True Origins of ‘The Eyes of Texas’

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

Alberto A. Martinez
48 min readMar 24, 2021

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.”

We all agree that “it is important to fully acknowledge and learn from the university’s past.” However, if that history is not told accurately, even if unintentionally, the result is the impression that UT’s administrators are retrenching and whitewashing the facts.

Our University has an obligation to tell the truth. UT administrators have a moral duty to acknowledge the truth, and to make policies based on it.

Countless people who have sung the song at UT’s stadium, surrounded by more than a hundred thousand fans, have enjoyed and loved it because it shows school spirit as it seems to bring us all together. However, there are reasons why not everyone feels united by this song.

Regarding its origins, UT’s Report makes claims that seemed unconvincing to me: that the song’s title was not inspired by Confederate General Robert E. Lee; that its author John Lang Sinclair only copied the melody of the song; that it was written independently of the minstrel show of May 1903; and that its first performance was representative of the end of an era in minstrel shows. To the contrary, I have found evidence that proves the following:

  • The line ‘The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You’ was inspired by a statement about General Lee in the Civil War.
  • 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.

The evidence is below. In light of such facts, UT administrators should understand why this song, contrary to the intentions of many, does not generate unity. I do believe that people can sing any song they want. However, I recommend that this song not be the official song of our University.

Alberto A. Martinez, Ph.D.

Professor of History, Chair of the Independent Equity Committee, Fellow of the American Physical Society, Elected Member of the Executive Committee of UT’s Faculty Council, Elected Member of the Diversity and Inclusion Plan Task Force of the College of Liberal Arts, Elected Member of the Provost Search Committee.


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.

President Prather’s phrase, “the eyes of Texas are upon you,” was inspired by an incident he had read about General Lee. In 1900, Prather told the medical students at UT that during the Civil War it seemed that the army of the South was losing the “battle of the Wilderness,” but that then General Lee spoke to General Gregg, commanding officer of the Texas brigade, telling him to charge at the enemy. Then, in Prather’s words, General Gregg commanded: “Attention, Texas brigade! Forward! The eyes of General Lee are upon you!”

General Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., photo from 1864, during the Civil War

UT’s Report posits a conjecture that the claims “that Lee was the inspiration all seem to trace back to a 1938 memoir by retired engineering dean T.U. Taylor.” But no, Taylor told the story multiple times, and long before he retired, for example, to the Daily Texan in 1920, 1923, and 1924. Moreover, President Prather’s son, John K. Prather, recalled, in 1936, that his father paraphrased the line from Lee. Likewise, one of the original minstrels who performed the song in 1903, Jim Cannon, also recalled in 1931 that the phrase originated from Lee.

President Prather’s phrase, “the eyes of Texas are upon you,” was inspired by an incident he had read about General Lee. In 1900, Prather told the medical students at UT that during the Civil War it seemed that the army of the South was losing “the battle of the Wilderness,” but that then General Lee spoke to General Gregg, commanding officer of the Texas Brigade, telling him to charge at the enemy. Then, in President Prather’s words,

John Gregg, Brigadier General, C.S.A., Texas Brigade 1861–64; died 1864.

“General Gregg gave the command: ‘Attention, Texas brigade! Forward! The eyes of General Lee are upon you!’ This day, young ladies and gentlemen of the College, I give you your marching orders for the session, ‘Forward! The eyes of Texas are upon you!’” ¹

Accordingly, Prather’s daughter said that the phrase “may have come from an incident told her father that moved him much. It was during the Civil War the commander of a Texas unit in battle ordered: ‘Forward, men of Texas, the eyes of Gen. Lee are upon you’.” ² Thus we can say that Prather’s motto was inspired by General Gregg’s words about General Lee. Moreover, the mystery of the roots of Prather’s words can be solved, because, primary sources do exist from that “battle of the Wilderness,” in northern Virginia.

A first-person account of the event was written by one of the Confederate soldiers in the Texas Brigade, namely Joseph Benjamin Polley, born in Brazoria County Texas, a twenty-three year-old Private of Company F in the Fourth Texas Regiment.³ In a letter of July 6, 1864, soldier Joe Polley described an event from two months prior:

J. B. Polley, Private, Company F Fourth Texas Regiment, 1862–65

“Our position [on May 6th] was on an open hill immediately in rear of a battery. Within three hundred yards were the Yankees, and, but for intervening timber, we would have been exposed to their fire. Here General Lee, mounted on the same horse (a beautiful dapple-gray) which carried him at Fredericksburg in 1862, rode up near us and gave his orders to General Gregg, adding, ‘The Texas Brigade always has driven the enemy, and I expect them to do it to-day. Tell them, General, that I shall witness their conduct to-day.’ Galloping in front, General Gregg delivered the message, and shouted, ‘Forward Texas Brigade!’ Just then Lee rode in front of the Fifth Texas, as if intending to lead the charge . . .”

So reportedly, it was not only General Gregg, but General Lee himself who said he would be watching the soldiers of the Texas Brigade.

L. G. Gee, Private, Company E, Fifth Texas Regiment, C.S.A.

Furthermore, there is another first-person account. Leonard Grace Gee was a courier Private of Company E of the Fifth Texas Regiment. He too was there, on May 6th, 1864. Soldier Gee later recalled:

When we arrived there, Gen. Lee was on the ground. On meeting us he asked Gen. John Gregg, who commanded Hood’s Texas Brigade, what troops we were. Gen. Gregg replied: ‘Hood’s Texas Brigade.’ Gen. Lee said: ‘I sent for them to go and drive out those people [Union soldiers], as they would lie on their arms and shoot at us all day.’ Then Gregg said to his brigade: ‘General Lee wants us to go and drive those people out. Remember, Hood’s Brigade, that General Lee’s eyes are on you and his heart is with you. Forward! Guide center! March!”

Therefore, the origin of Prather’s words is now clear.

General Lee said he would witness the Texas brigade attacking, therefore General Gregg shouted to them that “General Lee’s eyes are on you,” and years later, an account of this incident inspired President Prather to tell UT students that “the eyes of Texas are upon you.”

There remains a question: which written account did Prather read? His words of 1900 resemble more the account by Gee than the one by Polley, yet Gee’s account was published in 1904. So, was it in circulation before 1904? Or, were there other eyewitness accounts? Searching for such a third primary source, I finally found an account from 1868. Its author remained partly anonymous by stating his name only as “R. C — — , of ‘Hood’s Texas Brigade’.” Subsequently, his identity has been noted to be Robert Campbell, private of Company A, Fifth Texas Regiment.His account is titled Gen. Lee at the Wilderness,” spanning six printed pages. Midway through it, veteran R. C. wrote:

About this time, Gen. Lee, with his staff, rode up to Gen. Gregg — “General what brigade is this?” said Lee. “The Texas brigade,” was General G’s. reply. “I am glad to see it,” said Lee. “When you go in there, I wish you to give those men the cold steel — they will stand and fire all day, and never move unless you charge them.” “That is my experience,” replied the brave Gregg. By this time an aid from General Longstreet rode up and repeated the order, “advance your command, Gen. Gregg.” And now comes the point upon which the interest of this “o’er true tale” hangs. “Attention Texas Brigade ” was rung upon the morning air, by Gen. Gregg, “the eyes of General Lee are upon you, forward, march.”

Moved by the presence of General Lee, soldier Leonard G. Gee, of Company E, teared up, yelled out, and said, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.”

R. C. of the Texas Brigade, account of May 6, 1864; pub. 1868.

The verbatim resemblance between the account printed in 1868, and UT President William L. Prather’s paraphrase is so striking, that I conclude that this is what he had read.¹⁰

Clearly, beyond any shadow of a doubt, UT’s phrase: “The eyes of Texas are upon you,” originated from the words “the eyes of General Lee are upon you.”


