YANKEE DOODLE WENT TO TOWN
so let´s all run along with him
suggests Norman Warwick
We have fol lowed some labrynthian sidetracks and detours over the years, and most of them are evocative to me, and i hope to most readers in various ways. Today´s piece takes me back to my childhood and memories of sitting on the settee (we didn´t call them sofas until DHS told us to) with my dad watching black and white movies on a television that had only two channels but four legsd. My mind goes back to one particular movie through which dad kept repeating the catch phrase the lead actor was known for but which had noting to do with this particular film at all. It was. probably the first musical film I had ever seen butI already knew most of the songs in the film because i had listened to dad singing them every morning as he drove us to school
Still, I´m not sure that opening with a photograph of a statue of George M Cohan (right) , beloved of Presidents and thought by most of us to lay claim to being America´s greatest ever showman, might not necessarily lead you to the real subject matter of today´s article in which I invite you to join us singing nursery rhymes and Uncle Sam and 4th July and Jack And Jill.
According to Jacob Uitti, writing recently in American Songwriter, Yankee Doodle Dandy is a song learned by generations of American children. Over in the UK, children also learned the tune, as it had centuries earlier been adapted to several of the nursery crhymes (thank you Tony Webb, of The Nearly Dead Poets. I knew I would ´borrow´ that phrase one day) I knew as a child sixty five years ago. to
Jacob Iutti, though, reminds us that in America Yankee Doodle is still seen as a patriotic song. It’s a patriotic song—indeed, it’s the official state anthem of Connecticut—and it’s a song that brings a smile to our faces, singing of features in caps and macaroni. You will see later why that makes it a perfectly fitting piece of memorabilia for the life of the late, great George M Cohan, beloved of Presiodents and thought by most to be America´s greatest ever showman.
But what does it all mean? To find out, dear reader, let’s dive in and investigate the history and meaning of the famous nursery rhyme, “Yankee Doodle.”
“Yankee Doodle” predates the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Ever since its writing, the song has been sung as a patriotic anthem. And many scholars believe the tune of the song is even older than the nursery rhyme, itself. The melody perhaps even goes back to folk songs of Medieval Europe. In fact, the melody may date back to an old Irish song, “All the Way to Galway,” in which the second strain is identical to “Yankee Doodle.”
Furthermore, the earliest lyrics of the song come from a Middle Dutch harvest song, which also follows the same tune and likely dates back as far as the 15th century in Holland. That song contained mostly gibberish lines like “Yanker, didel, doodle down, Diddle, dudel, lanther, Yanke viver, voover vown, Botermilk und tanther.” Apparently, farmhands in Holland were paid “as much buttermilk as they could drink, and a tenth of the grain.”
The song is attributed to Richard Shuckburgh, who likely wrote it in America at Fort Crailo around 1755.
Today, the song’s tune is shared with others like “Jack and Jill.” It also reportedly inspired the theme song used for the children’s television show, Barney & the Backyard Gang and Barney & Friends.
The term “Doodle” shows up in the English language in the early 17th century. It is thought to be derived from the German word “dudel,” which means “playing music badly.” Another close relation is the term “Dödel,” which means “fool” or “simpleton.” (This is likely also where our slang “Dude” comes from.)
According to scholars, the Macaroni wig was an extreme fashion statement in the 1770s and it was known as a slang term for a fop, which was a pejorative word for a man excessively concerned with his appearance and clothes around that time.
The word “dandy” also appears in “Yankee Doodle” and that word, similar to “fop,” denotes someone who placed importance on physical appearance and refined language, as well as leisure activities.
Therefore, the “macaroni” wig was something a “fop” or “dandy” might wear to look important and of a certain status or class. Macaroni was even used as a term to describe a fashionable man, most often derisively, someone who exceeded the ordinary understanding of fashion, grooming, eating, or gambling.
In British vernacular, then, the term “Yankee doodle dandy” meant someone who was unsophisticated but who took on upper-class fashion—as if sticking a feather in your hat may give you supreme status. Therefore, the line in the nursery rhyme was likely an insult from the British to the colonists who the Brits saw as lower-class men who lacked masculinity and true status.
“Yankee Doodle” was originally sung by the British military officers to mock the American colonists, the shabby “Yankees,” with whom they fought with during the French and Indian War (1754–1763).
