I Know Only Two Tunes: One of Them Is Yankee Doodle, and the Other Isn’t

Ulysses S. Grant? Abraham Lincoln? W. S. Gilbert? William Tecumseh Sherman? Victor Borge? Richie Havens? Anonymous?

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Dear Quote Investigator: The holiday season is filled with singing, but my talent in this domain can be accurately summarized with the following quotation:

I know only two tunes: one of them is “Yankee Doodle,” and the other isn’t.

This humorously self-deprecating comment has been attributed to Ulysses S. Grant, but a similar remark has been ascribed to Abraham Lincoln and the famous librettist W. S. Gilbert. Could you please ascertain who first employed this expression?

Quote Investigator: There are many versions of this quip which has been in circulation for 175 years or more. Several different songs have been mentioned in the joke, e.g., “Old Hundred”, “Auld Lang Syne”, “God Save the Queen”, “Yankee Doodle”, and “Hail Columbia”. In the earliest instances located by QI the person with woeful musical knowledge was anonymous.

In 1839 a New Orleans newspaper printed a short article that described an unnamed individual who wanted to relax while perusing a poem; however an organ grinder and a squalling vocalist prevented a pleasant reverie and provoked an expletive: 1

We ought to apologize for swearing, but really we suffer considerably from music, and only know two tunes, one of which is “Old Hundred,” and the other isn’t. –N. O. Picayune.

This comical tale was reprinted in the “Saturday Morning Transcript” of Boston, Massachusetts and “The Musical Review” of New York. 2

In 1845 the same joke appeared in a Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper where it was assigned to an anonymous singer: 3

A singer down east says he knows two tunes; one is ‘Old Hundred,’ and the other is not.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1851 an instance of the humorous remark was printed in a Milwaukee, Wisconsin newspaper, but the name of the song was different. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 4

A friend of ours thus eulogizes his musical attainments: “I know two tunes—the one is Auld Lang Syne—the other isn’t—I always sing the later.

In 1854 a very similar version appeared in “The Electric Telegraph of Fun” by Alfred Crowquill published in London: 5

A wag thus eulogises his own musical talent when pressed to sing in company: “Well,” he says, “I certainly can’t say I do not sing, for I know two tunes—one is Auld Lang Syne, and the other isn’t—. I always sing the latter.”

In August 1885 a profile of Ulysses S. Grant was published, and it included a version of the joke attributed to Grant who had died a few weeks earlier in July: 6

The appreciation of music was to him a lost sense; the musician’s score was a sealed book. He used to say he knew only two tunes; one was “Yankee Doodle,” and the other wasn’t. In the days when he was received on all occasions to the music of brass bands he would say with mock pride that he really believed he had added a third tune to his repertoire–“Hail to the Chief!”

In September 1888 “The Musical World” periodical in London printed another instance of the joke which mentioned a culturally important song of the British Commonwealth: 7

We know a military man who complains that he has no “ear for music.” He says he only recognizes two tunes—one is “God Save the Queen,” and the other isn’t!

In 1890 “Recollections of General Grant” was published, and it presented tales from the memories of people who knew Grant well. One person stated that he heard the joke directly from Grant: 8

His old friend, Hon. Hamilton Fish writes to me: “I do not think that the General knew ‘Hail to the Chief;’ he did know, or thought that he knew, ‘Yankee Doodle.'” My friend Mr. Robert C. Winthrop, says in a recent letter: “Your allusion to his insensibility to music, and to the saying of Governor Fish, recalls General Grant’s remark to me, when I was sitting next to him at a concert in Baltimore at the Peabody Institute: ‘Why, Mr. Winthrop, I only know two tunes. One is Yankee Doodle, and the other isn’t.'”

In November 1890 a short piece about the musical taste of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman was printed in a Colorado newspaper. Sherman disliked the music of Richard Wagner: 9

To be sure, I don’t pretend to know much about music. I only know two tunes, ‘Yankee Doodle’ and ‘Marching Thro’ Georgia’ — that’s two more than Grant knew, anyway—but I do like to see a pretty woman come out and sing something pretty, like the things you hear in the Italian opera. But this ‘Gotterdammerung’—I can’t make head or tail out of it.

In 1891 the gag was used in a fictional tale printed in the London periodical “All the Year Round: A Weekly Journal”: 10

He owned to having no ear for music–thereby exhibiting more honesty than many of the others –and confessed to knowing only two tunes, one of which was “Hail Columbia,” and the other—wasn’t.

In 1891 an elaborate extended version of the joke appeared in “The Musical Times” which was printed in London: 11

Three ladies met at afternoon tea, and as ladies sometimes do, they began to discuss the merits of their respective husbands. Mrs. A. said: “My husband is not very musical; in fact, he only knows two tunes, one is ‘God save the Queen’ and the other is the ‘Old Hundredth.'” Mrs. B. replied: “Really, how strange, that is like my husband; he knows two tunes, one is ‘God save the Queen’ and the other isn’t.” “I am afraid,” added Mrs. C., “that my husband is even less musical; he only knows ‘God save the Queen’ when he sees the people stand up.”

In 1911 W. S. Gilbert who was the librettist member of the famous Gilbert & Sullivan theatrical team died, and “The Bookman” published a set of recollections about his life. A popular performer and friend named by George Grossmith stated that he heard Gilbert employ a version of the jest: 12 13

I heard a lady say to him. “Oh, Mr. Gilbert, you must be a consummate musician, or you never could write such perfect rhythm.” “Indeed, I am not,” replied Gilbert. “I only know two tunes. One is ‘God save the Queen,’ and the other isn’t.”