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.

To show this, we may compare the Levee Song with The Eyes of Texas. Below, the version of the Levee Song is from the book Carmina Princetonia of 1894. On the right, the lyrics for The Eyes of Texas are transcribed from the photo of the sheet reproduced in UT’s Report as “the original lyrics.”¹¹

The most racist word is redacted, twice. Clearly, The Eyes of Texas copies the Levee Song in multiple ways: the melody, the sectional structure or form: the intro, the verse, and chorus (some lyrics, and parts of the rhyme, such as day/away, morn/horn, sing/again).

The Eyes of Texas lyrics of 1903 plainly show that they were derived from the racist Levee Song which included the lines about the railroad, as performed and published at several universities.

From the original Levee version, the five phrases about “I once did know a,” “All de live-long day,” “so uh-ly in de mawn,” “Di-nah, blow yo’ hawn,” “Sing a song o’ the ci-ty,” were copied almost intact, with only slight modifications, such as the spelling.

In the original Levee version, the woman “Grace” led the Black laborer to the “sad disgrace” of working on the levee, apparently as a prisoner, but in UT’s version she is replaced by “a President,” namely Prather.

In the original Levee Song, who was Dinah? Nobody knows. Yet in the 1800s, multiple books and stories had Black female characters named Dinah who were cooks, for example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.¹² Therefore some writers speculate that the workers on the levee or railway were waiting for the cook to blow a horn to signal that a meal was ready. At least since the 1840s, dinner horns were in common use in America, to call workers in a field. For example, by 1865 there was a song titled The Dinner Horn, by “the famous Ethiopian Delineator,” Charles White, which sang about Black slaves, with the chorus:

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

In any case, in UT’s song, Dinah was replaced by Gabriel, the archangel from the Bible. However, nowhere in the Bible does Gabriel blow a horn.¹³ But in music, the trope of Gabriel blowing a horn or trumpet recurs in Negro spirituals, a genre created by African Americans, encompassing work songs, plantation songs, and others. For example, the 1867 book Slave Songs of the United States includes the song “Blow your Trumpet, Gabriel,” as well as the song Michael Row the Boat Ashore, which includes the line: “Gabriel Blow de trumpet horn.”¹⁴

During the Civil War there were cruel songs that ridiculed African Americans. One book of 1864 includes a song titled Blow Your Horn, Gabriel. It ridiculed the future of Black persons, who, again, were described with a word we do not write, singing:

The song continued by claiming that even if Black slaves were freed, ultimately any free Black man would be “no better off dan what he was before!”¹⁵

Similarly, from African American music, White students in colleges and universities copied, modified and mocked certain songs. For example, the students of the Hampton School of Virginia sang a “negro rendering of the resurrection,” namely, the song In dat Great Gittin’-Up Mornin, which included the line: “Blow your trumpet, Gabriel.”¹⁶ One commentator described the song as “containing sixty lines of the most extraordinary paraphrase of the book of Revelation, in most grotesque negro dialect.”¹⁷ Another commentator noted a looming visit of the Hampton minstrels as follows:

THE NEGRO MINSTRELS ARE COMING, with their wild, weird, witching melodies. A thousand years of oppression and sorrow wail through them on the minor key. Humor, pathos, and a most heart-breaking tenderness are often found blending together, and they take the heart with a storm of emotions: pity, grief, terror. sympathy mingle together, not without a tinge of grotesque humor.¹⁸


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.

To most commentators, a railroad and a levee seem to be distinct. However, the two could coexist, because some railways were built on levees.¹⁹

The levee and the railroad both show up in the “Levee Song” as it was published in song collections printed for students at Princeton (1894, 1905), Wesleyan University (1901), Harvard (1902), the University of Pennsylvania (1903), Haverford College (1903), Michigan University (1904), Brown University (1908), the University of Illinois (1908), the University of Wisconsin (1909), etc.

For example, here is a page from the book Harvard University Songs, published in 1902. As illustrated, the lines “wuk-kin’ on de railroad” do appear seamlessly as part of the Levee Song. The lines about the railroad were the chorus of the Levee Song.

It is noteworthy that, in these years, the Levee Song was “college music.” Because, it appears in print repeatedly in these college songbooks, whereas I have not found it anywhere else.

Here’s a recording of the song, from 1923, which shows how the parts about the levee and the railroad functioned together, musically. This performance was by the Shannon Quartet, a group that began performing in 1917. The lyrics had evolved, such that this version does not include the overt racist slurs against Black workers or prisoners.


Shannon Quartet (1923): Levee Song — I’ve Been Workin’ on de Railroad

However, other performances by professional musicians did extract the lines about the railroad, the chorus, to sing them as a separate song. The earliest example I have found of I’ve been Working on the Railroad, as a standalone song separate from the Levee Song, is from 1911, in the book, Massachusetts Agricultural College Songs. Another example, is this recording of 1927, which first plays the parts about the Levee and the cities, as a song in itself, immediately followed by the railroad song:

Note: this recording does include the racist lyrics.


Sandhills Sixteen (1927): 1. Levee Song, 2. I’ve Been Working on the Railroad

At musical events, UT student John Lang Sinclair sang the Levee/Railroad song. As reported in the Daily Texan, in 1917, “His specialties were literature and music. He made several trips with the Glee Club, and it was on one of these trips that the song ‘Working On the Levee,’ was sung…”²⁰ For example, in April 1903, as a member of the Glee Club, Sinclair traveled to eight cities in Texas, an eight-hundred mile circuit, to sing mostly “college music.”²¹ In an interview of 1914, John Sinclair explained: “I was very fond of that old song, ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,’ and so I decided to write words to that tune.”²²


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.

However, the chronology should be clarified: it was not written to be the song of the University, it was specifically created for the Minstrel show, and it was written before dawn on May 12, 1903, the day of the Minstrel show. The unambiguous evidence is quoted below.


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

That was the minstrel Levee/Railroad song, not The Eyes of Texas song, but regarding the creation of latter, Hall wrote: “I have been asked on many occasions to write this incident. I have told the story on many occasions…”

He explained that a boisterous activist against alcohol, Carrie Nation, (known for carrying a hatchet) was visiting UT, but President Prather tried to stop her speech. The students cheered to support her, so Prather raised his hands to stop them too: “Remember young men wherever you are and wherever you may be, the eyes of Texas are upon you. You are expected to uphold her tradition and not act as hoodlums and cheer for this poor deluded woman.”

Consequently, President Prather’s use of the words “The eyes of Texas are upon you,” which he had voiced on other occasions, motivated Lewis Johnson to use the phrase in the upcoming comical performance. Similarly, the incident was caricatured in UT’s the Cactus yearbook in 1903, p. 253.

Hall wrote that the Glee Club had been asked to repeat what they sang at the Minstrel show, and so, Johnson and Hall were discussing “a change of program for the second performance,” so they met and,

“As we sat in Johnson’s room in Old ‘B’ Hall, Johnson suggested that we write a parody of the tune ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,’ and use ‘The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.’ We wrote and talked of the wording, and called out the window to John Lang Sinclair, at the time considered to be the poet laureate of the University to come over. We explained to him what we wanted.”

Ad in the Statesman, Monday, May 11, 1903, p. 8.

In a moment I’ll review the evidence that the song The Eyes of Texas was written early on May 12, the day of the Minstrel show, however, already before that date the Glee Club quartette had committed to singing a song that would be titled ‘The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You,’ even though they didn’t have the lyrics yet. The Austin Statesman of Monday May 11 advertised the event of the brand new “Varsity Minstrels,” stating: “Hear the Quartette Sing: ‘The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You,’” and it noted that there would be more than fifty men in the production, that is, UT students and faculty.

