Origins, Meaning and Debut
Charge 1: Collect and Document the Facts of the Origin and the Creators' Intent
In 1902, UT student Lewis Johnson, a member of the band and the director of the University Chorus, believing UT needed a song its students could sing as proudly as the students of Harvard and Princeton, persuaded fellow student John Lang Sinclair, the university’s poet laureate, to write the lyrics. The result, “The Eyes of Texas,” drew inspiration from a favorite phrase of UT’s then-president William Prather – “the eyes of Texas are upon you.”
John Lang Sinclair and the lyrics of “The Eyes of Texas.”
Many accounts over the years have stated that the saying “The eyes of Texas are upon you” was inspired by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who was thought to have often said “the eyes of the South are upon you” as president of Washington College after the Civil War, where Prather had studied. Lee was clearly a beloved figure to Prather, but no primary source has been found connecting the phrase to Lee. The oft-repeated claims that Lee was the inspiration all seem to trace back to a 1938 account by retired engineering dean T. U. Taylor in his memoir Fifty Years on Forty Acres.
The committee’s research revealed multiple errors in Taylor’s remembrance. Most likely Taylor, writing nearly four decades after these events, simply misremembered. What is more, research failed to discover in the records of Washington & Lee University (as Washington College is now called) evidence that Lee *ever closed an address to the students with the phrase attributed to him by the Taylor account.
Finally on this point, the committee noted numerous examples of the formulation “the eyes of ________ are upon you” around the world and long predating 1903. In the earliest example, the Book of Job declares, “For His eyes are on the ways of a man, and He sees his every step.” Other uses of the line include President George Washington saying “the eyes of the nation are upon you.” Based on the evidence, the committee concluded that there was a very low likelihood that the line originated with Robert E. Lee and was instead a message of encouragement and accountability to the students and faculty at the then fledgling university.
As poet laureate of the university, Sinclair was precise and intentional with his words. They were not written in a stereotypical dialect that was the style of minstrelsy, and instead, written to purposefully support Prather and his call to the student body.
According to Lewis Johnson’s extensive family historical records, the section:
Do not think you can escape them
At night or early in the morn
The eyes of Texas are upon you
The original lyrics of The Eyes of Texas, written on brown paper from Bosche’s Laundry.
is a direct statement to the student body (overwhelmingly white at that time) that the elders of the state and the previous generation are watching them and expecting them to do great things with their education. It also recognizes that students will be students including at night – and cautions them that, while having fun, “the eyes” remain a measure of accountability for all. Sinclair was clear that his words were in absolute support of President Prather’s admonition to his students and the reality of how their conduct had a direct reflection on the fledgling university, especially with legislators and local media.
Though others, like Jim Cannon, a member of the Varsity Quartette who first sung “The Eyes” at the Varsity minstrel would describe the performance as a “joke,” poking fun at the president for how much he used the phrase, for John Lang Sinclair, it was an earnest endorsement of Prather’s admonition to his students. In Sinclair’s own words from 1931:
“It should be explained that in those days, before the University struck oil, and before the millennium had arrived when the legislature should be composed entirely of University graduates who would pass appropriation bills without a dissenting vote, the conduct of the student body had an immediate relation to the actual budget. If, on the morning after a football game, Congress Avenue resembled the wake of a tornado and the front page of the Austin Statesman was filled with references to ‘hoodlums’ and ‘police,’ the legislature would not understand that Thomas Watt Gregory himself had authorized us to ‘go down and bust Congress Avenue wide open.’ ”
When the Texas Union was constructed in 1936, “The eyes of Texas are upon you” was etched into the limestone entry. Student Elizabeth Keeney wrote about her own impression of the etching for The Daily Texan, which may shed light on a common understanding of the song’s meaning in her era:
“Just seven words, but they are more than just words. They have a very significant meaning, a meaning which every student should realize and think about. When the eyes of Texas are cast upon our University, what do they see? What are the eyes of Texas? They are the older and wiser men and women of Texas, who have run the state for many years. They are watching the youth of Texas who are soon to follow in their worthy footsteps and make our proud old state what it will be. It is we who will someday be in charge of Texas’ industry and government. Will we bring it greater prosperity? . . . We are always being watched. Watching and waiting, Texas is depending on us. We are the future.”
Sinclair, a writer, then took a popular melody that many UT students already knew — “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” — and which was simple enough that the others could quickly pick it up. Borrowing melodies, often without attribution, was common in the 19th century. The tune for “The Star-Spangled Banner” came from a British drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven”; “My Country ’Tis of Thee” took its tune from the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen/King.”
“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was also called “The Levee Song.” The origin of that tune is unclear. The central theme of the song might well have come from Franz Von Suppé’s 1846 Poet and Peasant Overture and can be heard about one minute into the piece. The first publication of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” (music and lyrics) was in 1894.
Advertisement in the May 11, 1903 Austin Statesman for the Varsity Minstrel show on May 12.
“The Eyes of Texas” was first performed on May 12, 1903. It was one number in a student-organized minstrel show at the Hancock Opera House in downtown Austin. The show was a fundraiser for UT’s track team with performances and musical support by the university’s band. The event was chosen to debut the song because the students knew that President Prather was expected to attend the event and his presence was paramount in order to make fun of him.
The Hancock Opera House circa 1900, at 112-14 West Sixth Street.
At the time of the song’s premiere, and for decades afterward, the fact that it debuted at a minstrel show occasioned little comment. But eventually this became an issue, and a question was asked: Were the singers who performed the song wearing blackface? The answer is: Most probably, yes.
The surviving contemporary accounts don’t allow a direct, definitive answer, and no photographs from the show have been found. However the program identifies the singers, each of whom previously had played stock characters in that show that traditionally wore blackface: the comic duo of “Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones” and “circle men,” who stood behind the lead characters in a semicircle. It is highly unlikely that the singers would have removed their makeup before performing the song, which came toward the end of the variety show.
Inside program of the May 12, 1903 minstrel show.
Another song performed that night offers an outright ironic example of the moral confusion of that time. “My Castle on the Nile” was sung by one of the “Bones” characters, yet it was composed by J. Rosamond Johnson, better known as the composer of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the “Negro National Anthem”; he would go on to become a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. The lyrics were by his brother James Weldon Johnson, a prominent poet and eventually executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Bob Cole. “My Castle on the Nile,” written in 1901, satirized the pretensions of newly rich industrialists who built big mansions in exclusive watering holes; the song’s narrator’s roots ran much deeper, into Africa, where his castle was on the Nile.
The minstrel show was perhaps the most popular form of entertainment in 1900 and was the forerunner to virtually all popular entertainment in the coming century — vaudeville, radio and TV. That “The Eyes of Texas” was almost certainly debuted in blackface is a regrettable reflection of the centrality of this form of entertainment in 1903, but the song’s intent appears to affectionately parody President Prather’s famous signatory line. The fact it was not written in dialect is evidence that the song was not created for minstrelsy.