This is a tale of war, fashion, antiquated insults, rebellion, and the spirit of a group of stalwart and resilient people. Oh, and some noodles thrown in for fun. Folk music can be so grand.
Of course all Americans know the song ‘Yankee Doodle’, but we probably know a few different versions of the lyrics depending on who was teaching us. This song was originally (allegedly) written by a British Army Doctor named Richard Shuckburg during the French and Indian War. The original lyrics are as follows:
Yankee Doodle went to London
Riding on a pony
Stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni
At the time, Americans were pioneers starting out in a new world. Most only had what they had come across the water with, and army uniforms were not generally on the agenda. When the American militia came out to fight, they looked quite ragged compared to the brassed and buttoned British Army. It was easy to poke fun at their looks and call them ‘doodles’ (another word for idiot, dolt, or fool), saying ‘look, these folks don’t even know to ride on full sized horses’, and other nonsense like this.
But this insult goes even deeper into an arguably more childish direction. Macaroni – the noodle – had just hit the British streets and was becoming quite the delicacy. The people who adopted it were considered hoity-toity. These folks didn’t just adopt the tasty pasta dish, they also adopted the French sense of high fashion.
Today we would probably use the word ‘fabulous’ to describe these folks, but back then they were nicknamed after their newly acquired favorite pasta dish. It’s worth noting that macaroni culture was adopted heavily by the queer community of the day.
So… the British were essentially calling the American soldiers… gay. Yup. Even this insult was dulled down by saying ‘these folks just stuck a feather in their cap and said, hey look at me, I’m fashionable’.
Oh, and don’t confuse macaronis and dandies like they did in the lyrics of this song.
Very soon after this war ended the British were facing the other ends of the American soldiers guns, and regrettably a new version of this tune. The Americans rewrote the lyrics and used this song as a war cry against the people who had used it as a taunt for so long, and you can only imagine how that must have felt. The New York Times wrote a great article about this in 2017.
This version of the song is not to be confused with ‘The Yankee Doodle Boy’ from the Broadway musical ‘Little Johnny Jones’ written by George M. Cohan.
And… there you have it! Drama, prestige, revolution, high fashion, and… noodles. All as promised.
Browsing a book store I found a book of old Temperance Songs which… sent me down an interesting path. In my extended search I ran across this version of the song and I absolutely needed to include it on this page.