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.
- 1839 April 20, Saturday Morning Transcript, Pleasant, Quote Page 134, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 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 ↩
- 1845 August 11, Daily Republican (Springfield Republican), (Freestanding untitled short item), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