Yankee Doodling

Milton Gross, Yankee Doodles, 1948.

Milton Gross, Yankee Doodles, 1948.

Ever wonder how the New York Yankees got their name? Some of my correspondents have speculated that the name would have made a better fit for a Boston club, and they are right. When the National Football League placed a franchise in Boston in 1933 it was nicknamed the Braves, after the baseball team, or the Redskins. The club took the latter with it when it relocated to Washington, D.C. A subsequent NFL reentry into the Boston market in 1944-1948 was named the Boston Yanks. But the Yankees name goes way back, in a serpentine story with not a blessed thing about sports, let alone baseball. And yet, dear reader, you may like it anyway. A portion of this ran originally in Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore.

***

In September 2009 Tom Brady and the New England Patriots opened their NFL season at home on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. I had been worried about him. A nagging injury, cloaked in mystery in the typical Belichick style of the club, had kept him out of all four preseason games. Leaks to the press had localized the problem in his right foot but I had come to suspect that Brady had in fact hurt himself at a midsummer photo shoot for Esquire magazine, when the play calling may have stretched the quarterback beyond his natural limits.

For the cover of the magazine poor Tom was poured into a wasp-waisted wool suit by Gucci which forced him to hold his breath dangerously. The tightness of the two-button jacket was rakishly offset by an unbuttoned collar and a tie positioned strategically askew. His shoes were credited—and I’m not making this up—to a cobbler named A. Testoni. Brady’s raging five o’clock shadow was not credited to Richard Nixon, but his close-cropped hair was ascribed to “Pini Swissa for Pini Swissa Salon.” (This was clearly the head guy at the shop on Newbury Street in Boston—he even traveled with Brady to the Super Bowl and, ignoring Delilah’s cautionary model, cut his locks the night before the game. The Giants are properly grateful.)

Esquire, September 2009

Esquire, September 2009

Two crotch-focused shots offset the crotch-focused prose of the story inside, ostensibly the inside story about Tom Brady, superstar. “A big man. Taller, thinner, slower, quieter, and—it must be said—a little more milky white than one might expect. In the glinting angle of a limousine-crafted profile, he brings to mind someone beautiful and iconically male—Tyrone Power, perhaps.” Really.

Further into the story the writer, Tom Chiarella, quotes Tom as saying, “I like home magazines.” … “It’s hard,” Chiarella smarmily continues, “to think of the Brady all squoogie at the sight of a duvet cover or a teak spice rack.”

Is this male impersonator in Esquire the stoic quarterback whom sports fans had cast in the mold of Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees? Or is he truly a Yankee Doodle Dandy, a mincing cartoon? Before we hit the table of contents of the September issue we are made to run a gauntlet of 34 pages of soft-porn ads, from the glowering ambisexual models promoting Hugo Boss or Prada to the glistening torso of David Beckham to the artfully moussed Roger Federer.

What is going on here? Have our sports heroes and our media culture gone metrosexual? The unexpectedly high viewership of the Summer Olympics on NBC owed much to the record performances of swimmer Michael Phelps, but maybe even more, in this new age of spornography, to his Speedo.

Oh, why should I grumble? Has it not been ever thus? In the years before the Revolution made it America’s patriotic anthem, “Yankee Doodle” was a song of derision that the British heaped upon ignorant colonists hoping to attain foppish stature by aping English gentlemen. The first verse and refrain, as generally sung by children today, run thus:

Yankee Doodle went to town,
A-riding on a pony.
He stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni.
Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy.
Yankee Doodle round the world,
As sweet as sugar candy.

This seems a mild enough if not fully fathomable jest—hardly a slander. How then to account for the eponymous hero’s enduring power as a figure of fun? What precisely was a Yankee, or a Doodle, or most intriguingly, a macaroni?

Game of Yankee Doodle, McLoughlin, 1899.

Game of Yankee Doodle, McLoughlin, 1899.

Some savants trace the history of “Yankee Doodle” back to a harvesting song of fifteenth century Holland, “Yanker dudel doodle down,” sung by laborers who were paid with a tenth of the grain they harvested and all the buttermilk they could drink. Others find echoes of the melody in the equally old English rhyme “Lucy Locket” (“Lucy Locket lost her pocket, / Kitty Fisher found it; / Nothing in it, nothing in it, / But the binding round it”). In the days of Oliver Cromwell, one of the nicknames that the Cavaliers bestowed upon the Puritans was “Nankee Doodle.” An Albany-area tradition attributes a 1758 incarnation of “Yankee Doodle” to Dr. Richard Shuckburgh–a British army surgeon, wit, and musician who is said to have written it at Fort Crailo to mock the ragtag New England militia serving alongside the redcoats.

