Whitewashing the Eyes of Texas
An analysis of how some White alumni have tried to whitewash the origins of UT’s official song.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb ‘whitewash’ was in some forms used since the sixteenth century, to mean: “To make (fabric) lighter or whiter through a process that removes natural colour, impurities, or stains; to bleach.” Subsequently, since the early 1700s and in present usage, the OED also defines this verb as: “To conceal the faults or errors of, to free, or attempt to free, from blame; to provide a semblance of honesty, respectability, rectitude, etc. Frequently with negative connotations.” For example, it quotes a statement from 1985, “There isn’t a committee in Whitehall that can whitewash this lot away.”
In a previous article, I researched the origins of the song The Eyes of Texas, which was created in 1903. Many aspects of that history had never been recounted, for various reasons: partly because of innocence, oversights, mistakes, or because sometimes some persons say to themselves: “I know the history,” so they feel no need to research it. Yet there was another reason why the history was not known well: because individuals who did know certain parts of it chose not to recount them, but to whitewash.
In 1903, the term “whitewash” was well known at the University of Texas at Austin. There were even jokes about it. Thus in UT’s Cactus yearbook of 1903, the following fake but funny advertisement was printed in it:
It’s fitting that this fake ad solicited business with the Law Department. Not all lawyers try to find the truth, since instead, many charge money to confect stories to defend their clients, to exonerate them from accusations that are true. Some lawyers even think — that the truth — doesn’t — exist.
Back in 1903, one student who was enrolled in UT’s Law Department was Lewis Johnson. And decades later, he repeatedly tried to whitewash the origins of The Eyes of Texas.
Lewis Johnson was born on February 9, 1876, in Jacksboro, Jack County, Texas. At UT, he became very active in student organizations. By the spring of 1903, he was twenty-seven years old. He was manager of the men’s Glee Club. He was a member of the Governing Committee of University Hall, the dorm informally known as “B Hall,” in honor of George Brackenridge who had donated funds for its construction. There, John Lang Sinclair lived too— the student who then wrote The Eyes of Texas song. Johnson was a paid Student Assistant in the History Department, earning $250 a year, or roughly $7,500 nowadays. He was a reporter for the students’ newspaper, The Texan. He played the tuba in the University Band, also called the ’Varsity Band.
Also, Lewis Johnson was a member of Southern Kappa Alpha, a fraternity that had been founded right after the Civil War, in 1865, at Washington College in Virginia, where former Confederate General Robert E. Lee was President. (It later became known as Washington and Lee University, in 1871.)
And Lewis Johnson was also a member of the Order of Gooroos, later known as “the Gruesome Gory Gooroos.” Allegedly it was the oldest “secret society” in any college anywhere; supposedly rooted in ancient Alexandria and Constantinople. In 1903, Johnson was the Gooroo with the title “Cerberus,” the mythological beast often described as a three-headed hellhound guarding the gates of Hades.
In the Cactus yearbook for 1903, the Gooroos claimed that they sought to contribute to “the upbuilding and conservation of higher life in the University of Texas.” By 1905, Johnson was the Gooroo “Herald of the Styx,” the dreaded river that links our world with the realm of the dead, the underworld.
Jokingly, some students also referred to him as “Bull Johnson,” “Hot Air Johnson,” and “The most pronounced lobster.”
And in spring 1903, he helped organize the Varsity Minstrel show of Tuesday May 12, as its Vocal Director. It was the first minstrel show organized by UT faculty and students: a racist event in which White students would make fun of Black persons by painting their faces black and mocking them as stereotypes.
In March 2021, a History Committee at UT Austin presented a Report that discussed the origins of the song The Eyes of Texas, stating that in 1902 Johnson convinced John Lang Sinclair to write a song about UT, eventually based on the melody “I’ve been working on the railroad,” and later they searched for an event in which to debut the song, so they happened to perform it at the Varsity Minstrel show of May 1903, although it was not a song created for a minstrel show. The song was also based on a phrase by UT’s President Prather, but the Report says that “there was a very low likelihood” that that phrase originated from Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Instead, allegedly the song was created to be about UT, and about encouragement and accountability “in absolute support” of Prather’s call for students’ good conduct, especially in order to get money from the Texas Legislature.
However, I replaced that story with history:
Sinclair was very fond of the Levee Song, about disgraced Black men (called the N-word) forced to work on a railroad levee, as prisoners. Sinclair, Lewis Johnson, and other members of UT’s Glee Club sang it while traveling, also at UT, and also as guests at a minstrel show in late April 1903. Afterward, Johnson wanted a new song for UT’s first minstrel show, so they decided to base it on the Levee Song and a saying by UT’s President (inspired by General Lee in the Civil War). Belatedly, at the “last minute,” and locked up by Johnson, Sinclair finally drafted the song late at night. But Johnson and another student, Thomas Charlton Hall, weren’t satisfied, so they helped edit it. Hence on May 12, 1903, a quartet accompanied by Sinclair and others sang The Eyes of Texas in blackface, imitating Black workers on a railroad, while the audience laughed, especially because UT’s President was being mocked.
Years later, Sinclair admitted that maybe he looked “grotesque” painted black, and he was hurt that a professor commented that his clothing too looked “negroesque.” Those incidents, involving a racist comedy event, based on Confederate wartime words and a racist song about Black convicts, might not seem like the ideal origins for the song that became UT’s alma mater. So, as the years passed, people forgot or omitted aspects of its origins. Many retrospective articles admitted that The Eyes of Texas was made for a minstrel show, but they omitted any description of what a minstrel show was: a racist event in which White persons made money by ridiculing Black persons.
Worse, some persons started to invent fake stories about how the song originated. One of them was Lewis Johnson, as I will now show.
In 1904, John Sinclair finished a Bachelor’s degree in Literature. That year, Lewis Johnson finished his Law degree, plus, in 1905, a Bachelor’s in History. Afterward, Johnson moved back to Jacksboro and in 1908 he married Kitty Louise Files. They lived in a house one block away from the house where he was born. In 1915, Lewis and his brother Bill started a cattle ranching business, with one bull and twenty heifers. Eventually they had a herd of 1,500, and calf registrations that excelled internationally. Johnson became president of the Texas Polled Hereford Association, and, president of the Jacksboro Chamber of Commerce.
As the years passed, the song that debuted as a joke for the racist show eventually became UT’s alma mater song.
In 1936, Johnson was 60 years old, old age was looming over him, as he thought about his years at UT and about the origins of the song. An article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, explained that Johnson “has planned for several years to give the story of the famous song to the world in a form which he considered suitable to the dignity and tradition it had accumulated.”
In other words, the famous Eyes of Texas deserved a noble history.
However, other persons who participated in the original event had already published accounts of its history, including: John Lang Sinclair (1914), Mary Lu Prather (1926), “Jim” James Reece Cannon (1931), and again, Sinclair (1931). Mary Lu was an audience member and daughter of UT’s President Prather. Jim Cannon was one of the four singers in the quartet that first sang The Eyes of Texas. Their accounts are mutually consistent with Sinclair’s, recounting that The Eyes of Texas was created for the Minstrel show of May 12, 1903, and that it was first performed in that event. They also match newspaper reports from 1903 and retrospective accounts by UT faculty, such as the math professor Harry Yandell Benedict (1922; later Dean and UT President), the longtime Dean of Engineering Thomas Ulvan Taylor (e.g., 1924, 1927, 1935, 1938), and the professor of English Robert Adger Law (1928). All of those accounts also match accounts by Horace Morland Whaling, Jr. (1950; a student and friend of Sinclair in 1903), Stella Sinclair (1951; a later student and wife of John Sinclair), Thomas Charlton Hall (1952; a student who helped Sinclair write the song), Henry Camp Harris (1958; one of the two lead comedians in the 1903 Minstrel show; he performed just before and right after The Eyes was sung), and Edward Crane (1949, 1956, 1958; a student and audience member in 1903, who knew Johnson and befriended Sinclair at the B Hall dorm, where he too lived).
In contrast, Lewis Johnson told very different stories. Thus in 1935 he gave a talk about the song to a Shakespeare Club, at the Woman’s Club in Fort Worth. According to a news report, Johnson claimed:
The first Varsity Minstrel, staged in 1903, proved the crisis, and the band director [Johnson, Vocal Director of the Minstrel show] practically kidnapped Sinclair, who was a campus poet, and told him he had to produce a song for the next daybreak. ‘Gay Students of the Varsity’ resulted.
