Dissecting Yankee Doodle

Remember the tune Yankee Doodle? If you're like me, you probably learned this little diddy when you were in grade school.

Yankee Doodle went to town

A-riding on a pony,

Stuck a feather in his cap

And called it macaroni'.


Yankee Doodle keep it up,

Yankee Doodle dandy,

Mind the music and the step,

And with the girls be handy.

I suppose this was considered a patriotic song. Back then, I didn't think about it much. More than anything, I wondered who would think a feather looked like a piece of pasta and why on earth you'd want a hat with macaroni on it. Unless of course, it was one of those grade school art projects that called for gluing macaroni on a construction paper hat.

Of course, that's not the kind of macaroni they were referring to, was it?

Our version of macaroni
source: wikimedia commons
Their version of macaroni
source: wikimedia commons

Then, I was listening to an Open Yale Course on the AmericanRevolution, and the instructor mentioned that the British played Yankee Doodle on their march to Lexington just to tweak the Americans. How patriotic could it be if the Americans saw it as an insult?

I highly recommend her full course. I love the professor's ability to see everything in a humorous light!

That led me to consider the lyrics more closely. Especially, the chorus line: mind the music and the step, and with the girls be handy. Even when I was in grade school, that sounded slightly suggestive to me. And why would this soldier be riding on a pony? I guess we can be thankful that mule doesn't rhyme with macaroni.

And, for that matter, I'm still not sure what they are implying with that line about the macaroni. It sounds like they are saying the Americans don't really understand how to dress macaroni-style. But is that a bad thing? The British made as much fun of the macaroni as anyone.

I suppose meaning isn't as important as intent. It was clearly designed to be an insult. Several sources give the Americans the last laugh, though. Instead of being insulted (for long anyway) it became a popular dance tune. I can just image the British regulars thinking, "Damn cretins. Don't even know when they're being insulted!"


P.S. According to Shmoop.com, although Yankee Doodle was designed to poke fun at the American militia, it doesn't actually date from the Revolution. The song was allegedly penned by a British doctor during the French and Indian War.

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