Yankee Doodle, a humor magazine

Yankee Doodle, a humor magazine

No matter; the essence is that it is a song of insult. The Yankee—as Captain Yankey (the Dutch pirate), or Jan (pronounced “Yan”) Kees (the Dutch for John Cheese), or James Fenimore Cooper’s Algonquian Yengeese, or Washington Irving’s fanciful tribe of yanokies—was a strong, silent sharpster who was after your money. A doodle was simply a fool, and so we may fairly term Yankee Doodle a sophomore, which translates from Greek to a wise fool.

Although earlier clues abound, we need look back no farther than 1775, when after the battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental army, under General Washington’s command, was encamped in the vicinity of Boston. The Tories were then singing to the old tune of “Lucy Locket” these lines:

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

Thomas Ditson, of Billerica, Massachusetts, was the one actually tarred and feathered for attempting to buy a musket in Boston in March 1775. The Battle of Bunker Hill in June turned the tables, however, as “Yankee Doodle” came to be sung by the patriots. The complete Americanization of the song ensued as Harvard student Edward Bangs penned the following during George Washington’s presence at the provincial camp in Cambridge in 1775:

Father and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Gooding,
And there we seed the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding.
Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle Dandy;
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.

Following General Burgoyne’s surrender of British troops to the Continental Army on October 17, 1777, British officer Thomas Anburey wrote:

The name [of Yankee] has been more prevalent since the commencement of hostilities…. The soldiers at Boston used it as a term of reproach, but after the affair at Bunker’s Hill, the Americans gloried in it. “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 … it was not a little mortifying to hear them play this tune, when their army marched down to our surrender.

A Macaroni, 1773

The Macaroni, 1773

Although musicologists have not found an 18th-century version of Yankee Doodle with the immortal line “He stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni,” the jibe may well have originated about the time of the Macaroni Club, established in London in the 1760s for men of polymorphous sexuality. By 1772 the macaroni was a national infatuation, even spawning a magazine not unlike the current Esquire (it was called The Macaroni and Theatrical Magazine). According to contemporary Thomas Wright, “the macaronis were distinguished especially by an immense knot of artificial hair behind, by a very small cock-hat, by an enormous walking-stick, with long tassels, and by jacket, waistcoat, and breeches of very close cut…. Macaronis were the most attractive objects in the ball, or at the theatre. Macaronis abounded everywhere. There were macaroni songs; the most popular of these latter was the following: —

Ye belles and beaux of London town,
Come listen to my ditty;
The muse, in prancing up and down,
Has found out something pretty;
With little hat, and hair dressed high,
And whip to ride a pony,
If you but take a right survey.
Denotes a macaroni.”

Although musicologists have not found an eighteenth-century version of “Yankee Doodle” with the immortal line “He stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni,” that jibe may well have originated about the time of the Macaroni Club, established in London in the 1760s by men of polymorphous sexuality. By 1772 the macaroni was a national infatuation, even spawning . According to contemporary Thomas Wright:

The macaronis were distinguished especially by an immense knot of artificial hair behind, by a very small cock-hat, by an enormous walking-stick, with long tassels, and by jacket, waistcoat, and breeches of very close cut. . . . Macaronis were the most attractive objects in the ball, or at the theatre. Macaronis abounded everywhere.

Two macaronis, ridiculed as "la mode Anglaise"

Two macaronis, “a la mode Anglaise,” ca. 1820

Named for the vermicelli-based pasta enjoyed by cultivated young Englishmen of the 1760s on their tours of Italy—a nation thought by the English to be a particular den of perversion, even more so than France or Spain—the macaroni embodied the consumption of continental fare in intellectual and moral spheres, as well. Old-fashioned Englishmen came to identify macaroni culture with all that was outlandish and effeminate.

As “The Macaroni; A New Song” put it in 1772:

His taper waist, so strait and long,
His spindle shanks, like pitchfork prong,
To what sex does the thing belong?
‘Tis call’d a Macaroni. 

Between yesterday’s macaroni and today’s metrosexual there may not be much to choose. Mark Simpson coined the term in a 1994 article in the Independent titled “Here Come the Mirror Men.” Eight years later, in Salon, he wrote:

For some time now, old-fashioned (re)productive, repressed, unmoisturized heterosexuality has been given the pink slip by consumer capitalism. The stoic, self-denying, modest straight male didn’t shop enough (his role was to earn money for his wife to spend), and so he had to be replaced by a new kind of man, one less certain of his identity and much more interested in his image….

A Yankee Doodle Dandy indeed.

2 Comments

Is there any truth to the story that Ban Johnson originally promised to let Jacob Ruppert rename the club to the NY Knickerbockers (the name of Ruppert’s bestselling brew)???
Great series of posts, John. Thanks!

Although this claim has made its way into a number of books and websites, there is no contemporary evidence that Ruppert ever tried to rebrand his Yankees as Knickerbockers.

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