Next, Johnson requested a more serious song, ‘something of a hymn,’ for very special occasions. At that time the favorite expression of Col. William Prather, president of the university, was ‘Young ladies and young gentlemen, you must remember that the eyes of Texas are upon you.’ Mr. Johnson recalled that a great controversy was raging about student government, and that the ‘laws [law students], engineers and outlaws’ were staging frequent demonstrations. At the climactic demonstration, the song, with grandiose words Sinclair had set to the tune of ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad’ as his idea of perfect burlesque was given its premiere.”
This story is a mixture of fact and fiction, as I will show. But first, consider another story that Lewis Johnson soon told, in which he added more details.
On February 23, 1936, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram published an interview in which Johnson discussed the origins of The Eyes of Texas. It reported that in 1903 Johnson had “hounded” Sinclair with demands to write some songs. Then it quoted Johnson:
“Soon there was a demand for another song, preferably a patriotic hymn. Weeks passed without any visible results. Then one day the poet [Sinclair] pulled from his pocket a folded piece of paper torn from a wrapping bundle, and with one of his cunning Scotch smiles handed it over to the Glee Club director [Johnson; Manager], without comment.”
“That director still remembers the thrill that came with reading the words, scribbled with a pencil, and making the prophecy, ‘This will live and endure here, long after you and I are dead and forgotten.’”
“That was the original manuscript of ‘The Eyes of Texas’.”
“The original version was mildly jesting. A short time later, when the inauguration of the present system of student government was under discussion, and was vigorously and ruthlessly opposed by the senior laws, with the other laws and the self-styled ‘outlaws,’ the engineers, joining in, Colonel Prather, the president had taken an unpopular stand on some related question, which fired much student protest and opposition. A demonstration march was made to the president’s residence and ‘The Eyes of Texas’ was sung in defiance. After these student tilts with ‘Prexy,’ Sinclair wrote another set of verses, a more direct joke, but a kindly joke. They ran: “I once did know a President …”
And, that the revised Eyes song “was first rendered in the auditorium.” Similarly, in 1947, soon after Sinclair died, the The Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper reiterated: “As Johnson remembers, the song was first rendered in the auditorium of the university with President Prather present.” Plus, allegedly it happened in 1904.
Yet such stories by Lewis Johnson are mostly false, for several reasons:
(1) Johnson claimed that he asked Sinclair for a “serious song, ‘something of a hymn,’ for very special occasions.” However, when Johnson started spreading this tale, Sinclair was still alive. So in 1940, when Sinclair was visiting UT, someone asked him about it. Right then, Sinclair denied it. As reported in The Daily Texan:
“Sinclair pooh-poohed the idea that he had written ‘The Eyes of Texas’ for a University hymn. ‘It was just dashed off for diversion,’ he said smiling.”
Likewise, the Austin American news reported: “‘The Eyes of Texas’ came forth for the sole purpose of aiding in an evening of entertainment, as Mr. Sinclair insisted.” Because, it was supposed to be a fun song for the Minstrel show, as attested by Sinclair and many sources, listed below. Similarly, in 1939 Sinclair wrote to Professor L. W. Payne, that The Eyes was “written for a ‘show’” at the Hancock Opera House, and that “The song was meant only for that particular occasion, but the chorus has survived.” Thus, the song’s author repeatedly denied Johnson’s claim that the song was written to be a university hymn for special occasions.
(2) In 1935 and 1936, Johnson claimed that The Eyes of Texas had its “premiere” when UT students sang it at a protest in front of President Prather’s residence. Yet no published account by any student, by Prather, or by any reporter confirms that any such protest happened. Instead, students, faculty, singers, and audience members, who wrote or were interviewed about the song, said that its premiere was at the Hancock Opera House: including its author: John Sinclair, plus his collaborator Thomas Charlton Hall, plus performers and singers that day such as Jim Cannon, Henry Camp Harris, Murray Graham, and also audience members such as Mary Lu Prather, Edward Crane, and others.
By 1933, Johnson wrote to Dean Thomas Taylor that he was unsure about when The Eyes was first performed, and Johnson claimed: “the song was not introduced at the Hancock Opera House,” and that its debut “would have been” in fall 1903. However, Johnson admitted that “The Texan and Statesman files in the library will probably clear this up,” so he asked Taylor to check “what such sources disclose about this and I shall stand corrected, if now wrong. It will revolutionize my ‘chronology’.” Thus I now do correct Johnson’s wrong claims, since The Texan and the Statesman clearly and repeatedly show that The Eyes was first performed at the Hancock Opera House on May 12, 1903 — not elsewhere, and not later — contrary to Johnson’s various claims.
Johnson’s letter was published in the alumni magazine The Alcalde in January 1933. Yet Dean Taylor subsequently confirmed that Johnson’s claims were nonsense: the song did not premiere in fall 1903, and it did premiere at the Opera House Minstrel show in May 1903. So, on July 12, 1933, Taylor wrote: “there have been more misrepresentations and errors in regard to ‘The Eyes of Texas’ than any song that I know anything about.”
(3) Again, Lewis Johnson claimed that in front of Prather’s house students sang Sinclair’s first draft of the song, in a major protest. Yet this is also silly. That version has no protest content; instead it is a soothing poem about how “the bright blue eyes of Texas” accompany you throughout the day and night, like the stars. In early 1903, newspapers did not report any alleged series of escalating protests over student government or a supposedly “climactic demonstration” in front of President Prather’s house.
Instead, The Texan merely reported that Prather spent two weeks in Waco; that he chaired the Program Committee for organizing Texas Independence Day; that he supported holding the commencement reception in the new Woman’s Building dorm; that he attended the Texas Independence event; that Prather would attend an event at Baylor; that he said a typographical map of the campus would be made; and that he had a dinner at B Hall. There were no descriptions or allusions to any student protests.
(4) Johnson claimed that weeks after the original hymn, Sinclair wrote “a more direct joke, but a kindly joke,” the revised Eyes of Texas song, which then, allegedly, “was first rendered in the auditorium of the university.” That’s what Johnson said in 1936 and 1947. (In 1947, he even said that The Eyes was first performed in 1904!) But this is contrary to all documentary evidence from 1903: the song was not sung first in the University Auditorium, but at the Hancock Opera House downtown, as confirmed by newspapers and participants. Events at the Auditorium were regularly summarized in The Texan, but no such performance appears there. Nobody confirmed old Johnson’s claim.
(5) Finally, there was something Johnson did NOT say in his public speeches: he did not say that The Eyes of Texas was performed at the Minstrel. This is contrary to newspaper ads, reports, and reviews in both the Austin Statesman and the The Texan in May 1903; it is contrary to accounts by Sinclair, Thomas Charlton Hall, Harry Benedict, Robert Adger Law, Thomas Taylor, and by performers that day: Jim Cannon, Henry Harris, Murray Graham, Eugene Paul Schoch (founder of the Longhorn Band), and audience members too, such as Mary Lu Prather, Edward Crane, and others.
Summing up, the fanciful incoherent stories that Johnson told many years later were plainly false.
The Eyes of Texas was not created as a University hymn, it wasn’t performed first at a climactic student protest outside the President’s house, nor first or secondly at the University Auditorium in spring 1903, fall 1903, nor in 1904.
Old Mr. Johnson tried to efface the blackface event. He whitewashed the origins of the song.
In April 2021, when I figured out that this happened, I wondered whether any extant documents show how Johnson’s fake claims affected Sinclair, so I wanted to search in UT’s archives for any such documents. However, the archives were closed because of COVID-19. Finally, I was able to access archival documents in September 2021. And sure enough, I found that Sinclair became so annoyed that he considered filing a legal complaint in court to order Johnson to cease and desist from misrepresenting him. In October 1939, Sinclair wrote this to his longtime friend Lohn Lomax:
“I don’t like to close this cheerful letter on a sour note but I feel like getting out an injunction against Lewis Johnson, if he is passing out that drivel as mine. I got a copy from Ed Nunnally a couple of years ago, and what I told him was plenty. I never heard of it before, and am sure I never was quite such a fool as to write anything like that. I would repudiate it and class it as a fake even if confronted with it in my own writing. Yours JLS”
Thus Sinclair denied Johnson’s claim that The Eyes of Texas was originally a hymn, and Sinclair proceeded to complain more in the back of the letter, and signed it:
“Anybody who knows anything about the ‘original’ Eyes of Texas song knows that its first appearance was when sung at the minstrel show at Hancock Opera House just as in the form that has survived — that is, of which the one stanza has survived. The Glee Club had the Levee Song as one of its favorite numbers, and it was only natural for me to make use of it for a little fun at Col. Prather’s expense on that occasion. There can be no reasonable explanation of such an outrage as the ‘original hymn’ except that some one [Johnson] thought the minstrel performance undignified and sought to improve upon it.”
