Like many of the songs that have become characteristic of American patriotism, the origins of "Yankee Doodle" lie in old English folk music. In this case, kind of humorously, the song emerged before the American Revolution as a vehicle for the British to mock American soldiers. Yankee, of course, began as a negative term making fun of Americans, although the exact origins of the word are debatable. "Doodle" was a derogatory term that meant "fool" or "simpleton."
Thus, what would eventually become a patriotic American folk song actually began with a disparaging term aimed at belittling the might and possibilities inherent in the early American movement. As the colonists started to develop their own culture and government, across the ocean from their British countrymen, some of them no doubt started to feel as though they didn't need the monarchy in order to prosper in the fledgling America. This no doubt seemed ludicrous to folks back home, in the heart of one of the world's most powerful empires, and the colonists in America were easy targets for mocking.
But, as has long since become tradition in the States, those people who were being ridiculed by the slanderous term, took ownership of it and metamorphosed the image of the Yankee Doodle into a source of pride and promise.
The American RevolutionAs the Yankees began to take the British in the Revolution, they also took over command of the song, and began singing it as a proud anthem to taunt their English foes. One of the earliest references to the song was from the 1767 opera The Disappointment, and an early printed version of the song dates back to 1775, mocking a U.S. Army official from Massachusettes.
The American VersionAlthough the exact origins of the tune and original lyrics of "Yankee Doodle" are unknown (some sources attribute it to Irish or Dutch origin, rather than the British), most historians agree that the American version was written by an English doctor named Dr. Shackburg. According to the Library of Congress, Shackburg wrote the American lyrics in 1755.
The Civil WarConsidering the popularity of the melody, new versions evolved throughout America's early years, used to mock various groups. For example, during the Civil War, folks in the South sang lyrics mocking the north, and Union Democrats sang lyrics mocking the South.