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James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy

July 4 is about the only day most of us hear “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” which is more often called “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and our hearing it comes mainly from the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which James Cagney portrays George M. Cohan, the song’s author. It’s not high art, this song, but it’s worth reviewing if for no other reason than the mythology it incorporates. And besides, it’s irresistibly catchy!

The song comes from a 1904 Broadway musical written by Cohan, Little Johnny Jones. Very loosely based on the exploits of Tod Sloan, one of the most famous jockeys of the day, the musical tells the story of an American jockey who rises to fame and then travels to England, where he rides a horse named Yankee Doodle to victory in the English Derby. Thus the line in which “Yankee Doodle came to London just to ride the ponies” makes sense within the musical although most of us scratch our heads over it nowadays. (In real life, sadly, Sloan’s venture in the Derby ended in tragedy, when his horse inexplicably pulled up, broke its leg, and had to be put down.)

Today we only hear the chorus, which is oddly repetitious, repeating “Yankee Doodle” six times. Here are the lyrics of the verses, taken from Wikipedia:

Verse 1

I’m the kid that’s all the candy, 
I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,
I’m glad I am,
So’s Uncle Sam.
I’m a real live Yankee Doodle,
Made my name and fame and boodle,
Just like Mister Doodle did, by riding on a pony.
I love to listen to the Dixie strain,
I long to see the girl I left behind me;
That ain’t a josh,
She’s a Yankee, by gosh.
Oh, say can you see,
Anything about a Yankee that’s a phony?

Verse 2

Father’s name was Hezikiah,
Mother’s name was Ann Maria, 
Yanks through and through.
Red, White and Blue
Father was so Yankee-hearted,
When the Spanish war was started,
He slipped on a uniform and hopped upon a pony.
My mother’s mother was a Yankee true,
My father’s father was a Yankee too:
That’s going some,
For the Yankees, by gum.
Oh, say can you see
Anything about my pedigree that’s phony?

In the first verse, Little Johnny Jones combines North and South; although he identifies as Southern by loving the strains of “Dixie,” his girl is a Yankee, i.e., a Northerner. In the second verse, he combines Jew and Gentile; his father’s name is distinctly Old Testament, while his mother’s “Ann Maria” is about as Catholic as they come. Thus Johnny Jones is a thoroughly mixed-blooded American, who travels to Old England to both charm and vanquish the stodgy Old-Worlders.

The somewhat naive braggadocio of Johnny Jones, who proclaims himself “all the candy” (that is, he’s hot stuff) lines up with American folk heroes from Paul Bunyan to Mike Fink to Muhammad Ali. But in identifying himself as the amalgam of geographies and cultures, he also reminds us of the American ideal of inclusiveness and incorporation. And the bouncy tune is as hummable as they come, like Cohan’s other great songs, such as “Harrigan,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “Over There.”

Here are links to my earlier appreciations of patriotic songs: “God Bless America,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and, less appreciatively, “God Bless the U.S.A.”