One of the earliest and best-known patriotic songs of the United States is “Yankee Doodle.” Learned by every school child and sung every Independence Day, the song is a rich reminder of the heroic actions of America’s Founding Fathers.
Speaking of Founding Fathers, few names loom larger than that of John Hancock. Strictly speaking, his name is the largest — at least as far as the signatures on the Declaration of Independence go.
Because of these facts, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if John Hancock’s name appeared in the lyrics of “Yankee Doodle.” What you might not expect, however, is that when his name shows up, it is in the form of a threat against his life.
The melody of “Yankee Doodle” predates the independence of the United States by at least a couple of centuries. It became popular in the New World during the French and Indian War (or Seven Years’ War, if you’re reading this from Europe). In the years leading up to the Revolution, British soldiers could be heard singing the song with lyrics that were not particularly complimentary toward their colonial cousins.
The most famous verse and chorus originated at that time:
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.
The term “Yankee Doodle” was a derogatory term describing a fool or simpleton. A macaroni wig was a popular element among the fashionable elites of Western Europe. A dandy was someone who was obsessed with fashion and appearance. When put together, calling someone a “Yankee doodle dandy” was a way to mock an ignorant and effeminate man who unsuccessfully strove to live above his station in life.
That gives you a rough idea of how the Redcoats viewed their upstart countrymen on the western side of the Atlantic.
When the colonists took the extreme measure of declaring independence from Great Britain and openly fighting against the Crown, a new verse grew in popularity:
Yankee Doodle came to town,
For to buy a firelock,
We will tar and feather him,
And so we will John Hancock.
Of course, one of the problems with trying to insult someone who is a simpleton is that he might not know enough to be offended. Rather than express outrage over the slanderous song, the colonists simply claimed it and the insulting terms as their own. They embraced the term “Yankee” with pride and gleefully sang “Yankee Doodle” as the unofficial national anthem of the new nation.
Today, “Yankee Doodle” retains its original words that were intended to mock the rebels. The verse that threatened John Hancock, however, has been replaced with words that are more appreciative of the Founding Fathers. We can’t help but wonder if the older version remained the favorite of King George III — especially when he saw the massive signature of John Hancock at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence.
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Categories: History, Military and Warfare, Music, Personal Descriptions and Insults, US History
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