Written at Fort Crailo around 1755 by British Army surgeon Richard Shuckburgh while campaigning in Rensselaer, New York, the British troops sang the song to make fun of their American soldier counterparts, who, the British joked, thought were stylish just by placing a random feather in their likely tricorn hats.
photo Washington Later, the song became popular amongst Americans as a song of defiance. They would then add verses to mock the British troops and simultaneously pay tribute to General (and first President) George Washington, who was the Commander of the Continental army.
By 1781, the meaning of “Yankee Doodle” had turned from being an insulting tune to one of American pride. That’s subversion, baby.
According to one account, Shuckburgh penned the original lyrics after seeing the Colonial troops under Colonel Thomas Fitch, who was the son of Connecticut Governor Thomas Fitch. And the current version seems to have been filled out and written in 1776 by Edward Bangs, a Harvard sophomore who was also a Minuteman. Bangs wrote the song’s 15 verses, which later circulated in Boston and surrounding areas.
Adding to the subversion of the song, according to a Boston newspaper, after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, one British soldier asked another how he liked “Yankee Doodle” now? To which the latter responded, “Dang them [the American troops]. They made us dance it till we were tired.”
There is an alternate verse of the song that is said to have been a favorite for the British to march to. It stems from an incident involving one Thomas Ditson of Billerica, Massachusetts. British soldiers are said to have tarred and feathered Ditson because he tried to buy a musket in Boston in 1775. Ditson later fought at Concord. For this reason, Billerica is known as the home of “Yankee Doodle.”
That verse went:
Yankee Doodle came to town,
For to buy a firelock,
We will tar and feather him,
And so we will John Hancock
(Hancock famously signed the Declaration of Independence with the largest signature.)
On July 25, 1999, a bill was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives to recognize Billerica, Massachusetts as “America’s Yankee Doodle Town.”
According to scholars, the earliest known version of the lyrics is from around 1755 (though the official date is disputed) and they begin:
Brother Ephraim sold his Cow
And bought him a Commission;
And then he went to Canada
To fight for the Nation
But when Ephraim he came home
He proved an arrant Coward,
He wouldn’t fight the Frenchmen there
For fear of being devoured.
(To buy a commission meant to purchase status or standing in the military.)
The song also appears in 1762 in one of America’s first comic operas, The Disappointment, which lyrics about the search for the pirate Blackbeard’s buried treasure by a team from Philadelphia.
There is another pro-British version that goes:
The seventeen of June, at Break of Day,
The Rebels they supriz’d us,
With their strong Works, which they’d thrown up,
To burn the Town and drive us.
“Yankee Doodle” was played in victory at the British surrender in Saratoga, New York in 1777. One of the verses sung that day goes:
Yankey Doodle came to town,
How do you think they serv’d him?
One took his bag, another his scrip,
The quicker for to starve him
And according to legend, after the aftermath of the important battle, the Siege of Yorktown, the surrounding British soldiers would not look at the victorious Americans, instead only giving eye contact to the French soldiers present. American ally, the Marquis de Lafayette, was angered by this and ordered his nearby band to play “Yankee Doodle” to taunt the British. Finally, upon hearing the song, the British soldiers looked upon the victorious Americans. In the end, the full (lengthy) version of the song has come to read like this:
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.
Father and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Gooding,
And there we saw the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding.
And there we saw a thousand men
As rich as Squire David,
And what they wasted every day,
I wish it could be savèd.
The ‘lasses they eat every day,
Would keep a house a winter;
They have so much, that I’ll be bound,
They eat it when they’ve a mind to.
And there I see a swamping gun
Large as a log of maple,
Upon a deuced little cart,
A load for father’s cattle.
And every time they shoot it off,
It takes a horn of powder,
And makes a noise like father’s gun,
Only a nation louder.
I went as nigh to one myself
As ‘Siah’s underpinning;
And father went as nigh again,
I thought the deuce was in him
Cousin Simon grew so bold,
I thought he would have cocked it;
It scared me so I shrinked it off
And hung by father’s pocket.
And Cap’n Davis had a gun,
He kind of clapt his hand on’t
And stuck a crooked stabbing iron
Upon the little end on’t
And there I see a pumpkin shell
As big as mother’s basin,
And every time they touched it off
They scampered like the nation.
I see a little barrel too,
The heads were made of leather;
They knocked on it with little clubs
And called the folks together.
And there was Cap’n Washington, (right)
And gentle folks about him;
They say he’s grown so ‘tarnal proud
He will not ride without ’em.
He got him on his meeting clothes,
Upon a slapping stallion;
He sat the world along in rows,
In hundreds and in millions.
The flaming ribbons in his hat,
They looked so tearing fine, ah,
I wanted dreadfully to get
To give to my Jemima.
