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?


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.

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


  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)

Great Invention, But Who Would Ever Want to Use One?

Ulysses S. Grant? Rutherford B. Hayes? Howard Pew? George Peck? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A quotation about the telephone has been in the news recently because it was used in a speech by U.S. President Barack Obama. A widely-distributed anecdote asserted that Rutherford B. Hayes participated in a demonstration of the telephone when it was a new invention. But his response was short-sighted:

It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?

What do you think? Did Hayes say this?

Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to locate any compelling evidence that Hayes made that skeptical remark about the telephone. The earliest known citation connecting Hayes to the telephone anecdote appeared in a 1982 book titled “Future Mind” about computers. Details are given further below.

Oddly, in 1939 an almost identical anecdote was told about Ulysses S. Grant who preceded Hayes in the White House. This is the earliest instance of the story located by QI. Note that Grant left the White House in 1877, and Hayes left in 1881. So the speech described immediately below was made many years after either man was President.

In 1939 Howard Pew, president of the Sun Oil Company, delivered an address at a meeting of the Congress of American Industry. Pew claimed that several famous individuals had made misguided comments about technology. One of his examples was a supposed remark by Ulysses S. Grant that revealed a dramatic lack of foresight regarding the potential of the telephone [UGHP]:

From history, he recited: George Washington thought the first demonstration of John Fitch’s steamboat of too little significance to justify his presence; President Ulysses S. Grant thought the telephone was “very remarkable” but wondered “who in the world would ever want to use one of them.”

Napoleon couldn’t “see the submarine.” Daniel Webster thought frost on the tracks would make it impossible to run trains.

In 1949 the anecdote about Grant’s reaction to the telephone appeared in an article by a writer named George Peck that was printed in a Virginia newspaper. The quotation attributed to Grant overlapped the version presented in 1939 immediately above [UGGP]:

Then there is the rather humorous episode in connection with the first telephone placed on the White House desk. This was when Ulysses Grant was president. After trial had convinced him that he could actually talk through it and hear the answering voice from the other end, he said: “Yes, it is all very remarkable: but who in the world would ever want, to use one of them?”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Great Invention, But Who Would Ever Want to Use One?