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
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
I find this incident in my notes (I suppose from “chinning”
in hospital with some sick or wounded soldier who knew of it):
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
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
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."
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.
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.
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
the top of that page. How many different methods did the Americans
use to communicate in those episodes, and why?
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
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
Tory Grenadiers," a British song.
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:
Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827
Thomas Jefferson, no date, General Wolfe's Song, Spelled Woolf
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?