SINGING Revolution

 E Pluribus Unum



Often when we study the American Revolution we focus on the work of a few "great men," but Americans men and women of all classes took part in revolutionary activities. Relatively few Americans had the education and resources necessary to participate in the pamphlet wars, battles of books, and cross-Atlantic debates that survive today as documents of the revolution. But a great many Americans could and did express themselves in other ways, for example, in discussions at local taverns, at town meetings, and even in song.

Revolutionary songs were sometimes "composed" by individuals who were probably motivated by their commitment to the cause. One example of this type of composition is Joseph Warren's "Free America." Warren played a notable role in the early stages of the American struggle with Britain and might well be remembered as one of the founders today had he not insisted on being at the fron of the line at the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he was fatally wounded. Another case of a patriotic composition is "The Liberty Song," written by John Dickinson, whose "Letters from a Farmer" continued to be studied today. Dickinson's lyrics convey many of the same ideas that fueled his writing. "The Liberty Song" concludes with a chorus that urges: "Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all,
By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall; the very first "Letter from a Farmer in Pennsylvania" concludes with the forceful statement, "Small things grow great by concord."

In other cases, ballads were probably written by printers interested in marketing relatively cheap song sheets to a "mass" market or by travelling singers. On the other hand, many songs of the period evolved as new variations of traditional ballads or as responses to popular songs. Probably the best example of this process is the story of how Americans reinvented the negative image of "Yankee Doodle." Once a tune used by British troops to mock Americans, it eventually became a weapon used by the revolutionaries to taunt the English. (This is very similar to the way Americans transformed the image of the snake and the Indian originally used by the British to jeer at the colonists into symbols of American superiority.) Like Yankee Doodle, many songs of the Revolutionary era had no single composer but instead developed as many people improvised additional lyrics over time. Those that survive today in print are probably only a small percentage of those that were actually sung by people of that time.

Although sometimes neglected by scholars, songs can sometimes live on well past the time in which they originated. "Yankee Doodle" has continued to be part of American culture. It turned up in a variety of forms in the 19th century, and in some cases original Revolutionary War era lyrics were reproduced as sheet music during the Civil War. The images below provide evidence of the way Yankee Doodle has continued to play a role in American life.

"Yankee Doodle" was frequently used as a fighting song during the Civil War. Here is just one example, The Monitor and Merrimack, song to the tune of "Yankee Doodle."

Additional evidence of the role played by "Yankee Doodle" in the Civil War is provided by Walt Whitman in "Some War Memoranda Jotted Down at the Time,"  from November Boughs:

I find this incident in my notes (I suppose from “chinning” in hospital with some sick or wounded soldier who knew of it): 1
When Kilpatrick and his forces were cut off at Brandy Station (last of September, ’63, or thereabouts,) and the bands struck up “Yankee Doodle,” there were not cannon enough in the Southern Confederacy to keep him and them “in.” It was when Meade fell back. K. had his large cavalry division (perhaps 5000 men,) but the rebs, in superior force, had surrounded them. Things look’d exceedingly desperate. K. had two fine bands, and order’d them up immediately; they join’d and play’d “Yankee Doodle” with a will! It went through the men like lightning—but to inspire, not to unnerve. Every man seem’d a giant. They charged like a cyclone, and cut their way out. Their loss was but 20. It was about two in the afternoon

Although the cover of the1901 sheet music for "Yankee Doodle Negro" claims to depict an African-American veteran of the Civil War and the lyrics claim that the "Yanke Doodle Negro" is patriotic. However, there are also some lyrics that suggest that the term "Yankee Doodle" is once again being used as a form of mockery. What message do you think they carry?

I'm a colored American man
And I love chicken, I love ham,
A negro I say,
'Way douth South in dear old Dixie,
Just about in Eighteen-sixty,
After five long years of fighting,
Lincoln made me Yankee;
Since then I learned to love "Old Glory,"
How glad I am,
I'm a free man,
Ever since that old familiar story,
Every coon loves Uncle Sam.