In 1936, Johnson explained the roots of the song as follows:

The melody, taken from “The Levee Song,” Johnson believes was adapted by Sinclair because the latter sang that tune as a solo selection as a member of the glee club.²⁵

John Sinclair graduated in 1904. Ten years later, in December 1914, he visited Austin on a business trip, and he was interviewed at UT by The Daily Texan. He was “surprised” to find out that his song was still a favorite of the students. He spoke about its origins:

John Lang Sinclair, in 1903

In 1903 I was closely connected with the musical organizations in the University, being a member of the band, Glee Club and one other musical society. Some of the boys got up a show that year which they called the University Minstrel, and they called upon the Glee Club to give a selection. We didn’t have anything new or good so we were in a pretty bad fix up to the last minute. Mr. Louis Johnson, president of the [Glee] club, came to my room and said I would have to make up a song of some kind, and so it was a case of do or die.²⁶

What did Sinclair mean by “do or die?” Other interviews and accounts show that Johnson put pressure on him. And allegedly it wasn’t the first time. Lewis Johnson claimed that he previously pressured Sinclair to write a song that might become the UT song. Lewis Johnson recalled:

Lewis Johnson, Manager of the Glee Club

“I went with John Lang to his third-story room [in B Hall], got him stripped down to his BVD’s [underwear], provided plenty of Bull Durham [smoking tobacco] and papers, got myself some magazines, and told him we were up to whatever part of the night it took for him to grind out something. Somewhere around 2 a.m. he ground out the verse and chorus to ‘Jolly Students’…” ²⁷

So, that time Johnson had stripped Sinclair down to his underwear. Nowadays, that would be called “bullying,” so it is fitting that some students referred to “the popular” Lewis as “Bull Johnson,” as recalled by Henry Camp Harris, one of the students.²⁸

So, we return to the events of May 11–12, 1903. Looking back, Dean Thomas Taylor described the urgency of that night:

“In desperation one night Lewis Johnson went to the room of Sinclair in B. Hall and informed him that he had to write new song for the minstrel show. Lewis walked up and down the room humming several tunes…²⁹

In an interview in 1940, a reporter reminded Sinclair about a UT campus legend which said that Johnson “had to force Mr. Sinclair to write the song,” to which Sinclair replied: “I suppose I was goaded just a little.”³⁰ He did not explain it further, but other persons did. John Sinclair died in 1947; but in 1951, Sinclair’s widow, Stella, explained it:

John tried and tried. Time for the show drew near — but no song. So one night glee club men marched into his room in ‘B’ hall (which stands precariously, yet) handed him cigarettes and locked him in with an ultimatum — the song or else! And in the wee hours, out came Mr. Sinclair and ‘The Eyes of Texas.³¹

She referred to that sudden confinement as a “jail.” Likewise, when Lewis Johnson spoke to a Shakespeare Club in 1935, he said that he “practically kidnapped Sinclair, who was a campus poet, and told him he was to produce a song for the minstrel show before the next daybreak.”³² A similar account was told by a female friend of Sinclair, interviewed in 1936:

A school teacher, who would not permit her name to be used, said that she, a personal friend of Sinclair, believed he wrote the words of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ when compelled by fellow students. Locked in a Closet. It seems that as lark they locked him in a closet, stating they would not release him until he wrote a poem. On the back of a laundry slip he wrote the words now known to millions of Texans.³³

Few other newspapers also claimed that Sinclair wrote the song while “locked in a dormitory closet between midnight and 5 a.m.”:

It seems that Sinclair was one of those guys who liked to put things off until the last minute. When, on the night before the minstrel show, Sinclair’s roommate discovered that he hadn’t finished the song — he threw him in a closet and wouldn’t let him out until he finished writing it. ³⁴

The daughter of President Prather, Mary Lu, recounted similar aspects of how it happened:

…the ‘B Hall Bunch’ were besieging one of their number, John Lang Sinclair, to write them a new song for the event. Lewis Johnson hummed the tune, ‘I Am Working on the Levee All the Livelong Day,’ while Sinclair fitted the words to the music. ³⁵

Glee Club assistant to the manager, Thomas Charlton Hall, recalled:

He pulled the brown wrapping paper off a Bo[s]che’s Laundry package, and with pencil, and our help, wrote the song ‘The Eyes of Texas.’ Johnson has preserved the original [draft], and has it in his possession now, as far as I know.”³⁶

Indeed, that first draft of the song was preserved in a safe at the ranch of Johnson’s father in Jacksboro, Texas.³⁷ In 1933, Lewis Johnson wrote a letter in which he explained:

You will note that it is written in pencil in John Lang’s diminutive characters; the mark outs are still there, also the interlineations and substitutions. As I recall it the old piece of paper on which it is written was torn from the wrapping paper on a Bosche’s laundry bundle. ³⁸

Likewise, in 1940 Sinclair confirmed it: “It may have been wrapping paper, but as I remember it, it came off of a bundle of laundry.” ³⁹

Bosche’s Troy Laundry was a business at 806 Congress Avenue, which cleaned many UT students’ dirty laundry, and returned it in a brownish paper wrapping.

When Sinclair exited confinement, he had written a draft song on that piece of paper, 7 inches wide, by 10.5 inches. As planned, the song had the same structure as the Levee/Railroad song, exactly as it had been printed in college songbooks: a four line verse, followed by eight lines of chorus, followed by eight lines of verse (sometimes called the refrain). It also copied three phrases almost exactly: “All the live long day,” “in the early dawn,” and “Sing me a song of,” as well as its form and rhythm.

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.

The draft lyrics say that the bright blue eyes of Texas watch over you, accompanying you through night, peacefully, as in the morning and daytime, that the eyes of Texas are countless like the stars, of many colors. And, there is something noteworthy about this draft: that it’s not funny. Therefore, it might not elicit laughter at the Minstrel show. Accordingly, Johnson and Hall were unsatisfied with Sinclair’s draft.

Thomas Charlton Hall explained the problem: “When John finished this, it did not quite meet our ideas of what the student body wanted. So we framed a second version, which was as follows.” Then that newspaper interview printed the revised lyrics.⁴⁰

It’s unclear whether the revised song was edited only by Sinclair, or whether it was coauthored with Hall and Johnson. However, the accounts by Johnson and Hall do convey the impression that they helped shape the song, from creating its title and aim, to critiquing and revising Sinclair’s draft: “we framed a second version.” Likewise, Sinclair’s wife explained that Sinclair used to say: “The students of the University made the song, he always said, she recalled.”⁴¹

The revised song is very different from Sinclair’s draft. Instead of describing bright blue eyes that peacefully accompany you, the revised version more closely copied the Levee Song, with phrases such as “I once did know a President,” and “Til Gabriel blows his horn.” Also, the revised version is literally about the perpetual inability to ever escape from eyes that oversee you all the time, which, in itself, was a direct parody of President Prather’s recent words. If it were performed in certain ways, it could be funny. Professor R.A. Law described it as “statewide surveillance.” One of the original performers of The Eyes of Texas on May 12, 1903, Jim R. Cannon, a member in the quartette, was interviewed by a reporter about that “negro minstrel,” in 1931:

Mr. Cannon laughed as he told the tale of how the song came to be written for that particular night. [. . .] “It was a standing joke among the student body about Prexy’s ‘Omniscient Eyes,’ and when John Laing Sinclair of San Antonio went into conference with the college quartet with some half formed words and the famous old tune of ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad’ running through his head, he was really starting something, but he didn’t know it,” said Mr. Cannon.⁴²

On the May 12 morning, the Austin Statesman ran a story: “Students Ready to Grind the Faculty,” at the Minstrel show. After a week of rehearsals, it explained: “The jokes and grinds are all original and local, and hit off well known people in town and in the University. This is the only chance the students have to take a rap at the faculty…”⁴³ It noted that the presence of the Glee Club and the quartette would guarantee quality music. It quoted Manager F.H. Curtiss saying that it was a “mammoth production” that would rival professional performers, and that “All the jokes are original, and the local hits will be sensational.” Curtiss said that the show would hopefully raise a thousand dollars to send UT’s track team to an athletic event in Atlanta. The article ended with the program for the event, listing “‘The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You,’ Quartette,” as the fifth among twenty-one performances.


