Florida did something unusual recently. Shocking, I know, but this wasn't unusual because it happened in the Sunshine State, rather because it happened at all. Last month, the state adopted a new official song, "Florida (Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky)," written by an elementary-school music teacher from Fort Lauderdale. About time, too: Its previous state song was "Swanee River (Old Folks at Home)," written in 1851 by Stephen Foster, who never set foot in Florida, about a former slave "longing for de ole plantation." Um, yeah.
States seem to think about their official songs about as often as their citizens do, which is to say, not very. Florida adopted "Swanee" in 1935. It took Virginia until 1997 to take "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," another racially questionable song — albeit one written by an African-American, James A. Bland, also author of Hand Me Down My Walkin' Cane – off the books, and they still haven't selected a replacement.
It does happen, though. Last year the Colorado legislature elevated John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" to official co-state song, a distinction it now shares with the florid "Where the Columbines Grow," which was adopted around 1915. Some Republican lawmakers, the Denver Post reported, wanted to amend the resolution to clarify "the song is about Colorado's elevation and 'in no way reflects or encourages' drug use." That amendment failed.
John Denver jokes aside, sometimes states do get it right. Georgia's official state song is, as you hopefully guessed, "Georgia on my Mind." Tennessee has six, among them "Tennessee Waltz" and the classic bluegrass picker "Rocky Top." Connecticut's is still, believe it or not, "Yankee Doodle." Kentucky, which like Florida had to revise Stephen Foster's lyrics to excise the "darky" references from its official song, "My Old Kentucky Home," also honors "Blue Moon of Kentucky" as "Official Bluegrass Song." Two of Texas's neighbors already take theirs from popular music — Oklahoma uses the title song of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, and Louisiana's is "You Are My Sunshine," the country standard written by its former governor, Jimmie Davis (though some believe Davis may have wrongfully taken credit due a Georgia duo named the Pine Brothers).
Might it be time for Texas to follow suit? I think so. Inspired by Jonathan Cunningham's recent article in Press sister paper New Times Broward-Palm Beach, where he kindly suggested a few alternate Florida state songs — the best was, of course, 2 Live Crew's "Me So Horny" — I thought I'd evaluate a few songs about Texas to see how they might fare. After all, it's almost rodeo time, when Go Texan fever grips people who wouldn't be caught dead in boots or a Stetson the rest of the year. Just to keep it short, I disqualified songs limited to part of the state, so that means no "Amarillo By Morning," "El Paso," Lee Hazlewood's "Houston" or Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Dallas," and not even arguably the best Texas song ever written, Bob Wills's "San Antonio Rose."
But first a few words about Texas's existing state song. Do you even know what it is? Relax, Aggies, it's not "The Eyes of Texas," though of course every Tea-sip thinks it is — and even a lot of non-Texans probably think so too, thanks to its use in Giant and Elvis singing it in Viva Las Vegas. Neither, Astros fans, is it "Deep in the Heart of Texas," written in 1941 by non-Texans June Hershey and Don Swander and first recorded by Perry Como, if you can believe that. And "The Yellow Rose of Texas"? Strike three. Which is a good thing; it's supposedly about the mulatto slave girl said to have seduced Santa Anna the morning of April 21, 1836, so the legislature would probably have had to eventually choose something else anyway. (By the way, if the significance of that date around these parts eludes you, you might as well stop reading right now.)
No, ladies and gentlemen, the official Texas state song is "Texas, Our Texas," written in 1924 by Fort Worth's William J. Marsh, choir director and professor of organ, composition and theory at TCU and president of the Texas Composers' Guild. Marsh — a native of Liverpool, England, just like the Beatles — and another Fort Worth resident, Gladys Yoakum Wright, collaborated on the lyrics, which, like many state songs, are both vague and almost comically self-aggrandizing: "Boldest and grandest / withstanding every test / O Empire wide and glorious / you stand supremely blest." Like Florida's new song, "Texas, Our Texas" was selected as the winner of a statewide contest, from a field of one entry per state senatorial district. John Philip Sousa reportedly said it was the best state song he'd ever heard, and when the Texas Senate officially adopted the song in 1929, the resolution itself noted how it had "sung itself into the hearts of the people."
