The Surprising Origins of These Beloved Texas Songs
Today is Texas Independence Day, a proud occasion indeed for any true son or daughter of the Lone Star Republic. Some of you may even be moved to break into song, in which case there are plenty of options to choose from. In fact, there’s probably a worthy song about Texas by a Texan for every one of the 254 different counties in Texas, and that’s not even counting the more city-specific songs like “Dallas,” “Galveston” or “Amarillo By Morning.” Go back a few more generations and you’ll come across the songs many Texans (or elderly Texans, anyway) have known since childhood and often continue to sing to this day. Growing up, you just get used to singing them, not reflecting on where they came from. Later on, you find yourself starting to wonder…
“The Eyes of Texas”
Orangebloods sing this song with gusto after every UT-Austin football victory — it’s the university’s official song — despite its somewhat disquieting origins in the Confederacy, or at least in a favored saying by Robert E. Lee. According to The Handbook of Texas Online, William Prather, UT’s president circa 1902, took a saying he had often heard when Lee was president of Virginia’s Washington College, “the eyes of the South are upon you,” and modified it to suit his present surroundings. The melody was lifted wholesale from the folk tune “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad,” which seems ancient now but was not that old at the time, having first appeared in a book of songs published by Princeton University in 1894. Its uncomfortable origins in minstrelsy — some of its original verses are definitely not fit to print in 2017 — have largely dissipated with the passage of time; musicians with well-known recordings of the song include Pete Seeger, John Denver and Béla Fleck, the banjo master who will be in Houston March 10 with wife/fellow banjoist Abigail Washburn, on the couple's eponymous Grammy-winning 2014 album.
“Deep In the Heart of Texas”
Despite the Whataburger sponsorship, Astros fans accustomed to singing and clapping through “Deep In the Heart of Texas” every seventh-inning stretch at Minute Maid might be shocked to learn that the song is a Hollywood production through and through. Written in 1941, the song is a product of the songwriting partnership of June Hershey and Don Swander, who kept WWII-era Westerns well-stocked with cheesy tunes like “In Old Montana,” “Old Home Ranch” and “Yellow Mellow Moon.” Texans do love a winner, though: Songfacts.com reports that “Deep In the Heart of Texas” spent five weeks in 1942 on top of the hit parade — a sort of precursor to Billboard’s Hot 100 — as recorded by Perry Como, the epitome of everything uncool until John Mayer came along. Luckily, two of the era’s leading silver-screen cowboys, Gene Autry and Tex Ritter (both Texans, too), rode to the rescue by singing it in two different films that same year. And besides, once a song has been given the George Strait Stamp of Approval — as the King did in the Live From the Astrodome: For the Last Time CD and DVD in 2003 — all is forgiven.
“San Antonio Rose”
All cities should be so blessed to have a song written in their honor as wonderful as “San Antonio Rose”; sadly, Houston really doesn’t, though not for lack of trying. Bob Wills’s crowning achievement, the song was not created under the mythological aura it has since taken on through the nearly endless string of covers from Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson and Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Leon Russell, and too many others to count. Hardly. The version most people know today is actually titled “New San Antonio Rose,” which got its name because, according to Texas Monthly, Wills’s record company liked a song of his called “Spanish Two-Step” and asked if he had any more where that came from. He did, effectively a different arrangement of the same tune, except there weren’t any words. When the instrumental was released, it drew enough attention that Wills’s label figured they might sell more records if it had words on it, and after Wills huddled up with the other Texas Playboys, the rest is history. Today, “San Antonio Rose” lives on as not only a leading contender for Texas’s unofficial national anthem, but as a dance hall in Sugar Land.
“The Yellow Rose of Texas”
Of the myriad songs about Texas, “Yellow Rose” is one of the most beloved (if somewhat archaic nowadays), and almost certainly the only one to have inspired an essay on Texas A&M’s website that examines the legend in both botanical and historical terms. And what a legend it is. According to its author, Mark Whitelaw, the yellow rose is indeed one Emily West, a young mulatto probably from Bermuda who was recruited to emigrate to Texas as an indentured servant by a Philadelphia capitalist named James Morgan. They settled in New Washington, the town Morgan founded at a strategic point near where the San Jacinto River empties into Galveston Bay, and where Morgan supplied boats to Sam Houston’s troops. As General Santa Anna’s army was approaching, the story goes, most of New Washington evacuated save West, who allegedly...distracted the general to the point that Santa Anna's army lost the battle, and ultimately Mexico's hold on Texas.
West survived, Whitelaw writes, was released from her servitude by a grateful Morgan, and was last seen heading back to the northeast, passport stamped for New York City. “The Yellow Rose of Texas” is thought to have been written shortly after the battle and would become popular among companies of Civil War soldiers, and from there enter the realm of American folklore. Where the flower comes in, meanwhile, concerns a father-and-son team of lawyers and amateur rose breeders named George and Richard Harison, one of whom successfully created a new type of yellow rose. Whitelaw theorizes that one of the Harisons or the other could well have come into contact with James Morgan — or, in any case, “It is almost a certainty the New York press would have picked up on the tales coming from the Battle of San Jacinto and the subsequent independence of Texas — especially since James Morgan had business ties to the city.” Hence, a different kind of "Yellow Rose of Texas."
“Texas, Our Texas”
Admittedly, calling Texas’s official state song “beloved” might be a bit of a stretch. “Tolerated” might be a better choice of words, if not “ignored” or “forgotten.” It’s hard to imagine when you would even hear it these days outside the most ceremonial of occasions, but it does exist, even if scattered Texas cultural observers (even us) have sounded the alarm to change it from time to time over the years. “Texas Our Texas” grew out of a campaign by Pat Neff, governor of the state in the 1920s, to designate an official state song, which included commissioning the following ad posted in Texas newspapers of the day:
The person writing the best Texas State song will receive $1,000 cash, following its formal adoption by the Legislature next winter. Announcement to this effect was made by Gov. Neff in a communication addressed to the public and signed by him. The Governor would not divulge the name of the party who offered the $1,000.
Answering the call were a pair of Fort Worth residents: poet Gladys Yoakum Wright, who wrote the lyrics, and William J. Marsh, who handled the music. Marsh’s bona fides were solid — born in Liverpool, England, he was a music professor at TCU and longtime chairman of the Texas Composers Guild — and the song wound up taking the better part of a decade to be officially adopted by the Texas Legislature. It’s actually a pretty interesting story, as told by Texas Monthly around this time last year. Too bad it doesn’t make “Texas, Our Texas” any more inspiring as a song.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.