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Like most popular songs of the era, ”Yankee Doodle” may not have been an entirely original creation. Most music historians believe that Yankee Doodle’s lyricists simply borrowed the melody from a popular folk tune of the period. As proof, they cite another song from these same decades that shares the same melody, “Lucy Locket:”

“Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it.”

The song was about two scandalous figures in 17th-century England. Lucy Locket was a character in John Gay’s 1728 play, The Beggars’ Opera. This fictional Lucy was a poor woman of questionable virtue, but some literary historians have argued that Lucy Locket was actually a proverbial figure that predated Gay’s play. Kitty Fisher was Catherine Marie Fischer, a beautiful common woman who climbed to the top of London society through a string of affairs with the rich and powerful.

It’s difficult to say which song was attached to the melody first, but it’s easy to imagine both songs circulating within British army camps during these years. “Yankee Doodle” mocked America’s ragtag militia; Lucy Locket celebrated two “loose” women. “Lucy Locket” even contained the same sort of humor that made “Yankee Doodle” popular. Locket was slang during those years for vagina, and prostitutes were known to keep their money in pockets, or small purses, tied to their legs with ribbons. Scandalous!

This sort of borrowing has always been common within folk music, but today it can be found in other genres as well. Classical composers often include certain melodies or passages in their works that are taken from pieces they admire. Popular jazz, pop, and rock musicians have been covering each other’s songs for decades, sometimes making only minor changes between renditions. Rappers and hip-hop artists are notorious for sampling beats, phrases, and sounds from other works and giving them new life in their songs. Singers, songwriters, and musicians have always walked a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism, even back in the 1700s.

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