I see another snarl of men
A-digging graves, they told me,
So ‘tarnal long, so ‘tarnal deep,
They ‘tended they should hold me.
It scared me so, I hooked it off,
Nor stopped, as I remember,
Nor turned about till I got home,
Locked up in mother’s chamber.
So Jacob Iutti, has clarified for his readers the history of this profusion and confusion of words. All the clues were there in the words we knew and sang as kids but I´m not at all sure that as a child in the UK I would have placed all this at the heart of a war from previous centuries.
There are reasons I remember and treasure the song, so well, though and those reasons include a black and white (I´m sure) American movie and one of my favourite movies stars, who to add to all this confusion, apparently never actually said on screen the phrased he became indelibly associated with of ´ýou, you dirty rat´ whilst pointing a gun at someone.
phto James Francis Cagney, Jr. ( New York , July 17, 1899 – Stanford , March 30 , 1986 ) 1 was an American film actor and dancer . Winner of major awards and actor in various roles, he is remembered for his tough guy roles .
He stood out in the 1930s in the Warner Bros film company and maintained his relevance during the 1940s and 1950s. He was the winner of the 1943 Oscar for best leading actor for the film Yankee Dandy (1942).
His first major film was William A. Wellman ‘s The Public Enemy . He reprized the gangster role in two films directed by Raoul Walsh : The Roaring Twenties and, most notably, Red Hot , where he said his most famous line, “On top of the world, Mom.”
But Cagney was a very versatile actor who appeared in all kinds of films, from comedies to dramas, through westerns and even adaptations of Shakespeare’s works. Stand out in his filmography Of him Parade of footlights , The handsome man , A photographer has entered and Angels with dirty faces , in the thirties.
In the forties he continued to be one of the public’s favorite actors and continued to participate in great films. One of boxing, entitled Ciudad de conquista , and the idealized biography of Yanqui Dandy , performance with which he won the Oscar for best actor. This success made him break with Warner and found his own production company, with which he was not successful, so he had to return to the Warner brothers’ production company.
In the fifties he returned to work in some great films such as the Lion of the streets , Love me or leave me , Escala en Hawaii or The man with a thousand faces . He finally ended his career temporarily in 1961 , when he starred in the comedy One, Two, Three , directed by Billy Wilder .
Actor James Cagney died on March 30, 1986 , at his home in Stanfordville at the age of 86, after being admitted to Lennox Hill Hospital in New York suffering from pulmonary edema. The year before he had suffered a myocardial infarction. He was survived by his wife, the dancer Frances Vernon (1899-1994), whom he had married in 1922 . He was buried in Hawthorne Cemetery, New York.
My dad was a huge fan of Cagney the crook, as he was so often typecast. Dad would repeat Cagney lines in that strange accent long before 20th century audiences were parroting Al Pacino.
Yankee Doodle to me, though seemed something of a departure for Cagney. The film was a musical portrait of composer/singer/dancer George M. Cohan. From his early days as a child-star in his family’s vaudeville show up to the time of his comeback at which he received a medal from the president for his special contributions to the US, this was the life- story of George M. Cohan, who produced, directed, wrote and starred in his own musical shows for which he composed his famous songs.
The film was really telling Cohan´s story through a pasteboard repetition of many of the wonderful stage scenes he created throughout his life, and doing the telling ass Cohan himself in only a slight softening of his usual pugnacious manner.
I guess I would have been maybe eight or nine when I first saw this wonderful film one Christmas Day or Boxing Day and have seen it maybe another couple of times in the past sixty years. My memory is that Cagney´s role really surprised me because I was used to seeing him as a gangster in his most famous roles.
Here Cagney plays the role of a jockey (see our cover and top of article) who has lost everything, accused as he is of race-fixing. Cagney sings and hoofs (if you will pardon the pun) on stage and tells his tale. At that age, I was merely a viewer, not a critic, but I seem to remember that I cried and laughed and cheered throughout the season, and I am wise enough now, at least to realise that isd a testimony to Cagney´s acting skills. I´m not sure that words like guilt, regret, compassion, shame or pride were even part of my vocabulary then, but somehow I ´got´all that from the actor´s performance.