Lewis Johnson tried to invent a noble story about The Eyes of Texas. A story “in a form which he considered suitable to the dignity and tradition it had accumulated,” as a newspaper article reported.
Johnson pitched his half-baked story about The Eyes in multiple places: to the Fort Worth Lions Club at the Hotel Texas on March 24, 1936, at Trinity University in Waxahachie, Texas, on May 10, 1938, and also, “to the Federated Women’s Clubs, Music Conventions, Library Clubs, Alumni Associations, Rotary Clubs, High Schools, Lions Clubs, and to many other kinds of assemblies.” One newspaper added: “The speaker will later in the year deliver the address at Abilene Christian College, Texas University, North Texas State Teachers College, and the Texas State College for Women.”
But it doesn’t matter how many times Johnson told his story — that The Eyes of Texas was sung at a climactic protest, revised weeks or months later to be sung at the University Auditorium — it just wasn’t true. A story does not become true by being repeated.
A difference between stories and history is that history does not always fit the fanciful needs of the present, instead it corresponds to the extant documents from the past.
More than a dozen news reports tell of Johnson’s public storytellings from 1929 to 1938, but in 1939 Sinclair told John Lomax about possibly filing the legal injunction — henceforth, Johnson’s speeches abruptly vanished from newspapers. Subsequently, the only such reports of Johnson’s speeches and confected stories that I’ve found began to reappear in newspapers in 1947, right after Sinclair died.
Then, Lomax mailed one such article to Sinclair’s widow, Stella, and so, on March 1, 1947, she replied: “I presume the other picture in the article you sent me was of Lewis Johnson. I am afraid I am too tired to fight, and nothing can harm John Lang now, nor detract from his gift to Texas. You with your deft pen might help to keep Mr. J. from too much encroachment.”
Having shown multiple reasons why Johnson’s claims were false, consider now a related story that he simultaneously told. It clarifies much about the origin of Johnson’s fictions.
Johnson said that Sinclair’s song Jolly Students of the ’Varsity was performed at “The first Varsity Minstrel, staged in 1903.” However, the first Varsity Minstrel show was the event of May 12, 1903, and nowhere is there any mention of Jolly Students. It was not mentioned in four different ads in the Statesman, all of which named songs. It was not listed in the event program printed in the Statesman, nor in the program handed out at the event. Jolly Students was not mentioned either in reviews in the Statesman or in The Texan. It was not mentioned by persons who later described the event of May 12. It was not mentioned in UT’s Cactus yearbook of 1903. Etc.
The only person I have found, who claimed that Jolly Students existed before The Eyes of Texas, was Lewis Johnson. But as we’ve seen, he did lie about some things.
Not in May 1903, but six months later, in November, The Texan and the Statesman both announced the program of Frank Homer Curtiss’s “second” Varsity Minstrel show — including John Sinclair’s “Jolly Students” as its Opening Chorus and also as its Closing Chorus. In February 1904, The Texan printed the lyrics of Jolly Students; listing Lewis Johnson on that same page as the newspaper’s Exchange Editor. In April 1904 too, The Texan cited “Jolly Students of the ’Varsity,” while describing a student trip to New Braunfels. UT’s Cactus yearbook of 1904 featured the lyrics of Jolly Students. It was also the opening chorus in the Varsity Minstrels show of June 4, 1904. Plus, in June 1904, The Galveston Daily News reported that at UT Austin the graduation ended with the overture “Jolly Students of the ’Varsity.” Thus I’ve cited seven publications in seven months that cited or quoted Sinclair’s Jolly Students, starting in late November 1903.
It was a hit song. Why? Because, Sinclair’s Jolly Students was a knockoff of the very popular nationwide hit, The Jolly Student, by Harry H. Zickel. Decades later, Johnson claimed that Sinclair wrote his version in the spring of 1903, before writing The Eyes of Texas. But if so, why did nobody report that song, until late November?
The abundant evidence does not support Johnson’s claim, many years later, that Sinclair wrote Jolly Students before The Eyes of Texas.
So what? Why does this matter?
It matters because multiple things that Johnson claimed about Jolly Students clearly apply instead to The Eyes of Texas song: (1) that it was written in spring 1903, (2) that it stemmed from the goal to parody President Prather, (3) that it was written for the first Varsity Minstrel show, (4) that Johnson requested it, but time passed without Sinclair writing it, (5) that Johnson desperately needed it, “last minute,” for that Minstrel show, (6) that Johnson trapped Sinclair to write it, (7) that they were in Sinclair’s room, (8) that it was nighttime, (9) that Johnson gave him cigarettes, (10) that Sinclair finished it around 2:00 a.m., (11) that it was performed at that first Varsity Minstrel.
Johnson said all that about Jolly Students. Yet those eleven details were also independently stated — but about The Eyes of Texas, by several persons: its author John Lang Sinclair, his wife Stella, his brother, his UT fellow writer friends Horace Whaling, Edward Crane, and John Lomax, another friend who became a teacher in San Antonio, plus Charlton Hall, James Cannon, Murray Graham, Mary Lu Prather, T. U. Taylor, and others. It is utterly absurd that all of those eleven exact circumstances transpired equally for Jolly Students, weeks before they transpired again for The Eyes of Texas. It’s also impossible that both songs were written for the first Varsity Minstrel show and one of those two songs (The Eyes) was written weeks afterward.
Nonetheless, on July 6, 2020, one of Johnson’s granddaughters wrote to UT’s President Jay Hartzell, after their Zoom meeting, sending him “the history of the Eyes of Texas.” She quoted from one of Johnson’s stories and claimed that Jolly Students was written for the Minstrel show, and that weeks later Sinclair wrote The Eyes of Texas for the next show. But as I’ve explained, this is not what happened.
The following table summarizes multiple ways in which Lewis Johnson misrepresented the origins of The Eyes of Texas.
John Sinclair’s brother was William Sinclair, and his account of the origin of The Eyes song was written down by Sinclair’s brother-in-law, James Anderson, and circulated in 1967. It is grossly absurd to imagine that many individuals — including Sinclair, his brother, Hall, Whaling, Cannon, Crane, Harris, Graham, Prather, Taylor, Benedict, Law, Schoch, Stella, her brother James, the teacher, plus news reporters — somehow conspired, across decades, to each tell various details about the origins of the Jolly Students song but ascribing them to The Eyes of Texas.
No. The sheer absurdity shows instead that old Lewis Johnson conflated the two songs. Therefore, consider this account by Johnson:
“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’…”
But really, he was referring to The Eyes of Texas.
Thus we can understand why Johnson whitewashed the origins of The Eyes of Texas. The grandiose anthem that the song eventually became didn’t match its lowly origin: that in B Hall “Bull Johnson” bullied John Sinclair to belatedly write it, to be performed at a blackface comedy show mocking Black persons.
None of that was befitting the noble anthem that The Eyes became. Still, the true origin of The Eyes was funny and rude, a picturesque college prank. So, torn between the urge to tell the lively truth, and a desire to cook-up a palatable story, Lewis Johnson reassigned the origins of The Eyes to another song, Jolly Students, and he invented a fanciful fake story about The Eyes, a story that he modified throughout the years.
In my article, “True Origins of The Eyes of Texas,” I partly quoted one key claim by Johnson: “The first Varsity Minstrel, staged in 1903, proved the crisis, and the band director practically kidnapped Sinclair, who was a campus poet, and told him he had to produce a song for the next daybreak.” As voiced by Johnson, that claim was about a song that he mis-titled: “Gay Students of the Varsity,” however, I used his quotation instead to refer to The Eyes of Texas, because of one reason — that it does, as I’ve shown above.
Compare now two accounts; first, the clear words of Sinclair, as quoted in The Daily Texan in 1914:
“The occasion of the first singing of the [The Eyes of Texas] song was a minstrel performance given by the Glee Club under Dr. Penick’s direction and Lewis Johnson’s management at the Hancock Opera House.”
