History

True Origins of ‘The Eyes of Texas’

UT Austin released a Report about the song, but its historical origins are worse than it says.

I read UT’s Report about The Eyes of Texas song, which has multiple merits, such as its account of how the song has been performed for decades. However, it also has defects, including the account of its origins. Therefore, as a professor of history, I decided to research an accurate account of its origins. To me, the main issue was whether the song was written independently of a blackface minstrel show and just happened to be sung there later. It would be very different if it was created for that racist show and sung while mocking Black workers on a railway, as if they “cannot get away.”

  • The Eyes of Texas song copied not only the melody but the form, and some of the words, phrases, and rhymes, of the racist Levee Song.
  • The Eyes of Texas song was written specifically to be performed at an event in which White UT students would mock Black persons.
  • The song was written on the day of that blackface minstrel show, on May 12, 1903.
  • The song began not when racist minstrel shows were fading at UT, but on the day that they began.

Was UT’s Phrase “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You”

Inspired by General Robert E. Lee ?

UT’s Report states that “the committee concluded that there was a very low likelihood that the line originated with Robert E. Lee.” However, that is a mistake, because President William L. Prather’s line, “The eyes of Texas are upon you,” did stem from General Lee.

General Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., photo from 1864, during the Civil War
John Gregg, Brigadier General, C.S.A., Texas Brigade 1861–64; died 1864.
J. B. Polley, Private, Company F Fourth Texas Regiment, 1862–65
L. G. Gee, Private, Company E, Fifth Texas Regiment, C.S.A.
R. C. of the Texas Brigade, account of May 6, 1864; pub. 1868.

Did John Sinclair Copy Only the Melody ?

UT’s Report claims that The Eyes of Texas song was written by UT student John Lang Sinclair, who “borrowed a popular melody that most UT students would have already known — ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.’” This statement is true but incomplete; it gives the false impression that only the melody was copied, but not the lyrics. Actually, the lyrics too were partly copied, because The Eyes of Texas was based on the Levee/Railroad Song.

Excerpt from The Dinner Horn, in White’s New Illustrated Song Book (New York: H. Long & Brother, 1865), 19.

Did UT’s Song Originate from

the Railroad Song or the Levee Song ?

Writers sometimes discuss the Levee Song as separate from, or a precursor to, I’ve Been Working on the Railroad. I do not know whether such songs really did originate separately, but all the early published versions I’ve seen, which were titled Levee Song, like the one above (Princeton, 1894), did include the lines “I been wuk-kin’ on de rail-road, All de live-long day.” Moreover, I have found no versions of I’ve Been Working on the Railroad prior to the Levee Song.

When Was ‘The Eyes of Texas’ Written ?

UT’s Report states that “It was written in 1903.” However, it does not specify the month or the day. Also, pages 6, 11, and 12 gave me the impression that the song was written in 1902, because those pages state that in 1902 Lewis Johnson convinced John Sinclair to write a school song for UT, resulting in The Eyes of Texas. Page 15 states that subsequently, “Sinclair and Johnson discovered an opportunity to unveil the new song,” namely, at the Minstrel show.

How Was It Written ?

On April 24, 1903, there was an “Austin Rifle” minstrel show (a professional show) at the Hancock Opera, and UT’s Glee Club quartette participated by singing as guests.²³ UT student Lewis Johnson was a singer and Manager of the Glee Club and his assistant was Thomas Charlton Hall, a law student who set up their performance at that show, so decades later, Hall recalled that “The song ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,’ when sung, was encored at least four times, and the tune captivated the crowd.”²⁴

Ad in the Statesman, Monday, May 11, 1903, p. 8.
John Lang Sinclair, in 1903
Lewis Johnson, Manager of the Glee Club
Transcription of Sinclair’s handwritten draft of 1903. Red words echo the Levee Song. Blue marks the words that are only a guess of what is hardly legible.

Who First Sang It on May 12, 1903 ?

There is confusion about which students originally sang The Eyes of Texas. UT’s Report states that

How Was It Performed ?

Multiple historical sources exist which can be used to reconstruct the first performance of The Eyes of Texas. The event happened at the Hancock Opera House. The audience included the Governor of Texas, S.W.T. Lanham, whose two sons Fritz and Frank were in the show. Jim Cannon recalled how it started, as did The Daily Texan:

Blackface minstrel John White with his banjo, ca. 1890

Was ‘The Eyes of Texas’ Originally a Joke ?

On May 13th, 1903, the show was reviewed in the Statesman. The review said that it was “wonderful,” better, and “funnier” than any professional minstrel company that had acted in Austin. It said that the skits and music were successful, “the jokes were new, and decidedly clever.” It said that “The lampooning was well aimed and went straight to the mark,” as the performers “tickled the audience.” The boxing match was “frantically funny,” and that Sinclair’s song, led by the quartette, “was really extraordinary.” It praised another performer for his “boisterous mirth.”⁵⁸

Was ‘The Eyes of Texas’ Part of

the “End of an Era” of Minstrel Shows ?

UT’s Report claims that “By the 1850s, however, Black elements had been reduced and moved to the concluding section of a three part show. [. . .] The 1903 show in Austin occurred near the end of the minstrel era, as the genre was evolving further, into vaudeville.”

Caricature of John Lang Sinclair, in the 1904 Cactus yearbook.
Description of a grossly racist Minstrel show, in The Daily Texan on June 1, 1904, p. 2.

Conclusion

In summer 2020, UT’s Student Government and its Senate of College Councils both publicly called for UT to “Discontinue any use of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ at all UT related events, and compose a new official school spirit song with the inclusion of BIPOC [Black, indigenous, and people of color] composers and musicians.” They explained that the song “originally debuted as a song at a minstrel show where the performers were in Blackface, or theatrical makeup used by non-Black performers to portray caricatures of Black individuals. Endorsing ‘The Eyes of Texas’ as the official school song with its explicit, anti-Black origin directly harms the Black community.”⁶⁹ Many student college councils and students also endorsed the request.

References

1. President Wm. L. Prather, “The [Tenth Annual] Opening of the Medical Department,” November 15, 1900, The University Record, vol. 2, no. 4 (December 1900), 384.

Professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. Author of six books, plus articles in Scientific American, The Hill, USA Today news, SALON, etc.

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