different lyrics.

As the tension between England and America escalated, the Americans took up the ditty, complete with feather and macaroni, as a badge of honor. By the time of the Battle of Concord and Lexington (1775), the Americans had claimed the song as their own.

Yankee Doodle lives on to this day.

Archibald MacNeal Willard's most famous painting, The Spirit of '76 (c. 1875), (picture above) is popularly called Yankee Doodle.

Yankee Doodle Dandy, a version of Yankee Doodle, is the tune to a famous song-and-dance sequence in the 1942 James Cagney film of the same name.

And last, but not least, Yankee Doodle is the state song of Connecticut. I'm from Connecticut (yup, a real Connecticut Yankee), and I didn't know that.

Today is the Fourth of July, Independence Day in the United States. On this Yankee Doodle-est of days, here's one Yankee Doodle saying "Happy Fourth of July" to all my fellow Yankee Doodles.

Thank you all,
Linda Banche
Enter My World of Historical Hilarity


Savanna Kougar said...

Wow! What a perfect trip down USA history lane.

Linda, thanks!

Lindsay Townsend said...

Hi Linda and Savanna - Happy July 4to you and yours! Hope the holiday brings you peace health and happiness!

Linda - I never realised what an insult that little song was - but the 17th century was full of satire as well as amazing fashion. Some of the cartoons are jaw-dropping in their savagery.

Thanks so much for this. It's the kind of historical nugget I love.

Savanna Kougar said...

"Some of the cartoons are jaw-dropping in their savagery."

Lindsay, great description and that time is likely returning. Free speech is being limited more and more, thus, cartoons, black humor, songs, every kind of communication will be used to express what is not being allowed, as has always happened in our history/herstory.

Linda Banche said...

Hi Lindsay and Savanna, and thanks.

"Yankee" and "Yankee Doodle" can still be used as insults, but the Americans weren't lily-white either. They called the British soldiers "lobsterbacks" for their red coats and continually insulted them. At the Boston Massacre in 1770, the Americans taunted the British soldiers so much, the British opened fire on them. John Adams, who later became the second president of the USA, defended the British officer in charge and got him off, on the defense that the Americans had pushed him beyond human bearing.

Given the white-hot tension between the British and Americans, it's amazing the war didn't start until 1775.

As for cartoons and caricatures of the times, I think they lose some of their ferocity with the distance of time. But that didn't make them any less insulting.

Savanna Kougar said...

Linda, it was definitely a time of insult. I see this kind of behavior growing everyday. I only wish it was directed at the true criminals in government.