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The Colonial Music Institute
Bringing History to Life Through Music

What are the Real Words to "Yankee Doodle?"

It depends what you mean by the "real" words. The lyrics that George Washington probably heard sung to the tune of "Yankee Doodle" are NOT the words now known around the world. The earliest known appearance of the common words relating to "pony, feather, and macaroni" is in James Orchard Halliwell's The Nursery Rhymes of England (London, 1842), p. 82. No earlier reference to these lyrics has been found. But Washington probably did know the chorus about minding the music and the step. It comes from the Boston area in 1775 and was set to the tune we all know. The song must have struck home because by 1830, over one hundred more topical lyrics were printed, sung to the same tune and using the same basic chorus. In the twentieth century, this chorus was added to the "macaroni" verse from 1842, making up the song we know today.

THE 1775 LYRICS
After the battles at Lexington and Concord, the British controlled Boston from April 1775 until March 1776. In June 1775, George Washington arrived to take command of the patriot army that had assembled outside of the city to defend the rest of Massachusetts and lay siege to the British stronghold. The following song was probably written some time after his arrival. It was created from story elements from three earlier New England-made lyrics. The uncomplimentary nature of verses 11-13 come from the early months of Washington's command. The New England militia officers who were elected to their commands, grumbled openly against the Virginian who was appointed by Congress. But by 1776, Washington was a hero in the eyes of most patriots and new songs lauded him as "God-like Washington."

The Farmer and his Son's return from a visit to the CAMP.
Father and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Gooding,
And there we see the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding.
      Yankey doodle keep it up,
      Yankey doodle dandy,
      Mind the music and the step
      And with the girls be handy

And there we see a thousand men,
As rich as 'Squire David,
And what they wasted every day,
I wish it had been saved.
      Yankey doodle, &c.

The 'lasses they eat every day,
Would keep an house a winter;
They have as much that I'll be bound,
They eat it when they're mind to.
      Yankey doodle, &c.

And there we see a swamping gun,
Large as a log of maple,
Upon a ducid little cart,
A load for father's cattle.
      Yankey doodle, &c.

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.
      Yankey doodle, &c.

I went as nigh to one myself,
As 'Siah's underpinning;
And father when as nigh again,
I thought the duce was in him.
      Yankey doodle, &c.

Cousin Simon grew so bold,
I thought he would have cock'd it;
It scar'd me so I shriek'd it off,
And hung by father's pocket.
      Yankey doodle, &c.

And captain Davis had a gun,
He kind of clapt his hand on't,
And stuck a crooked stabbing iron
Upon the little end on't.
      Yankey doodle, &c.


And there I see a pumpkin shell,
As big as mother's bason,
And every time they touch'd it off,
They scamper'd like the nation.
      Yankey doodle, &c.

I see a little barrel too,
The heads were made of leather,
They knock upon with little clubs,
And call'd the folks together.
      Yankey doodle, &c.

And there was captain Washington,
And gentlefolks about him,
They say he's grown so tarnal proud,
He will not ride without them.
      Yankey doodle, &c.

He got him on his meeting clothes,
Upon a slapping stallion,
He set the world along in rows,
In hundreds and in millions.
      Yankey doodle, &c.

The flaming ribbons in his hat,
They look'd so taring fine ah,
I wanted pockily to get,
To give to my Jemimah.
      Yankey doodle, &c.

I see another snarl of men,
A digging graves they told me,
So tarnal long, so tarnal deep,
They 'tended they should hold me.
      Yankey doodle, &c.

If scar'd me so I hook'd it off,
Nor stopt as I remember,
Nor turn'd about 'till I got home,
Lock'd up in mother's chamber.
      Yankey doodle, &c.

Transcribed from a broadside in the Rosenbach Collection in Philadelphia, illustrated in Vera Brodsky Lawrence, Music for Patriots, Politicians, and Presidents: Harmonies and Discords of the First Hundred Years (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1975), p. 61.

Many later settings of the tune of “Yankee Doodle” reflect other events, such as the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781.
Cornwallis led a country dance
The like was never seen, sir,
Much retrograde, and much advance,
And all with General Greene, sir
The Dance. A Ballad, to the tune of “Yankey Doodle.” Pennsylvania Packet, November 27, 1781.

A blaze of patriotic passion was ignited in 1798 by French spoliation of American shipping. The following song even refers to the use of the tune for many purposes.
Sing Yankee Doodle, that fine tune,
Americans delight in;
It suits for peace, it suits for fun,
It suits as well for fighting.
Yankee doodle (mind the tune)
Yankee doodle dandy,
If Frenchmen come with naked bum,
We’ll spank ‘em hard and handy.
Commercial Advertiser, June 29, 1798

For further reading:

For information on the lyrics see:
James J. Fuld. The Book of World-Famous Music, Classical, Popular and Folk. New York: Dover Publications, 1985, p. 659-660.
J. A. Leo Lemay. "The American Origins of "Yankee Doodle." William and Mary Quarterly, July, 1976, 435-464.

For information on the music:
In 1909, in his Report on the Star-Spangled Banner . . . & Yankee Doodle (Reprinted: New York: Dover Publications, 1972), Oscar Sonneck wrote over 100 pages of convoluted text trying to deal with the myths and folk tales that surround the origins of the music for this song. He failed to find an answer. Since that time others have tackled the problem without convincing success. The pre-1760s source, if there is one, of the tune of "Yankee Doodle," is unknown. Claims of earlier appearances are without foundation. It is entirely possible that this tune was newly written as a common march in the early 1760s and has no historical antecedent.

Kate Van Winkle Keller
December, 2001