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

“it was performed by the ‘Varsity Quartette,’ identified in the [1903] program as consisting of ‘Messrs. Kivelin, Bolin, Smith and Johnson.’”

However, the Report acknowledges that in the review of the performance, published in the Austin Statesman, instead of Kivelin and Johnson the reporter wrote Cannon and Porter. A total of six names for four spots — so who really sang it?

The Report misconstrued the sequence in the show’s Program because The Eyes of Texas was not really sung in the “Olio” section that ended the show (and which lists the four names that include Johnson). Instead, as clarified by other sources, it was sung in Part I, which the Program simply listed as: “Selection ………………………… ‘Varsity Quartette,” with no names specified. This is evident because the sequence of songs was stated in print in newspapers. On May 12, the Statesman printed the Program, which specified that in Part I, the fifth piece would be “Song — ‘The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You,’ Quartette.” Likewise, on May 20, the Daily Texan stated that The Eyes of Texas followed the song by H.C. Harris.

Sources agree that W.D. Smith was in the quartette. The other three can be identified in various ways. First, that Johnson and Bolin never claimed to have been in that particular, historic quartette. Second, that Cannon and Kivlehen (the correct spelling) actually did. And third, that Cannon and Dean T.U. Taylor listed the original singers.⁴⁴ Thus, the original quartette consisted of:

James D. Kivlehen, first tenor; Ralph A. Porter, second tenor; W.D. Smith, first bass, and James R. Cannon, second bass.


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:

Everything was all set, Prexy [Pres. Prather] was in the audience, and the Hancock was packed to capacity with college students and Austin citizens. The curtain rose and the program began.⁴⁵

The performance opened with an overture by the University Band, which was followed by the opening chorus, “Oh, the Lovely Girls.⁴⁶

The Program states that next they did the “Introduction of Messrs Lanham an Harris,” which was explained in the subsequent review in the Daily Texan:

Messrs. Frank Lanham and Harris, as end men, distinguished themselves by their original stunts and spicy hits. Very few people got angry. Mr. Harris, in his capacity of “jigsman,” appeared to have all the grace and agility of a professional minstrel. In his song, “The Castle on the Nile,” he acquitted himself equally well.⁴⁷

Few people were angered. The Program states that Frank Lanham acted as a “Tambo,” typically a White man in blackface with a tambourine, and Henry Camp Harris acted as a “Bones,” a White man in blackface with castanets made of bones. Old books describe the racist skits such characters played, usually mocking the mispronunciations and allegedly low intelligence of Black persons. For example, a typical Bones spoke like this: “so I took de banjo and I got out on de sidewalk and begin to play and caper; and pooty presently a crowd cum along, and I gub ’em all de songs and jigs I was quainted wid, and de money it come rollin’ in…”⁴⁸

As the Bones end man, Harris sang The Castle on the Nile, a satirical song that began: “Dere ain’t no use in try’n to rise up in de social scale…” Having failed to advance socially, the blackface minstrel sang about returning to Africa, having found out “dat I come down from ole chief Bun-ga-boo.” Therefore, he would live in his Castle on the Nile, with “A monkey for my valet,” and “A Ba-boon butler at my do’.”⁴⁹

After Harris finished singing The Castle of the Nile, it was time for the debut of The Eyes of Texas. The transition to the song was detailed, retrospectively, by President Prather’s daughter, Mary Lu. In 1926 and 1937, she recalled:

“During the minstrel [show], a very seedy-looking individual appeared wearing an A. & M. sweater and carrying a dilapidated old valise [a suitcase]. The interlocutor [F.H. Curtiss] demanded, ‘Say, what you got in your bag?’

‘A boll weevil.’

[a boll weevil is a species of beetle that fed on the buds and flowers of cotton plants, in plantations in Texas, since these beetles had entered from Mexico in 1892, and had not reached any other state until 1909.]

‘Whar you gwine with it?’

‘I’se gwine up to the University to show it to the president.’

‘What for?’

‘He’s gwine to make a speech to this here boll weevil. He’s gwine to tell it ‘the eyes of Texas are upon you.’”

Whereupon the quartette, in full evening dress, appeared on the stage, […].”⁵⁰

The misspellings of words such as “gwine” for “going,” and “I’se” for “I is,” were typical in minstrel books to ridicule Black persons.⁵¹ Note also the allusion to plantations.

The quartette of Kivlehen, Porter, Smith, and Cannon, began to sing, while others were around them. An eyewitness account by Henry Harris states how it transpired:

The first singing was by the chorus of the University Glee Club in the Varsity Minstrels, with a blackface work gang singing and working on a railroad.⁵²

This confirms that The Eyes of Texas, inspired by General Robert E. Lee, and based on the racist Levee song, copying its melody, form, and some of its lyrics, created to be sung at the Minstrel show, on the day of the Minstrel show, and performed for the very first time at the Minstrel show, mocked also the image of Black men working on a railroad, by having White males signing in blackface, as a comedy.

As noted in the Program, Jim Cannon was one of the “Circle Men” onstage, and years later he recalled how it proceeded: “All went well until the quartet, dressed in full evening clothes, stepped forward and began their parody.”⁵³ This was their first verse, which they sang in a somber manner: “I once did know a President, Away down South in Texas; And always, everywhere he went, He saw the eyes of Texas.” Jim Cannon continued: “Before the first verse was finished the house was in an uproar,…”

John Sinclair was on stage too, described in the Program as a one of the “Comedians,” one of the Black “Tambos.” UT’s report notes that someone described Sinclair’s appearance as “a bear with a banjo,” an “otherwise unidentified person.” They quote an article from 1931, yet that article was merely quoting another from 1928, in which the person was identified. It was Robert Adger Law, professor of English Literature. Dr. Law commented about Sinclair:

Blackface minstrel John White with his banjo, ca. 1890

“This lad was also a bear with a banjo, having an extremely musical ear. [….] He came out on the stage that night of the minstrel show with his face grotesquely blackened and his gaudy, ill-fitting negroesque clothes, and sang his comic composition ‘The Eyes of Texas,’ in the same serious sepulchral tones that Dr. Prather was accustomed to use. The mock-seriousness of it, and the ready recognition of the ‘take-off’ on Dr. Prather was sufficient to bring the house down with unrestrained hilarity.⁵⁴

Dr. Law’s mention of the “serious sepulchral tones” reminds me of the somber tones used at the start of the 1927 recording of the Levee Song version, by Sandhills Sixteen, above. In 1931, John Sinclair replied to the comments by Professor Law. Sinclair remarked:

It was sung by a quartet, of which I was not a member, although it is possible that all of us on the stage were supposed to come in on the chorus, and the only part of the song which has survived. My place was farthest from the center of the stage, and all I had to do was give prearranged answers to such questions as were put to me. If I had a banjo, it was just given to me to hold for the occasion; if I was ‘a bear with a banjo,’ as the clipping says, it was in a literal, not a figurative sense. I will admit that my face may have been grotesquely blackened, but am pained at the reference to my gaudy and ill-fitting, negroesque clothes, which were probably the only ones I possessed.”⁵⁵

So, twenty-eight years after the performance, Sinclair wrote that he looked grotesque in blackface. Professor Law stated that the President reacted well: “Dr. Prather, being a good scout, took his fun at his own expense, with no ill humor and laughed with the boys.” The song continued, and as Jim Cannon recalled:

“by the time ‘….till Gabriel blows his horn,’ was reached, the audience was semi-hysterical. They pounded the floor and shouted for an encore, which the quartet willingly gave, and gave again, and again, and still again, until the students themselves were joining with them, and the singers were so hoarse that they were taxed to sing ‘We’re Tired Out’ to a now silent audience. It was an instantaneous and tremendous hit…”⁵⁶

When the quartette exited, it was the turn of “Bones” Henry Harris, again, to do a solo dance. In retrospect, one of the audience members, Edward Crane, recalled Harris’s performance, years later when commenting on Harris’s account of the Minstrel show. Crane wrote:

[Henry] Harris revealed his innate modesty by making no mention of the role he effectively played to the joy of the audience by being an end man. Henry in those days had ‘a wicked hop,’ which found expression in his clog dancing and foot shuffling. I still vividly recall his capers and those of the other end man, Fritz Lanham [actually, it was Frank Lanham, his brother], who climaxed his performance by singing a ditty, ‘Her Heart Beats for Me.’ This was concluded by others bringing from the wings of the stage into his arms a bunch of beets, this bringing him generous applause from the full house.”⁵⁷

Several other performances ensued. Overall, this Minstrel show became the most successful event of the academic year.


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

The Daily Texan also published a review, titled: “Everybody Laughed. The Varsity Minstrel Show on May 12 was a Howling Success.” It said that the large audience was “in a continuous uproar.” It listed Sinclair, Harris, Johnson, and others as Comedians. About The Eyes of Texas it noted that it was so well received that the audience called for an encore.⁵⁹ It also praised Frank Lanham as “a very fine comedian.” It described the boxing match as a “burlesque” fiasco. It also defended the (presumably offensive) jokes by one performer, Graham: “it is only just to remark that some of the things he got off were said just in fun.”

UT’s Report repeatedly implies that The Eyes of Texas was not created for the Minstrel show. For example, one of the Report’s coauthors claims that: “it was happenstance that The Eyes of Texas premiered at a minstrel show, that wasn’t part of the design, that wasn’t part of the intention.”⁶⁰ Accordingly, the Report argues that Sinclair “was intentional with his words and the fact that they were not written in any form of stereotypical dialect, as songs created for minstrelsy were, and instead, written to purposefully support Prather and his call to the student body.”

However, the historical evidence shows that the song was indeed created for the Minstrel show: its goal was parody, and it copied words, form, and the melody of the racist Levee Song; it was created urgently on the early hours of the day when the Minstrel show would happen; it was performed by minstrels in blackface, and it made the audience laugh abundantly.

Yet UT’s Report states that John Sinclair himself denied that the song was a joke. He wrote that in 1931, twenty-eight years after the Minstrel show:

“I am distressed at the suggestion that the song was intended as a joke. […] The applause which always followed [Prather’s] admonition shows that we were in full sympathy with it, and our use of it in the minstrel performance should properly be regarded as an earnest effort to aid Colonel Prather in circulating his message.”

In this regard, Sinclair was plainly wrong and inconsistent. First, because in that very same letter he wrote that if President Prather could possibly return to UT (despite having died in 1905), “he might not even yet be ready to admit that the joke was on him.”⁶¹ Second, because years earlier, in 1914, Sinclair said: “‘The Eyes of Texas’ idea came from President Prather, as I have already told you, and it surely made him feel funny when he heard the song.”⁶² Because it was a joke. Third, because other sources, as quoted above, did explain that it was “a joke,” “a prank,” “a take-off,” “a spoof,” including Lewis Johnson, Stella Anderson, Jim Cannon, Thomas Charlton Hall, R.A. Law, T.U. Taylor, Edward Crane, and others, along with the reactions of all or most audience members and reporters.⁶³

What was not a joke, actually, was Sinclair’s rejected first draft of the song, which is partly why it was inadequate to use for the Minstrel show, and why the second version was written.


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.”

Such sentences give the impression that probably the 1903 show was more artistic, musical, and athletic, instead of satirical. However, the evidence presently reviewed — most of which is absent from UT’s Report — plainly shows that the event was a minstrel show through-and-through. Black face paint, costumes, comedic skits, songs, mispronunciations, Tambos, Bones, circle men, etc., all show it. The city newspaper described it as better and funnier than professional minstrel shows.

Plus, at UT Austin it was not the end of an era, but its beginning. A fact that is nearly never pointed out, in a century, is that the Minstrel show of May 12, 1903 was the first time that UT students and faculty had organized their own full-fledged minstrel show.

Three days earlier, Lewis Johnson and his Glee Club sang at a UT oratory contest. Right after they sang, a student gave his talk about “The Passing of the Old Slave,” arguing that former negro slaves were the only negroes who knew their place, and that only former slave owners “are the true friend of the blacks.” He predicted that “the young [White] men of the North” would eventually “join hands with the young men of the South to maintain the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon.”⁶⁴

Six months earlier, on November 19, 1902, The Daily Texan ran a brief, prodding note complaining about the fact that UT Austin did not have its own minstrel club. It stated:

Sewanee [the University of the South, in Tennessee] has a minstrel club that has been giving successful concerts at home and at neighboring towns. Everyone is still wondering why Texas hasn’t one also.⁶⁵

The note listed no author, but it is noteworthy that, at the time, Lewis Johnson was one of the reporters. Less than five months later, on April 1, 1903, The Daily Texan announced that UT’s Gymnasium Director, Frank Homer Curtiss, was organizing “A ’Varsity Minstrel,” noting that many other colleges had minstrels, but not UT, but that finally Curtiss was organizing one, to develop fundraising for his track team. It said that the orchestra, glee club, and the mandolin club had agreed to contribute. It stated that, “The program will be somewhat after the usual pattern with the choruses, the jokes, songs, dances, stunts, fancy gymnasium work, etc. One specialty will be jokes on the faculty and parodies on songs wherein incidental references might be made to some of them.”⁶⁶ Accordingly, six weeks later, The Eyes of Texas song was born, as a parody of the Levee Song, as a joke on President Prather.

Anyone who has not studied the history of minstrel songs might be unaware of the very racist nature of such events. They might instead imagine that White persons merely sang lively songs while wearing black paint on their faces. Someone might even imagine that, after all, since clowns wore white paint on their faces, why couldn’t minstrels wear black?

Caricature of John Lang Sinclair, in the 1904 Cactus yearbook.

Actually, such events ridiculed Black persons by mocking the way they talked, their intelligence, and their culture. To give an additional example, consider the description of the subsequent UT Minstrel show on Nov. 25, 1903, as described in The Daily Texan. The newspaper reported that everyone “will be ‘swallowed up in one dark wave’ tonight.” It stated that the Musical Director,

“Basso Profundo [Lewis] Johnson has gathered together a band of singers the like of whose harmonious blending of color and music places them in the foremost rank of minstrelsy.”

It spoke about the expensive costumes, and that “Manager Curtiss, who will lead the caravan, will be resplendent in a suit imported from Senegambia for the occasion,” including “the combination sword, cane and baton,” supposedly gifted to him by “King Lamb’s Eye of Senegambia.” Sinclair’s song Jolly Students was the Opening Chorus and also a Closing Chorus.