In 1914 a sixteen-page booklet titled “Abraham Lincoln’s Visit to Evanston in 1860” was published, and it recorded the recollections of people in the small village of Evanston, Illinois about the visit of the future President. A man named Henry A. Pearsons stated that he heard Lincoln tell an instance of the jest: 14

A really good quartet, led by our long-time friend and fellow citizen, Charles G. Ayars, called for Lincoln’s special commendation; and I recall how he put his arms around Ayars’ shoulders, and said: ‘Young man, I wish I could sing as well as you. Unfortunately I know only two tunes, one is “Old Hundred.” and the other isn’t.’

A 1942 compilation “Thesaurus of Anecdotes” by Edmund Fuller included this tale about Grant: 15

President Ulysses S. Grant had a violent dislike of music. One time during a concert at Peabody Institute in Baltimore he turned to Robert Winthrop sitting next to him and said, “Why, Mr. Winthrop, I know only two tunes. One is, ‘Yankee Doodle’ and the other isn’t.”

In 1956 a profile of comedian and pianist Victor Borge included a version of the gag: 16

Frankly, I only know two numbers. One is Clair de Lune. The other one isn’t. Clair de Lune, translated into English, means Clear the Saloon. It’s the kind of piece during which people always cough.

The attributions to Grant, Lincoln, and Gilbert were repeated for many decades and are still being disseminated today. A 1977 collection “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” printed this: 17

I know only two tunes: one of them is “Yankee Doodle,” and the other isn’t.
—Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885)

The songwriter and performer Richie Havens employed a variant of the quip in 1985: 18

“I only know two songs on the piano, and I forgot the other one,” joked Havens as an introduction to his simple keyboard solo on “I Was Educated By Myself.”

In conclusion, the earliest evidence suggests an anonymous origin for this jest. There is testimony that Grant, Lincoln, and Gilbert each told a version though the humorous remark was already in circulation. The evidence is not ideal because it comes from the long-term memories of individuals and was published after the deaths of these luminaries.

Image notes: Music note from OpenIcons on Pixabay. Ulysses S. Grant image from 1885 engraving titled “Grant from West Point to Appomattox” from United States Library of Congress on Wikipedia. Abraham Lincoln image from 1869 portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy on Wikipedia.

(Great thanks to Joel S. Berson for his remark initiating a discussion on this topic, and thanks to Jonathan Lighter and Victor Steinbok for their valuable comments. Thanks also to Bill Mullins for mentioning the Victor Borge example.)

Notes:

  1. 1839 April 20, Saturday Morning Transcript, Pleasant, Quote Page 134, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1839 May 4, The Musical Review, Volume 2, Number 1, Pleasant, Quote Page 11, Column 1, Printed by William Osborn, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1845 August 11, Daily Republican (Springfield Republican), (Freestanding untitled short item), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1851 August 6, Wisconsin Free Democrat, (Freestanding untitled short item), Page 3, Column 2, (GNB Page 537), Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1854, Fun: The Electric Telegraph of Fun, Edited and Illustrated by Alfred Crowquill, Quote Page 53, George Routledge & Co., London, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1885 August 22, The Saturday Review (Greensburg Saturday Review), Grant’s Indifference to Music, (Acknowledgement to Harper’s Magazine), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Greensburg, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1888 September 15, The Musical World, Volume 68, Facts and Comments, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 724, Column 1, Published by the Proprietor at 138A, Strand, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1890, Recollections of General Grant: With an Account of the Presentation of the Portraits of Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan at the U.S. Military Academy West Point by George W. Childs (George William Childs), Quote Page 40, Collins Printing House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1890 November 2, Denver Rocky Mountain News, General Sherman’s Musical Taste, Quote Page 20, Column 5 and 6, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1891 February 14, All the Year Round: A Weekly Journal, Conducted by Charles Dickens, Mary Musgrave–Thief: A Complete Story, Start Page 149, Quote Page 153, Published at Wellington Street, Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1897 July 1, The Musical Times and Singing-Class Circular, Volume 38, Correspondence: Answers to Correspondents, Quote Page 483, Column 1, Novello, Ewer and Co., London, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1911 July, The Bookman, Volume 40, Recollections of Sir W. S. Gilbert, (Remarks by George Grossmith), Start Page 162, Quote Page 163, Hodder and Stoughton, London, England. (HathiTrust) link link
  13. 1911 July 16, New York Sun, Gilbert As They Recall Him: Personal Recollections of Author of “Pinafore”, Quote Page 10, Column 3, New York. (Old Fulton)
  14. 1914, Abraham Lincoln’s Visit to Evanston in 1860 by J. Seymour Currey, Start Page 13, Quote Page 14, City National Bank, Evanston. (Google Books Full View) link
  15. 1942, Thesaurus of Anecdotes by Edmund Fuller, Quote Page 229, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  16. 1956 September 16, Morning Advocate (Advocate), Section: Parade Magazine, Victor Borge: The most popular Dane since Hamlet, Start Page 10, Quote Page 12, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  17. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Music, Quote Page 341, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  18. 1985 January 5, Billboard, Talent in Action, (Review: Richie Havens at Bottom Line, New York), Start Page 42, Quote Page 44, Column 5, Published by Nielsen Business Media, Inc. (Google Books Full View)