The only tiny defect in Sinclair’s recollection is that the Glee Club per se did not officially participate in the the Minstrel show; because, newspapers had reported that the Glee Club would not, but that nonetheless the Minstrel show would include many of the Glee Club members. Indeed, the Glee Club had 31 members, and 16 of them were named in the Minstrel program. In any case, Sinclair said that he wrote The Eyes belatedly, “last minute,” for the Minstrel show where it was first performed, on May 12, 1903.
Second, consider the words of Lewis Johnson.
At a speech in 1936, Johnson said that he had been Director of the Glee Club when students decided to create their first Varsity Minstrel show, in spring 1903. But that’s not true, at the time the Director of the Glee Club was Professor Daniel Penick, as confirmed by multiple records. (Johnson became its Director afterward.)
Also, in 1936 Johnson said that John Sinclair’s Jolly Students was “Varsity’s first song” (written belatedly before the first Varsity Minstrel show of May 12, 1903). But that’s not true either, because months earlier, on March 2nd, the Glee Club sang a Varsity song at UT’s commemoration of Texas Independence Day, namely John Sinclair’s song: Varsity’s Greeting to the Texas Veterans, his tribute to old Confederate veterans. And earlier, there were several Varsity songs at the graduation of 1902.
Also in that speech in 1936, Johnson gave alleged details about the origin of The Eyes of Texas— a hymn, a protest, the president’s house, the UT Auditorium — but a reporter noticed that Johnson did not state some basic facts: “The exact time of the writing and initial presentation of the song is [are] the only detail[s] for which Johnson does not have documentary evidence. He places it in the Spring of 1903.”
Two questions: When was The Eyes written? When was it debuted? Very vague: no month, no weeks, no days, no hours. Yet Johnson then said this about Jolly Students instead:
“It was rendered as the opening chorus of the first Varsity Minstrel show [May 12, 1903], and its reception was vociferous. Soon there was a demand for another song, preferably a patriotic hymn. Weeks passed without any visible results. Then one day the poet [Sinclair] pulled from his pocket a folded piece of paper torn from the wrapping of a laundry bundle, and with one of his cunning Scotch smiles handed it over to the glee club director, without comment.”
Namely, The Eyes of Texas. If we choose to ignore all the evidence, in order to imagine that Jolly Students was indeed the opening chorus of the first Varsity Minstrel show, as Johnson said, then we have an absurd problem. He claimed that his demand for a serious hymn happened afterward, and that “Weeks passed without any visible results,” so we’d have to explain an impossibility: how could Sinclair NOT have written The Eyes weeks after it was already performed, advertised and reviewed in newspapers?
Really, Johnson was just lying. He loved UT, he loved The Eyes, so he chose to whitewash its origins. He misattributed its origins to Jolly Students, and he cooked up a convoluted story for The Eyes. Labelled “Hot Air Johnson” in the 1903 yearbook, and portrayed as an ape-man, he was a Gooroo, a lawyer, and a cattle rancher. So he knew plenty about bullshit.
Too many White people don’t like being called out on their bullshit. The reasonable thing would be to simply admit it: “You’re right. I’m sorry, what I said was wrong” — but no, they just don’t say that, as if they can’t. Instead, predictably there will be those who ask: “Why do you say Lewis Johnson lied?? Maybe he was just confused!” My answer is that Johnson was not merely giving forgetful speeches while unaware of accurate published recollections and accounts. Instead, he was well aware of published accounts by others, such as by Jim Cannon, Mary Lu Prather, and Thomas Taylor, as he wrote to Professors Penick and Taylor, yet Johnson chose to tell his convoluted story.
In 1903, Thomas Taylor was a professor of civil engineering when The Eyes was first performed. He became Dean of Engineering in 1907. He loved the song, so he made efforts to preserve and spread its history. And Taylor pointed out that Lewis Johnson was “one of the leading spirits of the Minstrel show” of May 1903.
In 1936, Johnson himself commented, as paraphrased by the Fort Worth newspaper, that back in 1903 “the more ambitious and musically inclined students decided the time was ripe for a Varsity Minstrel.” Was that self-praise?
And, Johnson said that he himself was in charge of the music program. On May 10th, 1903, he was also featured in a Statesman newspaper ad for that Minstrel show as “THE FAMOUS BASSO SOLOIST, MR. LEWIS JOHNSON.” He was one of only two soloists on the Minstrel event program. Moreover, his name appeared in the Minstrel program six times — far more than anyone else.
Despite his central role in the big event, decades later Johnson repeatedly did not admit, in public, that The Eyes of Texas was first sung on May 12, 1903 at that blackface Minstrel show.
In November 1903, Johnson again took the lead role in a new racist minstrel show. The Texan reported: “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.” The Statesman described it as “The second effort of the varsity boys in minstrelsy.” In summer 1904, in another Varsity Minstrel show, UT’s Athletics Director, Curtiss, acted as “the Chief of Black Dwarf tribe,” while Lewis Johnson acted as “the Queen of Mayzuloogandiobazoo.” And The Texan said: “all of these blacks will dance in national dress, the dances of their various countries.”
By the 1930s, the racist minstrel shows were losing popularity nationwide. On February 4, 1935, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran an article by a columnist in New York who complained that ever fewer performers were doing minstrel shows with faces blackened with burnt cork. He wrote: “Minstrel shows are now confined solely to tents. No one knows why, and likely few care. It’s one of those things.”
At the same time, Johnson was whitewashing the memory of the 1903 Minstrel show from his favorite song.
Johnson’s fictional story is not a unique case, some other UT alumni lawyers told fake stories about The Eyes too.
For example, consider the case of attorney Jack Allen, in Perryton, Texas. In 1935 Jack Allen told a news reporter the following fake story: he said that a classroom incident led The Eyes of Texas to be written in honor Tom Hoover, a UT student (and well-known Captain of the Track Team). Yet that story too is false. Mainly, because abundant primary sources show that the song existed in May 1903 but that Thomas Leighton Hoover was a student at UT in 1908; he finished his law degree in 1913. Also, Sinclair did not claim that he wrote the song because of Hoover or any student in any classroom incident.
Consider also the case of attorney Mark McMahon. He was a UT student in 1899 when William Prather became interim President. Years later McMahon became a lawyer in Fort Worth. By the 1930s, a debate was raging over the copyright of The Eyes of Texas, so in 1936, a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper interviewed a few UT alumni about the song. McMahon rightly said that the song was inspired by the words of President Prather at student assemblies, but he added:
“…and then one morning in 1899, McMahon recalled, President Prather asked at chapel exercises for someone to write a university song. [John Lang] Sinclair dashed off the words then and there during the exercises.”
But this too is false, because it is inconsistent with all other evidence. Sinclair himself explained the origins of the song, and he said that it was in 1903, as did other witnesses. Plus he said nothing about chapel exercises, nor that Prather requested a song.
Thus, in writing history it is not enough to merely quote the words of alumni, lawyers, or Gooroos, who claimed things long ago, we must also scrutinize their claims.
The Many Stories of Jim Nicar
James F. Nicar is another alumnus of UT Austin, where he studied astronomy in 1983–88, and he led the Spirit and Traditions Board, a new student group, started in 1986, which sought to revive lapsed UT traditions. Years later, Nicar wrote a story in the Fall 2002 Texas Parents Weekend Schedule, which said that in spring 1902 Sinclair and Johnson wrote Jolly Students, which was sung “at a variety show,” and that a year later, Sinclair wrote The Eyes, but he and Johnson rewrote it for “The Varsity Variety Show” of May 12, 1903. Like Johnson’s fictions, this story shows some whitewash: Jim Nicar chose to mislabel two events as “variety” shows instead of writing Minstrel show.
By 2003, Nicar was a database programmer for the Texas Exes alumni organization and he was the staff liaison for their UT Heritage Society. In March 2003, an article coauthored by Nicar was published in the magazine of UT’s alumni, The Alcalde, which said that Sinclair wrote Jolly Students, which “was introduced at the Minstrel Show in May 1902,” and months later Sinclair drafted The Eyes, but he and Johnson rewrote the lyrics for the Minstrel of May 1903.
Over the subsequent months and years, Nicar wrote more contradictory stories about these songs. In June 2003, he added imaginary details: he claimed that Sinclair wrote The Jolly Students in May 1902, for “a talent show,” and that Sinclair finished The Eyes in March 1903, which was performed at the Minstrel show in May. (I will show that both of those claims are false.) Versions of this story were republished in The Daily Texan in 2004 and 2008.
