1740s, September 13-14 1814, Yankee Doodle goes to town; Francis Scott Key writes The Star-Spangled Banner

Two National Anthems

by John Picker

Like any robust folk tune, “Yankee Doodle” has evolved with the times. The verse about a man who came to town riding on a pony was just one—almost certainly not the first and perhaps not even the most popular—of many set to a melody that, by the Revolutionary War, had already achieved hit status. Throughout the late 1760s and the first half of the 1770s, British soldiers performed “Yankee Doodle” as mock music—a jaunty taunt—in and around Boston. During the occupation of that city, as colonials sought to buy or, better, steal muskets from British soldiers, the occupiers sang:

Yankee Doodle’s come to town
For to buy a firelock.
We will tar and feather him,
And so we will John Hancock.

But after Bunker Hill, colonials reclaimed “Yankee Doodle,” playing it to surrendering British forces at Saratoga and Yorktown. The British officer Thomas Anburey admitted as much when he wrote in 1777: “Yankee Doodle is now their paean, a favorite of favorites, played in their army, esteemed as warlike as the Grenadier’s March—it is the lover’s spell, the nurse’s lullaby. After our rapid successes, we held the Yankees in great contempt, but it was not a little mortifying to hear them play this tune, when their army marched down to our surrender.” Upbeat, comic, “Yankee Doodle” had the quintessential merit of adaptability. Or, as a stanza published in 1799 put it:

Sing Yankee Doodle, that fine tune
Americans delight in.
It suits for peace, it suits for fun,
It suits as well for fighting.

In colonial and revolutionary America, one could hear it from fife and fiddle on both sides, for dance as well as song.

While it is generally agreed that the words and music are native to America, the genesis of “Yankee Doodle” remains obscure. The eminent musicologist at the Library of Congress, Oscar Sonneck, in his century-old, as yet unsurpassed investigation of the song’s origins, shot such holes in sixteen arguments made by others that he left no single theory intact. Still, there are various points of accord, or at least less discord. Consensus holds that the tune was circulating by the mid-eighteenth century, though its earliest identified printing was in Glasgow, in 1782. The earliest known verses, which reference the 1745 victory of the English and New England colonials over the French at Cape Breton, may have been in oral circulation as long ago as the late 1740s:

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 prov’d an arrant Coward,
He wouldn’t fight the Frenchmen there,
For fear of being devour’d.

The first known published reference to “Yankee Doodle” appeared in Andrew Barton’s The Disappointment, a comic opera printed in New York in 1767, which is another indication that the song was popular before the Revolution. But it wasn’t until sometime during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, probably around 1775, that the music and words first appeared together, in an undated English broadside published by Thomas Skillern that includes a performance note that is also a jeer at the rustic English roots of many American emigrants: “the Words to be Sung thro’ the Nose, & in the West Country drawl & dialect.”

We may think of “Yankee Doodle” as a children’s song now, with its silly do-little “Yankee,” possibly from the Dutch Janke, “little John” (originally applied specifically to New Englanders), calling his feathered cap “Macaroni”—not a reference to pasta but to the affected continental fashions of later eighteenth- century foppish Englishmen known as “Macaronies.” If “Yankee Doodle” has turned into a nursery rhyme, Skillern’s broadside reveals how earthy the original was, or what is as close to an “original” as we are likely to get. Indeed, in its initial forms, noisy, bawdy, and derisive “Yankee Doodle” may in some instances have functioned a bit like earlier rough music had. Sonneck refused to print the broadside’s final stanzas in full, finding the lines “too obscene for quotation.” For better or, in this case maybe, worse, scholarship too evolves with the times, and so:

Two and two may go to Bed;
Two and two together,
And if there is not room enough,
Lie one a top o’to’ther.

The coarseness of these lines serves to remind us that this tune was, and is, folk music in a bodily sense. Lively “Yankee Doodle” is truly of the people. The result was that verses proliferated like limericks: the character Jonathan in Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (performed in 1787, published in 1790) boasts that he “can’t sing but a hundred and ninety-nine verses: Our Tabitha at home can sing it all.”

Time and shifting sensibilities have obscured the corporal dimension of “Yankee Doodle,” but vestiges remain in the rakish chorus. The chorus is believed to be the work of one Edward Bangs, Harvard sophomore, class of 1777, and Minuteman, who, it has been claimed (on the authority of an assertion by Edward Everett Hale that, as with so much else about this song, has been subsequently questioned), wrote an “official” text for “Yankee Doodle” called “The Yankee’s Return from Camp” when Washington took command at Cambridge. This version, which tells of a boy observing the goings-on at the provincial camp, has fifteen stanzas in addition to the chorus, including some adapted from earlier versions. The stanzas are long forgotten, but the familiar chorus survives, alongside the “Macaroni” verse, in what is essentially a composite text, the “Yankee Doodle” we know:

Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy,
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.

These lyrics, first published in the 1780s, are a call for the dandified everyman not only to keep up his posturing but also to stay light on his feet, alluding on the one hand to Yankee pretension, and on the other to the country dances and military marches that kept colonial bodies in motion. It makes a certain kind of sense that this bit of folk song became so popular that it endures as the remnant from “The Yankee’s Return from Camp” in “Yankee Doodle” today. A comic refrain for an aspiring nation, it is an appropriately restless sound track for a people on the move.

