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Richard Shuckburgh and “Yankee Doodle” 


    Richard Shuckburgh (mid 1700s) was a military surgeon at a fort in Albany, NY, during the 1740s and 50s and is sometimes credited with being the writer of the song “Yankee Doodle.”  However, how many different Richard Shuckburghs held that post at the fort in Albany remains an uncertainty at this time. Also, a number of same-named individuals were alive and in America during the eighteenth century. This individual may have been of German origins or could have been the son of an English noble family. Perhaps he was serving in America as early as the mid-1730s. On June 27, 1737, he was commissioned a surgeon in the “Independent Company of New-York” commanded by Captain Horatio Gates. Perhaps he came to Albany sometime thereafter.  Alexander Hamilton visited with the garrison surgeon “Mr. Shakesburrough” while in Albany during the summer of 1744. In March 1747, John, the son of Richard and Mary Shuckburgh, was baptized at the Albany Dutch church.  A Richard Shucksburgh received a number of commissions as surgeon to British forces during the 1750s and 60s.

Shucksburgh is often thought to have been the author of the traditional tune “Yankee Doodle”. However, other origins have been claimed for the song.  The melody is thought to be much older than both the lyrics and the subject, going back to folk songs of Medieval Europe, being well known across western Europe, including England, France, Holland, Hungary, and Spain. The earliest words of “Yankee Doodle” came from a Middle Dutch harvest song which is thought to have followed the same tune, possibly dating back as far as 15th-century Holland. It contained mostly nonsensical words in English and Dutch.   The term Doodle first appeared in English in the early seventeenth century and is thought to be derived from the Low German dudel, meaning “playing music badly,” or Dödel, meaning “fool” or “simpleton.”  The Macaroni wig was an extreme fashion in the 1770s and became slang for being a fop.  Dandies were men who placed particular importance upon physical appearance, refined language, and leisure hobbies. A self-made dandy was a British middle-class man who impersonated an aristocratic lifestyle. They notably wore silk strip cloth, stuck feathers in their hats, and carried two pocket watches with chains.

In British conversation, the term “Yankee doodle dandy” implied unsophisticated misappropriation of high-class fashion, as though simply sticking a feather in one’s cap would make one to be noble.  By using the term, the British were insinuating that the colonists were low-class men lacking masculinity, emphasizing that the American men were womanly.  The earliest versions of the song date to before the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution (1775–83).  Perhaps the most common legend is that Dr. Richard Shuckburgh wrote a ballad set to the “Yankee Doodle” tune to poke fun at New Englanders who served in the French and Indian War in Canada.

Tradition places its origin in a pre-Revolutionary War song originally sung by British military officers to mock the disheveled, disorganized colonial “Yankees” with whom they served in the French and Indian War. It was apparently written around 1755 or 1758 by British Army surgeon Dr. Richard Shuckburgh as a guest at the Van Rensselaer brick manor also known as Fort Crailo, near Albany, while campaigning in upper New York, and the British troops sang it to make fun of their stereotype of the American soldier as a Yankee simpleton who thought that he was stylish if he simply stuck a feather in his cap.  According to one story, he wrote the mocking ballad after seeing the appearance of Colonial troops under Colonel Thomas Fitch, the son of Connecticut Governor Thomas Fitch.  The tune for “Yankey (or Yankee) Doodle” was known in America from the 1760s onward.  A Richard Shuckburgh is said to have died in Schenectady, NY, in August 1773.

Obviously songs like this didn’t please the New Englanders, or “Yankees,” as they were called, so they added additional verses to that mocked the British troops and hailed George Washington as the Commander of the Continental army, and. it became popular among the Americans as a song of defiance.  The current version seems to have been written in 1775-1776 by Edward Bangs (1758-1818), a Harvard sophomore who also was a Minuteman at Lexington.  .  One day, over two hundred years ago, he wrote a simple ballad about a farmer and his son as they “went down to camp” which was printed on a broadside sheet.  This broadside, probably dating from 1775 or 1776, is the earliest known printing of this version.  Now his ballad is part of American history.

It wasn’t until the Bangs version that this most famous of early American songs became well known. His words –with slight variations — were often reprinted during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  By 1781, Yankee Doodle had turned from being an insult to being a song of national pride. Most of the authorities now conclude that the song is American in origin.  By the mid-19th century, this ballad was printed in Father Kemp’s Old Folks Concert Tunes as “Yankee’s Return From Camp (Yankee Doodle Dandy).”   Today it is the “State Song” of Connecticut.

The following work by Richard Shuckburgh is contained in my collection:

“Yankee Doodle” (attr.).

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