UT’s Report posits the conjecture that the “elaborate tumbling performance by several acrobats” in the Minstrel show of May 1903 “were probably not in blackface.” Yet the November show, organized by Curtiss too, bragged that: “Curtiss’ Black Wonders will be there to thrill the spectators with their darling acrobatic feats.” Similarly, they described the band as “The Varsity Colored Band,” playing ragtime music. Student Frank Lanham would sing, “My Pretty Little Zulu Lu.”⁶⁷

One more example, consider the description of another UT Minstrels’ forthcoming show as described in The Daily Texan, in its June 1st 1904 issue, just one year after the first performance of The Eyes of Texas. The event happened at the same place, the Hancock Opera House. The writer explained that “our colored boys” performers had spent much efforts and money

to secure the best minstrel line from all parts of the world. Sixty, sixty great black strapping colored bucks have been brought together. All the colored nationalities of the world are represented. The bushman and the Hottentot of Africa’s densest jungles, the ebony-skinned and kinked-locked denizen of Senegambia coral strand: the ‘ever-revoluting’ and wily citizen of Porto Rico’s blood-stained soil; the epicure of Canniballo, Eat-a-man’s-land; all, all of these will be there. Students of psychology, here’s your chance to study the negro in all his stages of development. Tuskegee and Tillotson Institutes will be there.”⁶⁸

Description of a grossly racist Minstrel show, in The Daily Texan on June 1, 1904, p. 2.

The institutions of Tillotson (in Texas) and Tuskegee (in Alabama) were founded in 1875 and 1881, respectively, both before the University of Texas at Austin started teaching students in 1883. In those two schools, many Black students studied, despite being excluded from schools for White students. In 1878, Tillotson was moved to Austin. Yet White UT students planned to mock its Black students at their Minstrel show in 1904. Among the other characters would be “the Chief of Black Dwarf tribe” (Curtiss), “the Queen of Mayzuloogandiobazoo” (Lewis Johnson), such that “all of these blacks will dance in national dress, the dances of their various countries.”

That racist spectacle was organized by the same Manager who organized the Minstrel show of 1903, Frank Homer Curtiss, President of the Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Foundation, Director of UT’s Gymnasium, and Coach of the track team, in which John Lang Sinclair was a member.



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.

Likewise, multiple UT student athletes posted a public statement demanding “The replacement of the Eyes of Texas with a new song without racist undertones; Lifting the requirement of athletes to sing the song.”⁷⁰ Their brave statement was national news. Multiple members of UT’s Longhorn Band refused to play the song, and asked that it not be played. The marching band chose not to play the song at the football game of October 24, 2020.⁷¹

One African American professor explained it: “imagine being surrounded by 100,000 people singing a song originally intended to dehumanize an already oppressed population of Americans, to make them feel less than whole.”⁷²

For decades there have been students and Texans who feel uncomfortable with this song. They just knew that it was first sung at a blackface show and was based on a song that mocked Black persons — so that was enough to make some people not sing it. The neglected historical evidence confirms their misgivings.

Yet there was no vote at UT, no democratic process at all. Instead UT’s President announced that the song will remain, and he appointed a committee to analyze its history. After the committee’s report, President Jay Hartzell has now reiterated his position.

UT’s Report claims that the song is “a call to accountability,” and that very probably it was not rooted in connection to General Lee, and that its original performance at a racist show was incidental, because it was not created for that purpose.

However, contrary to UT’s Report, the neglected historical evidence shows that the title of The Eyes of Texas was inspired by words about General Robert E. Lee in the Civil War, and that the song was created for UT’s first full-fledged minstrel show, on the day of the show, to make fun of UT’s President, while overall mocking Black persons.

That is not what the song presently is, and that is not how most singers intend it. But those are its origins.

Alberto A. Martinez, Ph.D.

Professor of History, Chair of the Independent Equity Committee, Fellow of the American Physical Society, Elected Member of the Executive Committee of Faculty Council, Elected Member of the Diversity and Inclusion Plan Task Force of the College of Liberal Arts, Elected Member of the Provost Search Committee.

Contact: almartinez@austin.utexas.edu

2nd article: “100 Problems in The Eyes of Texas

The present work is dedicated to the memory of my friend, James A. Wilson, Jr. (1961–2020), who studied at UT Austin in 1980–84 and put up with the racist statements that one of his History professors used to say at the start of the class. Years later, in 2005, James returned to UT as an Assistant Professor of History, while his former professor was still there. James departed UT Austin in 2009, but he loved UT, and he wanted to return.



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.

2. George Carmack, “The Man Who Wrote the ‘Eyes of Texas’,” San Antonio Express, January 22, 1977, p. 4-B [16].

3. J.B. Polley was born in Brazoria County on October 27, 1840, and his family moved to Cibolo in 1847, but soon, they sent him to live in New York with an uncle. At the age of 14 he moved back to Texas, to Sutherland Springs, and subsequently studied at Florence Wesleyan University in Alabama. After graduating, he returned to Sutherland and joined the war in early 1861. See Richard B. McCaslin, ed., A Soldier’s Letters to Charming Nellie (University of Tennessee Press, 2008), x-xi.

4. J.B. Polley to Nellie, July 6, 1864, first published in Polley, “Texas in the Battle of the Wilderness,” Confederate Veteran 5, №6 (1897), 290. Reprinted in Polley, A Soldier’s Letters to Charming Nellie (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1908), 231–32. Also in McCaslin, ed., A Soldier’s Letters, 146.

5. Leonard G. Gee to Judge John N. Henderson, [date?], letter published in “The Texan Who Held Gen. R. E. Lee’s Horse,” Confederate Veteran 12, №10 (1904), 478; submitted with a formal affidavit. See also, W. A. Curtis, “It was a Texan Who Held General Lee’s Horse,” The Franklin Press (Franklin, North Carolina), Nov. 9, 1904, p. 2.

6. For example, E.J. Parrent was in Company D, and he was present that day, as stated in Parrent, “General Lee to the Rear,” Confederate Veteran 2, №1 (1894), 14. See also, Polley, “Simple Justice Asked,” Confederate Veteran 3, №10 (1895), 317; W.T. Gass, “Lee at the Battle of the Wilderness,” Confederate Veteran 1, №12 (1893), 374: “I have also heard old veterans of Hood’s Brigade tell of the incident with pardonable pride.”

7. Robert Campbell, “Texans Always Move Them!” in Henry Steele Commager, ed., The Blue and the Gray: The Story of the Civil War as Told by Participants (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1950), 984. For analysis of the battle, see John Michael Priest, Victory without Triumph: The Wilderness, May 6th and 7th, 1864 (Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing Company, Inc., 1996).

8. R. C., “Gen. Lee at the ‘Wilderness,’” The Land We Love, vol. 5, no. 6 (October 1868), 484–85, italics in the original.

9. Leonard G. Gee, quoted in ibid., 485: “Leonard Gee, a courier to Gen. Gregg, and riding by my side, with tears cursing down his cheeks and yells issuing from his throat exclaimed, ‘I would charge hell itself for that old man.’”

10. General Lee died on October 12, 1870; three days later, at his funeral, Prather helped carry Lee’s coffin. Prather was a student at Lee’s university, and Lee’s family selected him to be the student pallbearer. “W. L. Prather,” Proceedings of the Joint Sessions of the Bar Associations of Arkansas and Texas (Texas Bar Association, 1906), 100.

11. The undated, unsigned draft was found by UT librarian Ralph Elder in the Texas Composers Collection at the Barker Texas History Center, when writers from The Alcalde contacted him. See Valerie Davis, “The Eyes of Texas,” The Alcalde (May/June 1992), which includes a clear photo of it on p. 11. Reportedly, Sinclair gave this draft to Horace Morland Whaling, Jr., editor of The Daily Texan (B.A. 1903), who kept it in his copy of The Expository Times, on his bookshelf, until he donated the page to UT in 1950, for the 50th anniversary of The Daily Texan.

12. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Dinah is a great but utterly disorganized cook who spoke poorly and was so close-minded that she “perfectly scorned logic and reason in every shape.” Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett & Company, 1852), 296. Some other characters described as Black Dinah, the cook, among others, are in: Friends of Freedom, Liberty Bell (Boston: National Anti-Slavery Bazaar, 1847), 153; L.C. Tuthill, Edith, The Backwoods Girl (New York: Charles Scribner, 1859), 170; George E. Sargent, An Old Sailor’s Story (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1874), 10. Harriet Beecher Stowe, We and Our Neighbors (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1873), 18.

