Stuck a Feather in His Cap

The lyrics to the song don’t seem to make a lot of sense.

Yankee Doodle went to town

A-riding on his pony

Stuck a feather in his cap

And called it macaroni

Why would Yankee Doodle stick a feather in his cap and call it macaroni? A hat with a feather stuck in it hardly resembles a plate of pasta. Actually the word macaroni in the song is eighteenth century slang meaning the sort of man who spent a more time worrying about clothes and fashion than about more manly pursuits, in other words, the sort of man who would later be called a fop or dandy, or in the twenty-first century, a metrosexual.

It was the custom of the eighteenth century for young British men of wealth or the nobility to go on a grand tour after finishing their formal education. They would travel around Europe visiting France, Austria, Italy, etc. The idea was to give these future leaders of Britain a bit of polish and culture, to acquaint them with other countries, to view great works of art, and so on. Since these were young noblemen, it is likely that they spent more time in taverns and brothels than in museums, but it was still a nice idea.

In their travels the young men would pick up the latest styles and fashions from France or Italy and bring them home. To those Englishmen who had to stay at home and to the exasperated fathers of the stylish young men who paid for the trip, these fashions seemed outlandish and even a little bit effeminate. Since they also brought the exotic Italian dish known a macaroni back with them, they were derisively called macaronis.

MacaroniWould you want your son to come back looking like that?

Would you want your son to come back looking like that?

Before the French and Indian War, the English had largely neglected their colonies in North America. Previous wars between the English and French had largely been fought with colonial militias and the Indian allies of the two kingdoms. The French and Indian War, or the Seven Years’ War developed into a worldwide conflict, in many ways it was the first real world war. For the first time, Great Britain deployed large numbers of British regular soldiers, or redcoats to fight in North America. These regular soldiers from the mother country tended to despise the colonists, or Yankees, as unsophisticated yokels. As far as they were concerned, one of these rubes might well think having a feather in his cap was the height of fashion, making him a macaroni.

The British regulars also felt contempt towards the colonial militias thinking them, with some justice, as untrained, undisciplined braggarts likely to run away at the first exchange of gun fire. To mock the pretensions of the militiamen, the redcoats sang Yankee Doodle,a song attributed to a British army surgeon named Doctor Richard Shuckburgh. Here are the complete lyrics.

Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni’.

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

Fath’r and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Gooding,
And there we saw the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding.

Chorus

And there we saw a thousand men
As rich as Squire David,
And what they wasted every day,
I wish it could be saved.

Chorus

The ‘lasses they eat it every day,
Would keep a house a winter;
They have so much, that I’ll be bound,
They eat it when they’ve mind ter.

Chorus

And there I see a swamping gun
Large as a log of maple,
Upon a deuced little cart,
A load for father’s cattle.

Chorus

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.

Chorus

I went as nigh to one myself
As ‘Siah’s inderpinning;
And father went as nigh again,
I thought the deuce was in him.

Chorus

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.

Chorus

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

Chorus

And there I see a pumpkin shell
As big as mother’s bason,
And every time they touched it off
They scampered like the nation.

Chorus

I see a little barrel too,
The heads were made of leather;
They knocked on it with little clubs
And called the folks together.

Chorus

And there was Cap’n Washington,
And gentle folks about him;
They say he’s grown so ‘tarnal proud
He will not ride without em’.

Chorus

He got him on his meeting clothes,
Upon a slapping stallion;
He sat the world along in rows,
In hundreds and in millions.

Chorus

The flaming ribbons in his hat,
They looked so tearing fine, ah,
I wanted dreadfully to get
To give to my Jemima.

Chorus

I see another snarl of men
A digging graves they told me,
So ‘tarnal long, so ‘tarnal deep,
They ‘tended they should hold me.

Chorus

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.

Chorus

During the Revolutionary War, the Americans in the Continental Army had adopted Yankee Doodle as their own anthem and by the time they played it at the British surrender at Yorktown, the song had become detestable in the ears of the Redcoats.

I wonder, though whether the condescension shown by the British soldiers towards the colonial militia wasn’t one of the ultimate causes of the War of Independence. The French and Indian War must have been the first time many of the colonists had been exposed to the sort of disdain that many on the mother country felt for the colonials and I am sure they didn’t like it. This was certainly the case with George Washington. He had commanded a regiment from Virginia during the war. He felt a certain pride in the men he had led and trained and he resented the way in which the British officers dismissed them. During the war, Washington had applied for a commission in the regular army. Although he was uneducated and lacked connections he felt that his experience in combat proved his worth. The British commanders rejected his application in particularly humiliating terms, making it obvious than no mere colonial could get a commission. Maybe the humiliation still stung when Washington accepted the job of Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.

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