If “Yankee Doodle” is a collective production, an American joke set to a jig, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is Francis Scott Key’s hymn, an expression of faith in the constancy of his nation as embodied in its most recognizable material handiwork. The story of that fateful night in 1814 when, after obtaining the release of a prisoner of war, Key watched from a sloop offshore as English ships bombarded Fort McHenry in the Battle of Baltimore is well known, in no small part because the poem he drafted at daybreak starts to tell it. “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” the title his work bore when it appeared in a broadside on about September 17, has the effect of enlisting readers in his watchful task as Key, all eyes and ears, unfurls his rhetorical questions in meter and rhyme.

As Key on some level likely was aware when writing them, and as was clear upon publication, his words fit perfectly the tune of “Anacreon in Heaven,” or, as it became known, “The Anacreontic Song,” composed about 1775 with music by John Stafford Smith and lyrics by Ralph Tomlinson. “The Anacreontic” was an import, and was not, as has often been claimed, a rowdy “drinking song” but an English constitutional song initially performed for the London meetings of the Anacreontic Society, a convivial group named for the Greek poet who extolled the virtues of love and wine. The song became a transatlantic success, with at least eighty-five new sets of lyrics appearing in America between 1785 and 1820, including, about a decade before “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a version by Key that has several similarities with his later effort. Yet we are left with the undeniable fact that the melody for the future national anthem is a foreign one. In 1814, as he waited through the anxious dawn, did Key choose an English tune to honor American endurance against English attack, as a commentary on what he perceived as a tragically internecine war? Or was it meant as a subversive tweak at the foe? Either explanation risks overreading. In his search for a metric structure to make order out of the chaos and fear he experienced, Key may subconsciously have settled on the musical rhythm that, so widely popular and familiar to him from at least a decade earlier, would have been well lodged in his memory.

In contrast to the folk-song heritage of “Yankee Doodle,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” has a closer kinship to parlor music, as Richard Crawford has noted. The unusual—what critics have called unsingable—range of the melody, an octave and a half, hints at the purpose of the original song, as something of a showcase for vocal display. While “Yankee Doodle” evolved orally over decades and shifting contexts, within just months of the publication of Key’s poem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” appeared more or less in its familiar form as sheet music. This was a prephonographic type of reproduction that facilitated middle-class domestic consumption, repetition, and patriotic canonization, though official recognition of the song as the national anthem would not come until 1931.

One of the highlights of the 1970 film Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix’s version of the song still startles because he dispenses with the words and reworks the staid tune into an electric-guitar assault on the Vietnam War, mimicking the sounds of planes and bombs and interpolating the melody of “Taps.” The challenge to the common voice presented by the melody parallels the notorious problem of the lyrics. Everyone can remember the words to the modern-day “Yankee Doodle,” but who can recite all four verses, let alone, if pop culture is any indication, the first verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner”? As more than one observer has put it, the title might as well be “The Star-Mangled Banner.”

Chief among the many ironies surrounding Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” is that his “land of the free” was also the home of the slave. And, like other Southern landholders of the time, the devoutly religious man who lauded that “land of the free” was a slave owner himself. Key, born in Frederick County, Maryland, and raised on his family’s plantation, opposed abolition, helped found the American Colonization Society, and considered African Americans, in his own words, “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” Along with the slave labor that was so essential to and yet unacknowledged in Key’s conception of “the land of the free,” it is important to remember that the object “whose broad stripes and bright stars” Key strains to see “by the dawn’s early light”—the focal point of the entire song—is a product of unsung work, specifically women’s work. In 1813, Baltimore flag maker Mary Pickersgill was contracted to make two flags for Fort McHenry: the larger garrison flag, measuring thirty feet by forty-two feet, that is currently in the Smithsonian Institution, and a smaller storm flag, seventeen by twenty-five feet, whereabouts unknown. Assisted by her daughter and likely her mother and nieces, Pickersgill used 400 yards of bunting in the making of the garrison flag alone, which was so large she requested permission from the local brewery to assemble it on the floor of the malt house. After that long night of September 13–14, which flag “was still there”? Eyewitness accounts tell that at dawn the massive garrison flag that inspired Key was raised, to the firing of the morning gun and the playing of (what else?) “Yankee Doodle.” However, no one is quite sure which of the two star-spangled banners flew “at the twilight’s last gleaming” and “through the night,” a stormy one. If contemporary military procedures were followed, it would have been the smaller flag, or possibly both. It turns out that sober Key, in the spirit of Anacreon, may have been seeing double.


Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History (New York, 2001). S. Foster Damon, Yankee Doodle (Providence, RI, 1959). Edward S. Delaplaine, Francis Scott Key: Life and Times (New York, 1937). P. W. Filby and Edward G. Howard, Star-Spangled Books (Baltimore, 1972). J. A. Leo Lemay, “The American Origins of ‘Yankee Doodle,’” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 33 (1976): 435–464. Sam Meyer, Paradoxes of Fame: The Francis Scott Key Story (Annapolis, MD, 1995). Irvin Molotsky, The Flag, the Poet and the Song: The Story of the Star-Spangled Banner (New York, 2001). Oscar George Theodore Sonneck, Report on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Hail Columbia,” “America,” “Yankee Doodle” (Washington, 1909); “The Star Spangled Banner” (Washington, 1914). George J. Svejda, History of the Star Spangled Banner from 1814 to the Present (Washington, DC, 1969). Lonn Taylor, The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag That Inspired the National Anthem (New York, 2000). Filmography: Woodstock, directed by Michael Wadleigh (1970).