13. Nyasha Junior, Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 95.

14. William F. Allen, ed., Slave Songs of the United States (New York: A. Simpson & Co., 1867), pp. 2, 23.

15. “Blow Your Horn, Gabriel. Ethiopian Song and Dance,” in Songs and Ballads of Freedom. A Choice Collection: Inspired by the Incidents and Scenes of the Present War (New York: J.F. Feeks, 1864), 15–16.

16. John H. Morrison, ed., “The Negro Minstrels are Coming,” The Religious Magazine and Monthly Review, vol. 49, no. 3 (Boston, 1873), 302.

17. Editor, “Literary and Artistic [Section],” The Ladies’ Repository, vol. 49, no. 21 (May 1873), 397.

18. Morrison, ed., “The Negro Minstrels are Coming” (1873), 302; the period after ‘terror’ is in the original.

19. E.g., Mississippi & Tennessee Railroad Company, contract of June 21, 1880, in William McKinney, ed., The American and English Railroad Cases, vol. 59 (New York: Edward Thompson Company, 1895), 101–102; “Appeal from Jackson Circuit Court, LeMay v. The Missouri Pacific Railway Company,” in F. M. Brown, Reports of Cases Determined in the Supreme Court of the State of Missouri, vol. 105 (Columbia, MO: E.W. Stephens, Publisher, 1891), 367.

20. “J.L. Sinclair has Invented Machine,” The Daily Texan, vol. 17, no. 100, February 9, 1917, p. 1. Sinclair grew up on a dairy farm in east Bexar County near San Antonio, and had now patented a design for a milking machine.

21. “The Musical Clubs Are Off,” The Daily Texan, vol. 5, no. 25, April 15, 1903, p. 1.

22. “Author of the ‘Eyes of Texas’ a Visitor Here,” The Daily Texan, vol. 15, no. 68, December 12, 1914, p. 1.

23. “The University Glee Club,” The Daily Texan, vol. 5, no. 27, April 29, 1903, p. 3.

24. Thomas Charlton Hall, “Carrie Nation Sparked Song ‘Eyes of Texas,’” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 22, 1952, p. 38. Reprinted in “‘Eyes of Texas’ Traced to Carrie Nation Visit,” The Corpus Christi Times, vol. 43, no. 150, December 26, 1952, p. 23; also in The Amarillo Daily News, January 15, 1953, p. 45. Born Carrie Moore in 1846, “Carry Nation” was known for her boisterous opposition to alcohol and was assaulted and jailed multiple times.

25. “‘Eyes of Texas’ History Given,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, vol. 56, no. 54, March 25, 1936, p. 18. The article states that Johnson “good-naturedly forced” and “prodded” Sinclair to write the song. And, it states that “The ‘Levee Song’ was played [to the Fort Worth Lions Club] prior to Johnson’s account of the origin of ‘The Eyes of Texas.’

26. “Author of the ‘Eyes of Texas’ a Visitor Here,” The Daily Texan, vol. 15, no. 68, December 12, 1914, p. 1.

27. This anecdote is one of several that were published in The Alcalde in 1992, some of which had been saved in writing by Sinclair’s brother-in-law, James Anderson, B.A. 1918; other anecdotes were saved at UT’s Alumni Center. Valerie Davis, “The Eyes of Texas,” The Alcalde (May/June 1992), 13. The BVD brand of underwear was founded in 1876.

28. Henry Camp Harris, Sr., Letter: “‘Eyes of Texas’ Song,” The Dallas Morning News, vol. 110, no. 62, December 1, 1958, Sec. 4, p. 4–3 [38].

29. Thomas Ulvan Taylor, Fifty Years in Forty Acres (Austin: Alec Book Company, 1938), 234.

30. Apparently this interview from 1940 was not published until 1960: “Author Clears Legend About ‘Eyes of Texas’,” The Daily Texan, vol. 59, no. 90, January 7, 1960, p. 5.

31. Stella C. Anderson, quoted in “Glee Club Gave Ultimatum: ‘Eyes of Texas’ Written on Laundry Paper in ‘Jail,’ Author’s Widow Recalls,” The Abilene, Texas, Reporter-News, vol. 70, no. 264, March 11, 1951, p. 22. The article does not state her name, but it was Stella C. Anderson, see “Eyes of Texas Author Dies,” The Dallas Morning News, vol. 62, no. 97, January 5, 1947, p. 1

32. “See Original of ‘Eyes of Texas,’” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, vol. 55, №316, December 13, 1935, p. 2.

33. “Controversy Over ‘Eyes of Texas,’ Threatens to Go to Supreme Court; Copyrighter Steps Out of Argument,” San Antonio Express, vol. 71, no. 52, February 21, 1936, p. 9.

34. Morris Shelton, “Eyes of Texas Open to the World,” The Daily Texan, vol. 65, no. 148, April 1, 1966, p. 3. See also, “Eyes Have It,” The Daily Texan, vol. 69, no. 89, December 12, 1969, p. 12.

35. Mary Lu Prather Darden, “The True Story of ‘The Eyes of Texas’,” The Dallas Morning News, vol. 41, no. 235, May 23, 1926, Sec. 7, p. 3 [p. 67].

36. Thomas Charlton Hall, “‘Eyes of Texas’ Traced to Carrie Nation Visit,” The Corpus Christi Times, vol. 43, no. 150, December 26, 1952, p. 23. Reprinted in The Amarillo Daily News, January 15, 1953, p. 45.

37. Valerie Davis, “The Eyes of Texas,” The Alcalde (May/June 1992), 10. Johnson’s sons, James L. and Lewis G. Johnson, presented it to the University in 1958.

38. Lewis Johnson to T.U. Taylor, published in The Alcalde, January 1933; quoted in “‘Eyes of Texas’ Origin Told in January Alcalde,” The Daily Texan, vol. 34, no. 96, January 21, 1933, p. 1.

39. Sinclair, 1940 interview, quoted in: “Author Clears Legend About ‘Eyes of Texas’,” The Daily Texan, vol. 59, no. 90, January 7, 1960, p. 5.

40. Thomas Charlton Hall, “‘Eyes of Texas’ Traced to Carrie Nation Visit,” The Corpus Christi Times, vol. 43, no. 150, December 26, 1952, p. 23. Reprinted in The Amarillo Daily News, January 15, 1953, p. 45. The version printed with his interview has minor differences compared to the handwritten version transcribed above: instead of stating, “However hard you try (dog-gone you!)” in the chorus, it just repeats “The eyes of Texas are upon you”; instead of “I seem to greet him,” it says “I seem to see him”; and instead of “I hear him say to me,” it says “I seem to hear him say.”

41. Stella C. Anderson, quoted in “Glee Club Gave Ultimatum: ‘Eyes of Texas’ Written on Laundry Paper in ‘Jail,’ Author’s Widow Recalls,” The Abilene, Texas, Reporter-News, vol. 70, no. 264, March 11, 1951, p. 22.

42. Jim R. Cannon, quoted in J. J. Deiss, “Amarilloan One of Quartet that Introduced ‘The Eyes of Texas’ as a Minstrel Show Joke,” Amarillo Sunday News and Globe, vol. 6, no. 36, September 6, 1931, Sec. 2: Society in Amarillo, p. 5 [p. 19]. A modified version of this interview appeared in: “‘Eyes of Texas’ First Sung in 1903 to Audience’s Glee, Member of Quartette Recalls,” The Dallas Morning News, vol. 46, no. 340, September 6, 1931, Sec.1, p. 4.

43. “Students Ready to Grind the Faculty,” The Austin Statesman, May 12, 1903, p. 7.