To explain all that more fully, though I have rfead a film review of the time by the respected critic Robert Ebert, available online at
Mr. Ebert says, this film is a testament to the power of entertainment during a time when people needed the escape. The song-and-dance of James Cagney as “The Man Who Owned Broadway,” George M. Cohan, is timeless cinema. Yankee Doodle Dandy shows a time when talent was the most important “lowest common denominator” rather than sex, violence, CGI bombast, etc. It shows a time when Americans were capable of setting aside their ideological differences for the democratic ideal. A time when Cohan, upon receiving a telegram from FDR after performing in what is by today’s standards a tame parody of FDR, is worried that he has offended the President. It should give for many, during the ups and downs of a showbiz life spanning roughly six decades, a sense of what seems now lost in a 21st century of entertainment saturation, infotainment bubbles, and uncivil discourse.
However, this movie also shows a time when minstrelsy was not only accepted, but also quite popular. It also skirts the line between patriotism and jingoism. The horrors of World War I are glossed over at best, and war is seen as a romantic endeavor, not coincidentally at a time when the United States was getting into the Second World War. One can’t help but wonder what Cohan’s views on war would be if he had actually served in the military and witnessed the carnage of World War I. Still, it’s easy to still feel transported to a place away from the concerns of everyday life even today during the movie’s most spectacular performances, and feel a thrill and wonder at a time when talent alone kept audiences in their seats.
- Families can talk about the changing nature of entertainment throughout history. Yankee Doodle Dandy shows a young Cohan and his family touring on the vaudeville circuit, his days as a Broadway performer and songwriter, and then his contributions to timeless popular music such as “Over There” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” How has the consumption of entertainment changed over the years? How might a “night at the movies” in 1942 be in marked contrast to seeing a movie today, when entertainment is seemingly all-pervasive?
- This movie has a scene of minstrelsy, of a white family performing in “black face” while singing and dancing while imitating African Americans. Minstrelsy was a popular form of entertainment during the first half of the 20th century. How does this movie reflect societal attitudes toward African Americans at the time?
- What are some of the ways in which the movie depicts patriotism?
There is a story that James Cagney stood on his toes while acting, believing he would project more energy that way. That sounds like a press release, but whatever he did, Cagney came across as one of the most dynamic performers in movie history–a short man with ordinary looks whose coiled tension made him the focus of every scene.
He’s best known for the gangster roles he played in the 1930s, a decade when he averaged almost four films a year for Warner Bros. From “Public Enemy” (1931, with its famous grapefruit-in-the-face scene) to “The Roaring Twenties” (1939), he was Hollywood’s leading crime star–even at the studio that also had Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart under contract. But he didn’t win his Oscar until 1942, when he played Broadway showman George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Maybe that was because Hollywood doesn’t like to honor actors playing bad guys (Cagney was nominated but didn’t win in 1938, as a gangster in “Angels With Dirty Faces”). Maybe it was because the nation was newly at war in 1942, and happy to honor a patriotic biopic about the composer of “It’s a Grand Old Flag.” Or maybe it was because Cagney threw himself into the role with such complete joy.
Audiences didn’t expect to see Cagney singing and dancing. He’d been a hoofer in his stage days, but danced only once in a major film (“Footlight Parade,” 1933). Now he had the lead in the life story of one of the most famous song and dance men of his day–a role everybody knew Fred Astaire had turned down.
Cagney (left) wasn’t a dancer by Astaire’s standards, or a singer by anybody’s, but he was such a good actor he could fake it: “Cagney can’t really dance or sing,” observed the critic Edwin Jahiel, “but he acts so vigorously that it creates an illusion, and for dance-steps he substitutes a patented brand of robust, jerky walks, runs and other motions.”
You can sense that in an impromptu scene near the end of the movie. Cagney’s Cohan is walking down a marble staircase at the White House when he suddenly starts tapping and improvises all the way to the bottom. Cagney later said he dreamed that up five minutes before the scene was shot: “I didn’t consult with the director or anything, I just did it.”
What’s he doing at the White House? The movie is told in one of the most implausible flashbacks in the history of musical biographies–a genre famous for the tortured ways it doubles back to tell showbiz stories. As the movie opens, Cohan has been called out of retirement to star as Franklin D. Roosevelt in “I’d Rather Be Right,” a Broadway musical hailing the president as war clouds gathered. He gets a telegram summoning him to the White House, and arrives on foot, drenched, late at night. He’s shown into the Oval Office, where an over-the-shoulder shot of FDR identifies him by his cigarette holder. The president says he remembers seeing “The Four Cohans” in Boston 40 years earlier.
That sets off an entire film of flashbacks, narrated by Cohan, as he tells the president his life story. How he was born on the Fourth of July (“I was 6 before I realized they weren’t celebrating my birthday”). How he began as a child star, touring with his parents, Jerry (Walter Huston) and Nellie (Rosemary De Camp), and his sister, Josie (Jeanne Cagney, Cagney’s own sister). How he got a swelled head after starring in “Peck’s Bad Boy,” and how while still a teenager he played his own mother’s father on the stage.