I 've got quite, a family,
My wife, two sons and daughters three,
They're all sha-dy hue,
they are true blue,

My black Joe's a sailor man,
He sails around for Uncle Sam,
My other son Erastus is a soldier in the army;
That shows you how I love "Old Glory," Yankee you see!
Since I've been free,
Want to see a coon just junky dory,
Sing, "My country 'tis of thee."

I'm a Yankee Doodle Negro,
A Yankee through and through,
I was brought up, down in Dixie
And I'm true to the red, white and blue;
The stars and stripes I do love dearly
And so have I, an Uncle Sam,
Oh! say can you see, any chicken for me?
I am just a Yankee Doodle son of Ham.

With the entrance of America into World War I, people began to sing of what would happen "When Yankee Doodle Learns to 'Parlez Vous Francaise."

Source: Digital Collection, Historical American Sheet Music: 1850-1920,
Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University


In 1941, James Cagney starred in Yankee Doodle Dandy, a morale-boosting film released early in World War II describing how George M. Cohan used a spin-off of the morale-boosting Revolutionary War song "Yankee Doodle" to promote morale during World War I. This movie review offers other comments on the interplay of popular culture and history surrounding the film.

The Yankee Doodle concept was also used in other World War II morale-boosting productions, including Bill Hanna's and Joe Barbera's award-winning cartoon "Yankee Doodle Mouse."

In 1975, another cartoon character joined the Yankee Doodle ranks when Chuck Jones created "Yankee Doodle Cricket."


Today,"Yankee Doodle" continues to serve as Connecticut's State Song:

Songs and images with historical significance can become a living part of our culture, where they continue to take on new uses and meanings. While Yankee Doodle has been used to market patriotism during times of war, the patriotic image of Yankee Doodle has also been used to market commercial products.

It is interesting to consider the Revolutionary era meanings of "Yankee Doodle" have been transformed in Yankee Doodle Raph, a Mutant Ninja Action Figure. According to the manufacturer's web site: "Yankee Doodle Raph represents all that's right with out heritage - apple pie, pizza pie, octipi... and all that other stuff. . . . Raph's ready with his Foot firin' flint pistol and reptile rifle - with weapons so radical, the Foot will surely stay away from the sewers. So let the drum and fife play loud and play proud. Yankee Doodle Raph can't be stopped, cuz he marches over all borders with good on his side!"

Using "Yankee Doodle" to see merchandise did not begin in the twentieth centuries. The advertisement below refers to the use of what it calls the "Yankee Doodle Corn Cream" by American troops in the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Source: Advertising Ephemera Collection of the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University:


For another example of "Yankee Doodle" lyrics that treat African-Americans as cartoon figures, see: Mrs. Johnsing's Chowder, sung to the tune "Yankee Doodle" in the play, Yankee Doodle Extravaganza; Whack row de dow, or, Hunkey boy is Yankee Doodle.

See Also:

The Story of "Yankee Doodle" in the Revolution at the Library of Congress. To read the story of how this song fit into the larger circuit of communication used by the colonists in the events surrounding the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker hill, see the top of that page. How many different methods did the Americans use to communicate in those episodes, and why?

The Yankee Doodle page at the site offers a short history of the song as well as both the lyrics originally used by the British to mock the rag-tag Americans and verses later used by Americans to respond to the British taunts.

For additional information about the image of the "Yankee" see The Yankee, a page available through the Lewis & Clark College "Inventing America" course site.

The Story of "Free America," a song composed by General Joseph Warren, a prominent American leader who was killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

"The Tory Grenadiers," a British song.

Loyalist, British Songs & Poetry of the American Revolution from the Kingswood College Library's Chronilogical Guide to American Popular Music Before 1900.

Songs of the American Revolution from a History in Song site. (Note: Opening this site will automatically open several browser windows with advertisements.)

Both Washington and Jefferson seem to have transcribed songs into their correspondence or papers. For two examples, see:

Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827
Thomas Jefferson, no date, General Wolfe's Song, Spelled Woolf on Documen

George Washington Papers, "Song on the Peace," 1784.

Why note search American Memory to find other occurences of "Yankee Doodle" or other patriotic songs or images related to the revolution?



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The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.