That may have been true almost 80 years ago, but not so much today. "They don't identify that as the state song," says Whiskey River author and Texas country legend Johnny Bush, who closes out the rodeo's Hideout — i.e., the Astrodome retrofitted as a giant dance hall — on March 22 after drawing a crowd of more than 17,000 last year. "I know what it is, but people think the state song is 'The Eyes of Texas.' I bet if you took a poll, 90 percent of the people would say it's 'The Eyes of Texas.'"
"I don't remember that I've ever had the opportunity to sing it," admits Beaumont's Zona Jones, booked at the Hideout March 15. "Certainly not in public, and man, I don't remember the last time I heard it, to be honest with you."
Leroy Shafer, chief operating officer of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, can at least answer that. "I do have season tickets to various events where it's played, particularly the football games at Texas A&M," he says. "I hear it played a lot each year, but I don't know that I have any great affection for it or any great dislike for it. I'm kinda neutral, which is what I think probably most Texans would be."
And, to be fair, "Texas, Our Texas" does have its defenders. "I love my state song," says Casey Monahan, director of the Texas Music Office, the division of the Governor's Office that promotes the state's music industry, mainly through www.enjoytexasmusic.com. "I'll never forget when I heard the Huston-Tillotson choir sing the full song at the dedication of the Bullock Museum. It was beautiful."
Still, for a state that's inspired so many songs — a quick title search of "Texas" on copyright organization ASCAP's Web site returns more than 1,700 results (although several are commercial jingles), and about 800 on rival BMI's site — shouldn't Texas be big enough for more than one official song? Think about it: If Colorado can bestow such an honor on John Denver (a native Texan), it's long past time for Texas to do the same for Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm or dozens more. Here are but a few:
Artist: Willie Nelson
Song: "Beautiful Texas"
Album: Texas in my Soul (1967)
Pro: It's Willie Nelson. Singing about Texas. Need I continue?
Con: Written by former governor and Bob Wills mentor W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, "Beautiful Texas" dates from the mid-1930s, so it's not much younger than "Texas, Our Texas."
Artist: Doug Sahm
Song: "Texas Me"
Album: Sir Douglas Quintet's Mendocino (1969)
Pro: Beautiful. Poignant. The true anthem of any homesick Texan.
Con: Still somewhat obscure. Conservatives may chafe at honoring the work of someone fond of employing the word "groove" as both noun and verb.
Artist: Tanya Tucker
Song: "Texas When I Die"
Album: T.N.T. (1978)
Pro: Mentions Willie Nelson. Disparages Yankees. ("New York couldn't hold my attention / Detroit City couldn't sing my songs.") Reflects most Texans' feelings about the afterlife.
Con: May have limited appeal to non-cowboys, non-Texans. I guess that's kind of the point, though.
Artist: Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble
Song: "Texas Flood"
Album: Texas Flood (1983)
Pro: Not country. Iconic Texas blues, as a matter of fact. Strong ties to Houston — recorded here in 1958 by original author Larry Davis, and released on Don Robey's Duke-Peacock label.
Con: A flooded-out Texas with no working phones doesn't give the state tourism board a whole lot to work with.
Artist: Lyle Lovett
Song: "That's Right (You're Not from Texas)"
Album: The Road to Ensenada (1996)
Pro: Reflects modern Texas's enlightened "howdy, stranger" attitude toward newcomers and non-natives.
Con: Even people who do know "Texas, Our Texas" can't remember past the first verse. "That's Right" has ten.
Artist: Mr. Mike
Song: "Texas 2000 (Give 'Em What They Want)"
Album: Rhapsody (1999)
Pro: Would instantly give Texas more street cred than the other 49 state songs combined.
Con: Parents might not like their kids singing lines like "Your wife wanna bone me, homie / that's in her nature / Ill, deal with that / kill that shit or I'ma waste ya" at school assemblies and such.