Also in 2003, it was the centennial anniversary of The Eyes, so Jim Nicar wrote another account of its origins. Published in The Alcalde, Nicar wrote that The Eyes was first performed “at a campus variety show the night of May 12, 1903.” It was the 100th anniversary, yet Nicar chose not to mention that it was a minstrel show.
Years later, in 2010, Nicar wrote a fifth, different story: in this one Sinclair wrote The Eyes to be the UT song, and he gave it to Johnson at the University Post Office in March 1903, and months later it was sung at a minstrel show.
In 2013, Jim Nicar wrote a sixth, very different story for the official website of UT Athletics. Nicar wrote that this was “the real story” of The Eyes of Texas — that it was written for the Minstrel show:
It was written in 1903 by John Sinclair, in response to a request that a song be written for the Cowboy Minstrel Show. Since he was given only a few hours in which to come up with a tune, Mr. Sinclair hit upon the idea of using a famous saying of UT President William Prather. Prather always told his audiences to remember that “the eyes of Texas are upon you.”
Note how Nicar’s 2013 story contradicts all his stories of 2002–2010.
In 2015, Nicar published a seventh story, this one for his “UT History Corner,” his personal blog. Again he wrote that Johnson and Sinclair collaborated on Jolly Students in May 1902, but that in March 1903 Sinclair drafted The Eyes. This story was reproduced in the website of the Texas Exes.
By 2016, Nicar’s story for UT Athletics had changed again: now, his eighth story claimed that Jolly Students was coauthored by Johnson and Sinclair, and that subsequently Johnson composed The Eyes of Texas, while Sinclair paired Prather’s phrase with “I’ve Been working on the Railroad.”
Jim Nicar writes contradictory stories partly because he wasn’t trained as a professional historian, so he doesn’t know how to authenticate historical claims. Hence he echoed some of the fictions confected by Lewis Johnson. With school spirit, Jim Nicar collected various bits of history and hearsay but he mixed them haphazardly.
Despite his amateur record of writing contradictory stories, in 2020 Jim Nicar was appointed to serve in UT’s new History Committee on The Eyes of Texas.
When the Committee’s Report was finally published in March 2021, I read it with much interest but I noticed defects that led me to do my own research. I then published my findings and I informed members of the Committee. Surprisingly, they chose not to reply to me about the subject matter. Professors, students, alumni, and reporters ask me why the Committee didn’t reply, but I don’t know.
Still, six weeks later, at least Jim Nicar alone had the forthrightness to reply to my work, in his blog. But frankly, it’s unfortunate and unfair that Nicar was left to do this by himself, since he’s just not a professional historian. As far as I know, he doesn’t even have a Bachelor’s degree in History. Very few amateurs would try to challenge the systematic findings of a longtime Professor of Chemical Engineering at a Research 1 University such as UT Austin. Yet in the field of History it’s more common for amateurs to scribble historical sketches, though not knowing the methods used by professional historians, nor the painstaking meticulous lengths to which some of us go to ascertain accurate findings from primary sources. Most of that work becomes invisible in the process of synthesis: the effort to write a descriptive historical account that is accessible and transparent, like a clean windowpane.
I surmise that at least a few other members of UT’s Committee do agree with what Mr. Nicar wrote, since a committee Co-Chair, Professor Richard Reddick, did retweet Nicar’s blog story.
So, let me reply to Mr. Nicar’s claims. To be sure, it’s true that in 1903 there was interest for a new song about UT. However, old Lewis Johnson’s claims that The Eyes was written for that purpose are plainly false.
By making inferences based on Johnson’s whitewash, Nicar speculates that Sinclair wrote The Eyes “Possibly [on] March, 1903,” and that therefore he did not write it as a minstrel song for a minstrel show. What is Nicar’s alleged evidence? It is the story by Johnson that he asked Sinclair to write a “sacred hymn,” “a patriotic hymn to the dear old alma mater.”
But as I’ve show, that is plainly false, partly because Sinclair denied it, but also because Johnson’s story was grossly incoherent; e.g., in 1934 and 1936, Johnson claimed that Sinclair wrote Jolly Students for “the first Varsity Minstrel show,” — which in fact was on May 12, 1903 — but that, weeks later Sinclair wrote The Eyes, which is impossible, because The Eyes had debuted in that same Minstrel of May 12, 1903. Moreover, for the Minstrel show of November 25, 1903, The Texan reported that “every [musical] number is new,” and that Jolly Students was one of the songs. Abundant evidence contradicts Johnson’s claims.
In his newest story about The Eyes, Jim Nicar, once again, does not mention other incoherent claims that Lewis Johnson told: that The Eyes was first sung in front of President Prather’s house, and, that it was first-or-secondly sung at the University Auditorium, that it was first sung in fall 1903, and that it was first sung in 1904. Instead, Nicar himself admits that The Eyes was first performed at the Minstrel show of May 12, 1903 at the Hancock Opera House. Will Nicar now change his story the n-th time? To match Johnson’s fictions?
Nicar is quite capable of doubting written claims, since he has (wrongly) rejected statements by Sinclair, Jim Cannon, Thomas Taylor, President Prather’s daughter, and others, that The Eyes was written for the Minstrel show. But he is doubting the wrong persons. Instead, Nicar should practice doubting Lewis Johnson.
Nicar claims that in 1926 “Fannie Prather, President Prather’s daughter” authored an article in the Dallas Morning News in which she claimed that “the song was written entirely the night before the minstrel show.” This too is false and confused. First, “Fannie” is a common misspelling of Fanny, the nickname of Frances Kirkpatrick Prather, but second, she wrote no such article for that newspaper; instead it was authored by her sister Mary Lucretia, known as Mary Lu. (President Prather had three daughters and two sons). Nicar makes these mistakes because he is echoing Lewis Johnson. (In UT’s Committee Report, Mary Lu was also mis-named, as “Mary Lee.”) Third, Mary Lu did not claim in the Dallas Morning News that the song was written the night before the Minstrel. Instead, she wrote that B Hall dorm students were “besieging” John Sinclair to write the song for the Minstrel show, so her words are part of the evidence that they pressured him, led by Johnson, to write The Eyes for the Minstrel show.
While misreading and confusing the facts, Mr. Nicar chooses to disbelieve Mary Lu Prather’s account because he is fixated on believing his salad bar selection of Johnson’s fictions. However, Mary Lu Prather’s account was consistent with others. She organized the Young Ladies’ Glee Club in 1900, and she was a founding member and Vice-President of UT’s committee on Musical Organizations in 1901. She was twenty-five years old, when she attended the Varsity Minstrel show on May 12, 1903. And in early November 1904, she accompanied her father President Prather to Iowa, to a meeting of the National Association of State University Presidents, where, at a dinner, he told the other presidents “the story of this song,” The Eyes of Texas.
Nicar trusts Lewis Johnson as if he were a great authority on music and facts. For example, Nicar claims that Johnson was “the student manager for all of the campus musical organizations.” This claim too is false; but why does Nicar say it? When I see such nonsense, I don’t understand it. Actually, in the academic year 1902–03, Johnson was the manager of only one musical group.
Instead of lazily inventing exaggerations, a researcher should first ask: What were the UT musical groups in spring 1903? And secondly, who were their managers? (1) For example, the student Walker Stephens was the Manager of the University Band. (2) Student Robert A. Richey was the Business Manager of the Mandolin Club. (3) Student L. Will Welker was head of the YMCA Music Committee. (4) Student Fritz Lanham was Stage Manager of the Varsity Minstrels. (5) Frank Homer Curtiss was General Manager of the Varsity Minstrels. (6) Also, Johnson was not manager of the Ladies’ Glee Club, also called the Girls’ Glee Club. (7) He was not manager of the Matinee Musical Club. (8) He was not manager of Professor Edmund Ludwig’s Concert. (9) And Johnson was not the manager of Professor William Besserer’s Orchestra. (10) Instead, in 1902–03, Johnson was only manager of the men’s Glee Club. Compare this factual list to Nicar’s fiction.
Next, Nicar tries to find evidence that there was a prolonged time period between Sinclair’s draft, its editing, and its performance.
For example, Nicar refers to a manuscript of the song, which was preserved by the student Horace Whaling, Jr., a friend of Sinclair.
However, if instead it’s true that Sinclair belatedly wrote the song late at night before the Minstrel show, as I’ve shown, then we might find a source stating that Horace Whaling himself knew that: (1) Sinclair wrote the song at night, (2) late or after midnight, and (3) that Whaling saw it very promptly right then. And yes, such a source does exist. In 1950, Whaling presented the old manuscript of The Eyes of Texas to UT’s President T.S. Painter, at the fiftieth anniversary of The Daily Texan, and so, as reported right then by The Daily Texan, “Mr. Whaling first saw the ‘Eyes of Texas’ about two o’clock the night when his friend, John Lang Sinclair, wrote the song.”
