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Unit 2: New Nation

"Yankee Doodle"

by Mary Walsten



"Yankee Doodle"

tune, Dr. Richard Shuckburg


Compare the song “Yankee Doodle” (pp. 2.36-2.39) to Phillis Wheatley’s poem “To His Excellency, General Washington”

Recommended recording: 

“Yankee Doodle” performed by Boston Camerata on The Liberty Tree.  Erato, 1997.  That recording includes the first nine verses.

Song Background: 

The song was created before the Revolutionary War, during the French and Indian War.  The tune and chorus go back to 15th century Holland where “Yanker dudel doodle down” was a harvesting song.  The tune is also similar to an English nursery rhyme “Lucy Locket”.  The song also was used to ridicule Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Puritan church, because “ ‘Yankee’ was a mispronunciation of the word ‘English’ in the Dutch language, and ‘doodle’ refers to a dumb person.”  During the French and Indian War, the British Army surgeon Dr. Richard Schuckburg noted the marked contrast between the uniformed British soldiers and the rag tag colonials, and wrote the new lyrics making fun of them.

The colonials claimed the song for themselves and created their own versions and verses, often ridiculing their own officers and actions.  There are reportedly as many as 190 verses of this song.

“Macaroni” was a term for a fancy, over-dressed man related to a style of clothing from Italy that was very popular in England at the time.  So when Yankee Doodle “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni”, he was making himself fancy in a countrified, rustic manner.

For more information on the background of the song, see the following sites:

Discussion Questions:

  1. What specific officers are named? 

  2. Can you find any specific information about these officers?

  3. What family names are mentioned?

  4. What food ingredients or dishes are mentioned?

  5. What articles related to war are mentioned?

  6. What musical instruments are mentioned?

  7. Who is the person telling the story?  What would you guess about his age?  His military experience?

  8. Which verses seem to be attacking Washington or the colonial army?

  9. After listening to the song, do you think this is a serious or humorous tale?  Which verses/lines support your opinion?

  10. How would you sum up the attitude of this poem to Washington and the colonial army?  Which verses best support your opinion?

  11. Is there anything ironic about this being a song claimed by the colonials?

Read this poem by Phillis Wheatley.  The poem is preceded by a letter that the poet wrote to General Washington when she sent him the poem.  Read the letter, the poem and then information that follows about the poet.

Background on poet: 

Phillis Wheatley, whose name is also spelled Phyllis Wheatley, was born in Africa and brought to America as a slave in 1760 where she was purchased by the Wheatley family in Boston.  She was taught to read and write, not only in English but in Latin and Greek, by the Wheatley’s son, Nathaniel.  The Wheatleys encouraged her literary pursuits, and she had her first poem published when she was only 13.  When some people doubted that she had indeed written the poems herself, a group of “judges” were sent to question her, and they concluded that she was, indeed, the poet.

George Washington was impressed by the poem that she sent to him, and met with her personally to thank her.

After the death of John and Susannah Wheatley, Phillis was freed and married a free black grocer, John Peters.  However, they were in and out of debt for the rest of her life, and she worked as a domestic servant until she died in 1784.

She is considered to be the first prominent African American author and published a book called Poems on Various Subject in 1773.  The manuscript of a poem of hers called “Ocean” sold for $68,500 at auction in 1998.

For more information see the following sites:

Discussion Questions:

  1. Columbia is used as a personification of America.  What other examples of personification can you find in the poem?

  2. What other allusions are there to Greek mythology and society?

  3. What similes and metaphors does Wheatley use to describe Washington’s troops?

  4. Who is the “thou” and “thee” referred to in lines 24 and 25?

  5. Line 31 says, “And so may you”.  Who may do what?

  6. In line 33, the scales are a symbol for what?

  7. What is the metaphor in line 36?

  8. Who is the “thy” referred to in line 38?

  9. Who is the “great chief” referred to in line 39?

  10. What role does Wheatley envision for George Washington according to line 41?

  11. How would you summarize Wheatley’s attitude toward Washington and the colonial army?  What lines best support your answer?

  12. What is ironic about this attitude?

An article with pictures showing various approaches to and take-offs of “Yankee Doodle” including 19th century advertising, additional Civil War themes, WWI songs, the WWII movie, and cartoons is available here.

A cute idea for writing poetry based on “Yankee Doodle” is available here.