44. “This Quartet First Sang Eyes of Texas,” The Austin Statesman, vol. 62, no. 270, February 20, 1936, p. 1. Jim R. Cannon, quoted in J. J. Deiss, “Amarilloan One of Quartet that Introduced ‘The Eyes of Texas’ as a Minstrel Show Joke,” Amarillo Sunday News and Globe, vol. 6, no. 36, September 6, 1931, Sec. 2: Society in Amarillo, p. 5 [p. 19].

45. Jim R. Cannon, quoted in J. J. Deiss, “Amarilloan One of Quartet that Introduced ‘The Eyes of Texas’ as a Minstrel Show Joke,” Amarillo Sunday News and Globe, vol. 6, no. 36, September 6, 1931, Sec. 2: Society in Amarillo, p. 5 [p. 19]. Modified versions of this interview appeared in: “‘Eyes of Texas’ First Sung in 1903 to Audience’s Glee, Member of Quartette Recalls,” The Dallas Morning News, vol. 46, no. 340, September 6, 1931, Sec.1, p. 4.

46. “Everybody Laughed,” The Daily Texan, May 20, 1903, p. 4.

47. “Everybody Laughed,” The Daily Texan, May 20, 1903, p. 4.

48. Orville Augustus Roorbach, Minstrel Gags and End Men’s Handbook (New York: Literature House, 1869), 133. See also, William Brisbane Dick, Dick’s Stump Speeches and Minstrel Jokes: Containing an Immense Collection of Original and Selected Negro Acts and Farces, Eccentric Sketches, Stump Speeches, Funny Conversations, Burlesque Sermons and Lectures, End Men’s Jokes, Bones’ Gags and Tambo’s Witticisms; Especially Adapted for First Class Minstrel Entertainments (New York, Fitzgerald Publishing Co., 1889).

49. J.W. Johnson, Bob Cole, Rosamond Johnson, “My Castle on the Nile.” Sung by the Great Comedian Bert Williams, (New York: Jos. W. Stern & Co., 1901); available at: https://digital.tcl.sc.edu/digital/collection/salleysheet/id/608

50. Mary Lu Prather Darden, “The True Story of ‘The Eyes of Texas’,” The Dallas Morning News, vol. 41, no. 235, May 23, 1926, Sec. 7, p. 3 [p. 67]. Mary Lu Prather, quoted in Margarette Garrison, “B Hall Stands as Last Memento of University’s Song,” The Daily Texan, vol. 38, no. 152, April 4, 1937, p. 6.

51. “I’se” sounds the same as “eyes,” so it might seem that “The Eyes of Texas” was a pun on “I’se,” as noted in the Austin Statesman in 1926: “Sinclair, attempted a practical joke on the president by putting some words to the old ‘Ise Been Workin’ on De Railroad’ tune, with ‘The eyes of Texas are upon you.’ See: The Austin Statesman, November 25, 1926, p. 12.

52. Henry Camp Harris, Letter: “‘Eyes of Texas’ Song,” Dallas Morning News, December 1, 1958, p. 38

53. Jim R. Cannon, quoted in J. J. Deiss, “Amarilloan One of Quartet that Introduced ‘The Eyes of Texas’ as a Minstrel Show Joke,” Amarillo Sunday News and Globe, vol. 6, no. 36, September 6, 1931, Sec. 2: Society in Amarillo, p. 5 [p. 19]. Modified versions of this interview appeared in: “‘Eyes of Texas’ First Sung in 1903 to Audience’s Glee, Member of Quartette Recalls,” The Dallas Morning News, vol. 46, no. 340, September 6, 1931, Sec.1, p. 4.

54. R. A. Law, “R.A. Law Tells of Campus Traditions Caused by Pranks. ‘Eyes of Texas,’ Names of Shacks Started Out as Jokes on Authorities,” The Daily Texan, vol. 29, no. 133, March 4, 1928, p. 7.

55. Sinclair, quoted in Muriel Telfer, “‘Eyes of Texas’ Had Humble Origin in Black-Face Act,” The Daily Texan, vol. 33, no. 64, December 3, 1931, pp. 1–2.

56. Jim R. Cannon, quoted in J. J. Deiss, “Amarilloan One of Quartet that Introduced ‘The Eyes of Texas’ as a Minstrel Show Joke,” Amarillo Sunday News and Globe, vol. 6, no. 36, September 6, 1931, Sec. 2: Society in Amarillo, p. 5 [p. 19]. Modified versions of this interview appeared in: “‘Eyes of Texas’ First Sung in 1903 to Audience’s Glee, Member of Quartette Recalls,” The Dallas Morning News, vol. 46, no. 340, September 6, 1931, Sec.1, p. 4.

57. Edward Crane, Letter: “Austin Minstrel Show,” Dallas Morning News, vol. 110, no. 73, December 12, 1958, Sec. 4, p. 4 [p. 40].

58. “‘Varsity Minstrel Show Surpassed Expectations,” Austin Statesman, May 13, 1903, p. 8.

59. “Everybody Laughed,” The Daily Texan, May 20, 1903, p. 4.

60. H. W. Brands, “Longhorns Engage in a Difficult Conversation,” March 9, 2021, The University of Texas at Austin; https://youtu.be/Z6sDyb8Wj7M?t=425

61. Sinclair, letter quoted in Muriel Telfer, “‘Eyes of Texas’ Had Humble Origin in Black-Face Act,” The Daily Texan, vol. 33, no. 64, December 3, 1931, p. 2.

62. “Author of the ‘Eyes of Texas’ a Visitor Here,” The Daily Texan, vol. 15, no. 68, December 12, 1914, p. 1.

63. For example, in 1956, Frank X. Tolbert wrote an article titled “‘Eyes of Texas’ Was Written as a Prank,” Dallas Morning News, vol. 107, no. 252, June 8. 1956, Part 3, p. 1 [p. 37], so one of the former students, Edward Crane, who knew Sinclair and Johnson, replied: “Thanks for the accurate report of the prank-inspired origin of ‘The Eyes of Texas.’” See Edward Crane, Letter: ‘Eyes of Texas,’ Dallas Morning News, vol. 107, no. 268, June 24, 1956, p. 14.

64. “A Powerful Contest. Trained Orators Matched Eloquence and Intellect with One Another,” The Daily Texan, vol. 5, no. 28, May 13, 1903, p. 2. The student orator was Edmund Burke Griffin; he was considered the favorite, and won second place.

65. “Sewanee has a minstrel club…,” The Daily Texan, vol. 3, no. 8, November 19, 1902, p. 3.

66. “A ’Varsity Minstrel. Gymnasium Director Curtiss Is Getting Up One,” The Daily Texan, vol. 5, no. 23, April 1, 1903, p. 3.

67. “To-Night! To-Night! Curtiss’ Mammoth Minstrels Will Show Tonight,” The Daily Texan, Nov. 25, 1903, p. 1, 4.

68. “Minstrels. Opera House, Friday Night Curtiss with His Collection of Cannibals. Fresh Ham,” The Daily Texan, June 1, 1904, p. 2.

69. “Student Community Statement: 8 Demands for Transformative Change,” June 9, 2020.

70. Statement, June 12, 2020, https://twitter.com/_BrennanEagles_/status/1271518098248667139 ; Brian Davis, “Texas Athletes Call for Changes to Address University’s Racial Past and Future,” USA Today, June 12, 2020.

71. Kate McGee, “University of Texas Longhorn band won’t play ‘The Eyes of Texas’ this weekend after some members say they’re unwilling,” The Texas Tribune, October 21, 2020.

72. Kathleen McElroy, “Opinion: Gazing right back at ‘The Eyes of Texas’ and its origins,” Austin American-Statesman, June 21, 2020.

Copyright © 2021 by Alberto A. Martínez



Alberto A. Martinez

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.