The following table summarizes a twenty-year period with ten different stories by Nicar, with multiple contradictions, about the origins of Sinclair’s songs. I’ve marked in red the claims that are clearly imaginary and false, as I’ve shown or will, below.
These ten stories by Nicar, as summarized in the table, have multiple contradictions: they vary as to why the songs were written, who wrote them, when, and where they were performed. Therefore, at most only one of them can be correct — but actually, as I’ve pointed out in red, all of them have errors. For example, story #6 is false because the Cowboy Minstrels at UT did not exist until 1940. And, because Sinclair did not have “only a few hours’ notice” because, as he himself explained in 1914 (and his widow too in 1951), Johnson had requested the song days earlier, yet Sinclair hadn’t written it, but the Minstrel show was imminent, so finally, Sinclair belatedly wrote it. Another reason why Nicar’s stories have errors is because most are based on fictions by Lewis Johnson. For example, story #2 seems almost fine in the table, but it’s false because it quoted words by Johnson, about The Eyes, which he misattributed to Jolly Students.
Also, Johnson’s claim that Sinclair wrote Jolly Students before The Eyes led Mr. Nicar to repeatedly guess that Sinclair wrote Jolly Students in spring 1902, allegedly in May. However, I’ve shown that the primary sources (that is, documents from 1902 and 1903) show no evidence that Sinclair wrote that song in May 1902. Instead, records show that Jolly Students began circulating eighteen months later, at the Varsity Minstrel of November 25, 1903. Nicar’s guesswork posits that Jolly Students was performed in May 1902, at a “minstrel,” or “a variety show,” or “a talent show,” or “a concert.” Yet nobody mentioned or reviewed that song in print until eighteen months later. Nicar speculates: “That tune was well-received but not popular.”
But no, it was very popular: it copied a nationwide musical hit, so it was played twice at the November 1903 Minstrel, its lyrics were printed in The Texan (an honor The Eyes had not yet received), and also in the 1904 Cactus yearbook (another honor The Eyes had not received) on page 8, opposite the portrait of President Prather. And, it was sung on a student trip to New Braunfels, and again at another Minstrel show in June, and most importantly, at the UT graduation.
But there is an even worse problem with Nicar’s fictitious bunk. Namely, that Sinclair’s Jolly Students really could not exist in May 1902 because the song on which it was based was not published until October 1902!
In his newest story, Nicar claims that in May 1902, Johnson and Sinclair collaborated “on what became known as ‘We are the Jolly Students.’” (Actually, it was titled Jolly Students of the ’Varsity.) And, Nicar claims that it was based on “a popular tune at the time — ‘The Jolly Students of America.’” But well, that song was actually titled The Jolly Student, authored by the Detroit composer, Harry Zickel, with lyrics by Henry Fechheimer. Before publishing it, Zickel submitted his copyright claim to the Copyright and Trade Mark Branch in Canada, and so his copyright was registered on August 27, 1902. Subsequently the song sheets were produced, noting the Canadian copyright, and on October 19, The Detroit Free Press announced: “A special feature will be the presentation to each newsboy of a copy of the new patriotic march song ‘Jolly Student,’ with the compliments of its authors,” and that “Harry Zickel will play his new march on the piano…” Then, Zickel began mailing song sheets to schools and colleges, such that, for example, in November 1902, in Iowa the Cedar Rapids College Cosmos reported that “A new college song entitled ‘The Jolly Student’ has just been sent out.”
Likewise, in November 1902, The Texas School Journal reported that The Jolly Student “has just been issued by Zickel Publishing Co., of Detroit Michigan.” Two months later The Daily Reflector in Ohio, reported: “‘The Jolly Student’ is the rage everywhere.”
So, the historical evidence proves that Nicar’s claim, echoed in UT’s Committee Report, is plainly false: that a show in spring 1902 featured Sinclair’s song Jolly Students. This claim recurs so much in Nicar’s writings that it further shows that his contradictory stories are not history; they may be interesting to readers of his blog, but they’re basically historical fiction.
H. W. Brands
Mr. Nicar’s fictions misled the historian H.W. Brands, also in UT’s Committee on the song, to say: “Sinclair and Johnson tried another song, the Jolly Students of the Varsity and they premiered that not at a minstrel show, but at a student talent show, where, no blackface anywhere around,…”
Brands was mistaken, he was echoing the writings of Jim Nicar, not any historical primary sources. None exist showing that a talent show in spring 1902 included Sinclair’s Jolly Students (which is impossible, as I’ve shown); instead, the evidence plainly shows that Sinclair’s Jolly Students premiered at the Varsity Minstrel show in November 1903. And the show did have blackface comedians. Even Lewis Johnson admitted that Jolly Students was first performed at a minstrel show.
Yet Brands also misconstrued the chronology, as if The Eyes was written to be UT’s song because Jolly Students wasn’t a success. Hence Brands continued:
“…no blackface anywhere around, and, if that one [song: Jolly Students] had caught on, then that would have been what became The Eyes of Texas. It was a fundraiser for the track team. 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.”
But that isn’t true either. To the contrary, it wasn’t happenstance; The Eyes of Texas premiered at a minstrel show because that was the design, that was the intention, as was explained by its author, Sinclair (in 1914, 1935, 1939, etc.), plus Charlton Hall, Jim Cannon, Edward Crane, The Daily Texan, The Austin Statesman, Thomas Taylor, Mary Lu Prather, Eugene Schoch, Stella Sinclair, William Sinclair, and others.
Professor Brands also commented: “I have no reason to think, that there was anything [in the song] in terms of: We’re surveilling you; we are watching you, behind the scenes or anything like that.” But that too is a mistake.
The Eyes of Texas song, also known as the “Prexy-joke,” was literally about constant, inescapable Texas state surveillance, because those are its lyrics: “…All the livelong day. The eyes of Texas are upon you, you cannot get away. Do not think you can escape them, at night or early in the morn…” And — because that was the joke. On June 11, 1903, the Austin Statesman reported that Prather’s stern injunction had become a joke to the students all year long: from baseball games to Sinclair’s song at the Minstrel. Hence one of the quartet singers who first sang the song, Jim Cannon, recalled that: “There was a standing joke among the students about the president’s all-seeing ‘eyes’ and the ever watchful state of Texas.” This joke about ubiquitous surveillance was echoed in the 1904 Cactus yearbook, in a cartoon of President Prather (reproduced here), in which the goal of “furthering the interests of this great State,” would be advanced by creating “a system of underground railways and tunneling into class-rooms and student quarters which will make it possible for a vigilant eye to be kept on both professors and students.” Likewise, in 1922 the Daily Texan reported that, for years, “Cartoons were numerous carrying out the idea of the song. One student made a revolving placard having on each side a map of Texas with a large eye drawn across it. Other similar stunts were carried out continuing the joke attitude.” Accordingly, in 1928, the UT Professor of English, Robert Adger Law, described the song’s main phrase as being about “statewide surveillance.”
Next, Professor Brands said that he doesn’t think that The Eyes “was intended at all in the direction of Black people, they just weren’t part of the audience...”
However, John Sinclair himself said he wrote the song for the Minstrel show, he based it on a song about Black prisoners forced to work on a railroad, and it was performed by students in blackface, including himself, acting like Black men working on a railroad, as recalled by Henry Camp Harris. Plus, it stemmed from fighting words by and about General Lee in the Civil War, who said Black persons should be slaves of the White race. This is why many Black students and others fairly complain that The Eyes has racist origins.
Some White persons might speculate that when “EVERYBODY LAUGHED” at that minstrel show of 1903 (as reported in The Texan), maybe it was only because the students were making fun of the faculty. However, minstrel shows were a musical comedy genre that consisted precisely in mocking and making fun of Black persons: their alleged idiocy, skin color, hair, clothing, mannerisms, mispronunciations, their songs, etc.
The main mistake made by H.W. Brands and other members of UT’s History Committee is that they trusted the writings of Jim Nicar, who for years had selectively used and modified some of Lewis Johnson’s whitewash.