That memory sets up a famous sequence, as a young fan named Mary (Joan Leslie) comes backstage to get advice from the apparently bearded and ancient Cohan, who continues the deception until suddenly breaking into a frenzied dance. She shrieks as he takes off his makeup (in showbiz, he tells her, “you’ll have to get used to false eyebrows”) and soon he’s writing a hit song for her (“Mary”) and they’re getting married.
These are all of course staples of showbiz biography–reality turned into myth, if not into press releases. Today’s biopics focus on scandal and Freudian gloom, but in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” everything is upbeat, and even George’s marriage proposal is couched in showbiz dialogue. No wonder that when the aging George M. Cohan himself was shown the movie, he liked it. (According to historian Jay Robert Nash, his response was right in character: “Cohan grinned, shook his head, and paid the inimitable Cagney his highest compliment: `My God, what an act to follow!’ “)
It was. As Pauline Kael said of Cagney, “Though he was born in 1899 and is somewhat portly here, he is so cocky and sure a dancer that you feel yourself grinning with pleasure at his movements. It’s quite possible that he has more electricity than Cohan himself had.” Unlike Astaire, whose entire body was involved in every movement, Cagney was a dancer who seemed to call on body parts in rotation. When he struts across the stage in the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” number, his legs are rubber but his spine is steel, and his torso is slanted forward so steeply we’re reminded of Groucho Marx.
There are two currents to the story: patriotism and success. Cohan sees himself as a flag-waver, and the critics attack him for writing only lightweight musical comedies. Stung, he writes a serious play, but when it flops he apologizes and returns to what his fans demand: sentiment, silliness and rousing nationalism. (Ironically, two of his lyrics supplied the titles for anti-war films: “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Johnny Got His Gun.”)
Every scene follows the themes. He tries to enlist for World War I, is rejected for being too old, and protests, “This war is a coffee klatsch compared to what I go through in the course of a musical show.” He does a tap dance in the recruiting office to demonstrate what he means, walks outside and catches two notes from a marching band. And then, in one of those fantasies of creation so beloved in films about musicians, he sits on an empty stage with a piano and doodles with the notes until he discovers the opening for “Over There.”
The movie hurries from one obligatory scene to the next: retirement of parents, off- screen deaths of mother and sister, onscreen death of father (Walter Huston goes out on a good exit line) and a montage of marquees from his hit shows. Finally comes the White House visit and, after Cohan has told the patient FDR his entire life story, a private presentation of the Medal of Honor.
There’s little that’s really original in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which was directed by Michael Curtiz, the gifted Warners workhorse whose credits included “Casablanca,” also released in 1942. The cinematography, by the legendary James Wong Howe, uses the elegant compositions of figures that were common at the time, and the staging includes two numbers where big studio treadmills are used to move groups of extras, or keep them marching in place.
The movie hurries from one obligatory scene to the next: retirement of parents, offscreen deaths of mother and sister, onscreen death of father (Walter Huston goes out on a good exit line) and a montage of marquees from his hit shows. Finally comes the White House visit and, after Cohan has told the patient FDR his entire life story, a private presentation of the Medal of Honor.
So we have followed a little nursery rhyme that has led through a major war, to an iconic motion picture, through Britain to Germany and back to the White House.
We have recently published Elvis The Movie, still available in our archives under that title, which takes a close look at the racial tensions of the USA in the fifties, sixties and seventies. In that review I mentioned that my wife is reading a biography of Aretha Franklin, and has been since our previous visit to the cinema.
Dee has just stepped into the office for something, looked over my shoulder to see what I´m cobbling together, and saId.
´How funny that you´re writing about this. I´ve just read a passage in my book on Aretha Franklin that says SHE played Claridge Hall in Atlantic City, I think in 1981, and the book prints the whole set-list. That´s why its taking me so flipping long to read i suppose, . The thing is, though, that Yankee Doodle Dandy was on that playlist !¨
Aretha certainly saw those troubled racial times in the last century, so perhsps that Yankee Doodle song was more carefully selected than we might have thought.
please note logo The prime sources for this article were pieces written by the excellent Jacob Uitti for American Songwriter. Check out the magazine on line for scores of his always thought-provoki.ng work. We have also extrapolated from
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photo npw This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve Bewick, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Four.
As a published author and poet Norman was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (for which he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
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