An Anthem about Manliness
Jim Nicar and UT’s History Committee did not write about the bizarre claims by Lewis Johnson. They did not discuss his fake claim that the The Eyes was first performed weeks after the first Varsity Minstrel, or even in 1904. They also didn’t discuss Johnson’s claim that The Eyes of Texas song was about Texan manliness.
Decades ago, UT alumni in various cities had a proud tradition of gathering together every March 2nd to commemorate Texas Independence Day; and some alumni still celebrate it nowadays too.
In March 1929, The Jacksboro Gazette reported the alumni gathering that happened in the neighboring town of Mineral Wells. At the “Crazy Hotel,” cattleman Lewis Johnson told some fellow UT alumni that “the origin of The Eyes of Texas” was this: that for years he had searched for the appropriate words and tune “to express the virility of the Lone Star State.” That’s right, virility, the manly quality of being vigorous, having a strong sex drive: an adult ability to impregnate. So the Eyes of Texas song was about Texan virility?
Johnson grew up in Jacksboro, what he called “cow country.” He became a cowboy businessman, working on the public relations side of breeding cattle, for many years. He and his brother specialized in breeding Herefords, a British species of cows and bulls with white faces, which they bred to be hornless, “polled.” So to him, virility was essential, and he considered it a distinctive quality of Texas itself. Thus again, in 1952 Johnson said that The Eyes of Texas song was meant to be an anthem for “the most virile state of the American Union,” a song for “virile young Texans.”
Still, Johnson constantly acknowledged that the song’s author was John Sinclair. Yet Sinclair did not claim that it was an anthem to Texan virility.
Hall, Hill, and B Hall
Let’s return to Mr. Nicar’s newest story, of May 2021. One way to gauge Nicar’s guesswork is to count his speculative expressions: “likely” (3 times), “possibly” (2), “probably” (1), “may have” (2), “would have been” (5), “could have been” (1), “must have been” (1), “that would mean” (1), etc.
In contrast, I use no such expressions when writing history.
Because, I do not deal in conjectures.
To be sure, I too can make mistakes and I look for them to correct them. But my main goal in researching history is to find out what really happened, while working to reduce any conjectures or interpretations to a minimum.
In contradistinction, Nicar now speculates that “Possibly” The Eyes was drafted in mid-March 1903. To some alumni, that speculation is appealing in order to try to pull the song’s origin away from the racist Minstrel show. But I’ll show that it’s just false. But first, consider the context. If Sinclair wrote The Eyes in mid-March, Nicar should please explain why it was not performed for two months, that is, without inventing an imaginary reason. Nicar claims: “An opportunity to perform it came with the minstrel show,” — but why not sooner?
There were many opportunities.
The University Band included Johnson and Sinclair, and it played weekly concerts on Fridays at 7:15; some outdoors, others in the University Auditorium. Also, on April 3, 1903, there was the Annual Gymnasium Concert in the Auditorium, which was a fundraiser for the track team. On April 4 there was The Declamation Contest in the Auditorium, with live music. On Sunday April 12, the Glee Club (including Sinclair and Johnson) and the Mandolin Club departed on their third annual road trip to eight cities in Texas, to meet with UT alumni, and to sing various songs, including “college music,” and even The Levee Song (on which The Eyes of Texas is based). On the evening of April 21, these two music clubs returned to Austin. Next, on April 24, 1903, there was a minstrel show fundraiser at the Hancock Opera House by the Austin Rifles company (one of Austin’s military companies: Company E, First Texas), including also city musicians and prominent singers, female and male, plus UT’s quartet, including Johnson; and again, they sang The Levee Song. Next, on Saturday May 2 there was the fundraiser concert for UT’s Music Clubs in the University Auditorium, including the Band, the Glee Club, the quartet, including Johnson, yet nobody sang The Eyes of Texas — again, as if it didn’t exist. Next, on May 4, the University Auditorium hosted the Glee Club Concert, a full dress event. Wasn’t this another appropriate event for The Eyes of Texas? The Texan reported that they sang “music of every kind from comic to the most sentimental, from the opening song to the closing yell,” including new songs by the quartet and the Mandolin Club. And, a quintette even sang The Levee Song — again, as they did during their multi-city tour and at the Rifles’ Minstrel show. On May 9, the Band held a promenade Saturday Concert, at 7:30 p.m. One hour later, the Glee Club sang at the third annual Dubois oratory contest, in the Auditorium.
So I’ve listed more than eighteen events, opportunities to sing anything, between mid-March and May 12th, 1903. Yet Johnson, Sinclair and others didn’t sing The Eyes — just as if it didn’t exist. Yet Nicar speculates that it existed in mid-March!
But there is another important problem with Nicar’s newest story. That it doesn’t even mention Thomas Charlton Hall.
As I explained in my first article, Charlton Hall was a student who collaborated with Johnson and Sinclair to create The Eyes of Texas. He published his own account of how it happened. And well, as you may expect by now, it does not confirm the stories of Johnson or Nicar. Charlton Hall did not say that The Eyes was written to be a a song about the virility of Texas, nor a university hymn, nor that it was first performed as a protest in front of President Prather’s house, nor that it was first performed at the University Auditorium.
In 1952, Charlton Hall recalled that he was a student in UT’s Law Department, alongside Lewis Johnson, and that he too was a member of the same fraternity, Southern Kappa Alpha. This is confirmed by the UT Cactus yearbooks from the time. And Hall wrote: “Lewis was manager of the Glee Club and I was assistant in managing a University Glee Club show at the Hancock Opera House in Austin in April 1903.” It was a guest performance, as an “audition” in the show of the Austin Rifles Minstrel, on April 24. There, they sang multiple songs, and Hall recalled: “The song ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad’ [The Levee Song], when sung, was encored at least four times, and the tune captivated the crowd.” Hall explained that this “audition was so well received we were asked to repeat the show the following week.”
However, it didn’t happen the following week. Its plan grew quickly to large proportions, as reported in The Texan on April 29, with the goal of “making the minstrel show of the Curtiss [UT’s Athletics Director] Comedy Company the best to appear before an Austin audience this season.” They planned to include the UT Band, the Mandolin Club, and also: “The soloists of the Glee Club and the quartet which made the hit of the evening at the Austin Rifles’ benefit will be heard again.” It said that the show would include stunts, dancing, jokes on the faculty, and that “a monstrous street parade is being arranged,” which was a typical street performance to lead the public into minstrel shows. The show was delayed, but The Texan report noted: “The date of the first appearance will be announced soon.”
So, Charlton Hall recalled that since they had been asked “to repeat the show” that they did at the Hancock Opera House, “Lewis and I went to his room in old ‘B’ Hall to discuss a change of program, for the second performance, and it was here ‘The Eyes of Texas’ was born.” That sentence plainly confirms what Sinclair and others likewise explained: that The Eyes was created in B Hall for the Minstrel show at the Opera House.
Also, that same sentence further confirms that Jim Nicar’s gratuitous guess that The Eyes was written in mid-March 1903 is false: because Hall and Johnson met to discuss making a new song after the Austin Rifles’ Minstrel at the Opera House on April 24, 1903.
Next, Charlton Hall elaborated the main point of his article: that President Prather’s phrase “the eyes of Texas are upon you,” became a joke when Prather loudly confronted an activist against alcohol known as “Carrie Nation.”
Next, Hall wrote that, “Johnson suggested that we write a parody to the tune ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,’ and ‘The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.’ We wrote and talked about the wording and called out the window to John Lang Sinclair…”
In his article, Hall didn’t describe the subsequent long delay that Sinclair said transpired before he finally drafted the song, and which is confirmed indirectly in Johnson’s own accounts (in what he claimed about Jolly Students). But so it is with news articles: they don’t describe everything because of very limited space, except the writer’s choice of what to spotlight; and, in this case, Hall’s goal was to spotlight the link to Carrie Nation, as stated in his article’s title. Next, Hall quoted a manuscript version of the song, but he added that when Sinclair finished it, “it did not quite meet our ideas,” so they wrote the version that made fun of Prather’s words.
B Hall was demolished in October 1952. However, the collaboration of Sinclair, Johnson, and Charlton Hall on The Eyes was commemorated in an inscription etched on a ledge stone from that dorm. That ledge stone and others were preserved and incorporated at the base of a statue of the angel Gabriel at the Hollywood Mausoleum Garden in Houston. Yet Nicar chose not to credit Thomas Charlton Hall.
Finally, there is one more important point.
Echoing Johnson, Nicar claims that The Eyes was meant to be “a patriotic hymn to the alma mater.” Yet the song says nothing about patriotism or the alma mater, and it’s not a hymn. Plus, the song’s author denied it!
It’s not true that UT had no song before 1903. For example, in the 1902 Commencement program there are SIX songs about UT, including all their lyrics. Their titles were: (1) “Our University,” (2) “The University of Texas,” (3) “Alma Mater,” (4) “Our ’Varsity,” (5) “It’s a Way We Have at Old Texas,” and (6) “Vive la ’Varsity.” The song (1) was a copy of a song created for the University of Pennsylvania; but the other five songs were not.
Furthermore, by May 1903, Johnson’s Glee Club did have, precisely, a new, patriotic hymn to the alma mater, namely, a song titled: “University of Texas Hymn.”
It wasn’t written by Sinclair, but by another student, Clyde Walton Hill, and the Glee Club sang it at their formal Concert of May 4, 1903. Neither Nicar nor The Eyes History Committee mention that this UT song exists (nor the six songs listed above), but here are its lyrics:
Unlike The Eyes of Texas song, the University of Texas Hymn really was a patriotic hymn to UT, including the words “Alma Mater” and words about UT students, hallways, learning, heroes, and patriotism to Texas. In contrast, the lyrics of the two versions of The Eyes of Texas were literally about (1) “the bright blue eyes of Texas” that watch and accompany you throughout the night and day, and (2) a joke about President Prather’s bombastic words, as if they were about constant, inescapable, Texas state surveillance, forever.
Like Sinclair, Clyde Walton Hill also wrote poetry. He was born on November 18, 1883, so he was a nineteen-year-old sophomore when Johnson’s Glee Club sang his UT Hymn at the Auditorium on May 4, 1903.
Like Sinclair and Fanny Prather, Clyde Walton Hill too became an editor of The Magazine of UT, two years after them, in 1905. Hill graduated in 1906, and then he went to Harvard to study drama and composition. He returned to UT in 1908, to be an instructor. Then, he studied law, became a lawyer in Dallas, but later returned to teaching at UT, again. Meanwhile, his song lived on at UT, such that, in 1918, it was included in The University of Texas Community Song Book, along with The Eyes and Jolly Students.
So, consider these four points: (1) the University of Texas Hymn was actually a hymn, (2) it was about UT, (3) it was patriotic, and (4) it was performed at the University Auditorium in the spring of 1903. These four claims were attributed by Lewis Johnson falsely to The Eyes of Texas song. So, did Johnson ascribe aspects of the origins of the UT Hymn to The Eyes? Recall how Sinclair replied in 1940:
“Sinclair pooh-poohed the idea that he had written ‘The Eyes of Texas’ for a University hymn. ‘It was just dashed off for diversion,’ he said smiling.”
An obvious question remains: Did Jim Nicar consciously whitewash the origins of The Eyes, or are the mistakes in his stories shaped only by his careless amateur oversights? I already pointed out that renaming the Varsity Minstrel show as “The Varsity Variety Show” looks very much like whitewash, but consider another point. Nicar writes:
“We have several reminiscences of there being a last-minute or late-night dash to finish one more song for the show. The deadline, though, wasn’t the show itself, but to finalize the program. The original version of “The Eyes” was already available and known to the Glee Club,…”
Note that he does not quote what he is alluding to, so here’s a quotation, an explanation by the song’s author, John Sinclair, in 1914:
“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. 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.”
Sinclair clearly said that they had no new song, that they needed a song for the Minstrel show, and that therefore he wrote The Eyes of Texas, based on the railroad song. Yet Nicar instead wants us to think that Sinclair meant that they already had a good new song, so they only needed to revise it.
That is contrary to Sinclair’s words. This kind of gross distortion convinces me that Nicar’s story is not merely a mixture of misinterpretations, mistakes, and impossibilities. It is also the result of omissions and whitewashing.
I could continue to refute more aspects of Jim Nicar’s amateur mishmash of guesswork, but I think I’ve said more than enough. It would feel cruel to continue; and as I commented at the start, it’s not fair that he’s in this position, because history is a rigorous professional discipline and he’s just not a historian.
According to UT’s History Committee, the phrase “the eyes of Texas are upon you” is a phrase about “accountability,” and they claimed that that is what it always was.
Nevertheless, they did not mention that the song used to be about Southern military pride. Since the song’s title originated from Confederate fighting orders in the Civil War, it became used in sporting events as UT’s “fight song” at least by the 1920s. At the time, the song was construed to be about southern military pride, as the students’ newspaper explained: “The very spirit of The Eyes dates back to General Robert E. Lee,” in a front-page article titled: “Song Spirit of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ Dates Back to Time of Civil War.” For decades, news articles reiterated the link to General Lee. Even in 1985, the UT alumni’s magazine admitted that, “UT’s ‘anthem’ has its roots in the lore of the Civil War.”
In my first article I showed that the phrase “The eyes of Texas are upon you” originated from wartime words by and about Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the Civil War — “the eyes of General Lee are upon you, forward, march,” — after he ordered Hood’s Texas Brigade to charge against northern soldiers in Virginia, which inspired UT’s “Colonel” Prather to give his very similar “marching orders for the session, ‘Forward! The eyes of Texas are upon you!’” — he told UT students. Back then, it became a running joke to some students, and hence a musical stunt: a minstrel song for a minstrel show, with White students in black face-paint imitating Black men working on a railroad, as recalled by minstrel Henry Camp Harris, as they parodied Prather’s words. The melody and some lyrics were copied from The Levee Song, which was about Black prisoners forced to work on a railroad “all the live-long day,” words copied directly into The Eyes of Texas.
The transformation from minstrel song to university anthem surprised multiple persons; including Dean Thomas Taylor, who wrote:
In desperation one night Lewis Johnson went to the room of Sinclair in B. Hall and informed him that he had to write a new song for the Minstrel show. Lewis walked up and down the room humming several tunes and finally hit upon the tune “Working on the Lebbee” or “Working on the Railroad.” Strange to say this tune has become a classic in the higher educational institutions of Texas.
The original tune and the original words were chanted by the big buck negroes working on the levies above New Orleans. Few of these old buckaroos could write his name. While working “all de lib long day” was finally wedded by the course of human events to the sentiment uttered on the night the song was sung…
For years, The Eyes continued to be a joke and a minstrel song, as evinced in multiple historic documents, including a reporter’s account in 1922:
“The song at the time of its composition was considered a huge joke. It continued to remain so for several years, being used quite frequently at minstrel shows and for an entertainment feature at banquets and similar affairs. The tune was regarded as hard to carry and there were only a select few who were able to execute the song with success. … Cartoons were numerous carrying out the idea of the song…”
Even in the 1960s, The Eyes continued to be sung in blackface at racist minstrel comedy shows at UT Austin, with the endorsement of UT administrators.
But this is not the history that Mr. Nicar wants; because he has valued the song since he studied at UT in the 1980s, after moving here from New Martinsville, West Virginia. He claims that the song has no racist intent because it was not written for the Minstrel show — according to old Mr. Johnson’s whitewash.
But really, it was written for the Minstrel show, as was explained by its author, John Lang Sinclair, time and again. For example, on November 25, 1935, Sinclair wrote this to Ed Nunnally: “The words were not printed on the original program of the Minstrel Show at the Hancock Opera House, for which the song was written.” [emphasis added] This is confirmed by other letters and interviews, and by Sinclair’s collaborator, Charlton Hall, its first quartet singer, Jim Cannon, and others: Edward Crane, Mary Lu Prather, Dean Thomas Taylor, Stella Sinclair, and many old newspapers. Even Johnson’s lousy whitewash indirectly confirms it.
Personally, the phrase “the eyes of Texas are upon you,” is not my favorite from our campus culture.
Instead, I much prefer a different statement, one that is etched into the front wall of UT’s Main Building, right under the Tower, which says: YE SHALL KNOW THE TRUTH AND THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE.
Alberto A. Martinez, Ph.D.
Professor of History, Chair of the Independent Equity Committee, Fellow of the American Physical Society, Elected Member of the Diversity and Inclusion Plan Task Force of the College of Liberal Arts.
* Note: the REFERENCES are listed on a separate page. Medium estimates the total reading time of each article based on its length, so by listing the References separately hopefully this article won’t seem too long to read.
UT administrators should allow an open, inclusive, and public evaluation of The Eyes of Texas. This shouldn’t be UT’s official song. It isn’t a unifying song.
If you’re a UT faculty member, you can please join our petition by emailing email@example.com