A Few Words from an “Eyes of Texas” Committee Member

It was an extraordinary journey. After four months of meetings, researching, and writing, the Eyes of Texas History Committee released its report on Monday, March 9, 2021. The route wasn’t always a smooth one. As with everyone else, the group had to contend with a global pandemic, then work through Thanksgiving break, end-of-semester final exams, and the holidays. By the start of the New Year, the committee had discovered so much material it asked UT President Hartzell for a month extension to organize it all. Then, just as everything was coming together, Texas was blindsided by the “Big Chill” winter storm which closed the University – and much of the state – for a week.

Despite the complications, being on the committee was a wonderful experience, and most of the credit goes to our chair, Rich Reddick. This was not a group where a few labored and most watched; everyone actively contributed to the task at hand. The members were highly diverse in their backgrounds, ages, and relationships with the University community, which led to far-ranging, frank, and substantive discussions. Four of our faculty members were trained historians. While we usually convened on Thursday evenings via Zoom, it was already Friday morning for one alumnus who lived in Singapore. He greeted the rest of us “from the future.” Another on our roster became a parent for the first time.

The committee was primarily charged with documenting a history of “The Eyes of Texas” as accurately as we could muster, so that any conversations about the song would be grounded in historical fact. The group culled through newspaper accounts and Cactus yearbooks, searched the Board of Regents minutes, examined catalogs of historical recordings, combed through feature films and literature, and interviewed student organizations and former student-athletes. While the Briscoe Center for American History – which houses and preserves the all-important UT archives – was closed because of the pandemic, the Briscoe Center staff heroically spent hours scanning the contents of multiple files and made them electronically available to the committee. The Austin History Center also generously contributed research materials.

Our meetings often included guests. We heard from Diane Boddy and Jeanne Klein, granddaughters of Lewis Johnson, who in 1903 encouraged fellow UT student John Sinclair to compose “The Eyes”. Diane and Jeanne shared a manuscript written by Johnson on the origin of the song. The committee also met with: internationally-admired artist Michael Ray Charles, now on the faculty of the University of Houston; ethnomusicologist Charles Carson, an Associate Professor of Musicology at UT’s Butler School of Music; as well as a group of students and student-athletes to better understand their experiences with the song.

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The Eyes of Texas Report wasn’t meant to be exhaustive, but “complete”, in order to best relate the extent to which the song had evolved and traveled. To avoid the curse of being tedious, not all of the information discovered was included in the final draft. Among the anecdotes omitted:

At 33-years old, many thought Major League Baseball pitcher Jim “Tex” Carleton was ready for retirement. From 1932 -1938, Carleton had played for the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, but a persistent sore pitching arm dropped him to the minor league in 1939. He thought about returning home to Fort Worth.

At the start of 1940 spring training, Carleton was granted a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers, won a conditional contract, and joined a team with four other Texans on the roster. For the rest of training and after the season opened on April 16, those same Texans began to sing “The Eyes of Texas” each time Carleton jogged out to the pitcher’s mound. The song may have worked some magic. Carleton threw his first and only career no-hitter on April 30 against the Cincinnati Reds. (Image courtesy of the Society for American Baseball Research.)

Early in 1942, just after the United States entered the Second World War, the Imperial Japanese Army conducted a swift campaign to seize control of the Philippines. By April 9, after the fall of Bataan, the final holdout for the Allies was Corregidor, a four-mile long island with a single prominent hill, heavily fortified and strategically located at the entrance to Manila Bay. The remaining U.S. and Filipino forces persevered for as long as possible, which provided critical time for the Allies to prepare defenses for Australia, but were well overmatched. The island was surrendered on May 6.   

Among the U.S. troops stationed on Corregidor were 24 Texas A&M University former students. Two weeks before the surrender, and knowing that the odds for success were slim, “word came back that they bade farewell to home with a song, ‘The Eyes of Texas,’” reported the Odessa American.  John Lomax, who served as UT’s first alumni association director and was internationally famous for his efforts to preserve American folk music, penned a letter to John Sinclair, then in New York: “A bunch of A&M boys led by General Moore, whom I taught at A&M College, lined up at Corregidor and sang [‘The Eyes of Texas’] as a last shout of defiance.” Twenty of the Aggies became prisoners of war.

Two years later, in 1944, Marine Corps pilot Lieutenant Paul Sanders from Pawhuska, Oklahoma was shot down over the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. Landing in the water and paddling ashore after nightfall, Sanders survived several days in the tropical forests before finding a local village.

“For some reason, the natives wanted to give me presents,” Sanders recounted, “so about 50 gathered around and gave me a quantity of beads, sea shells, and the like. . . They sang a lot of songs and I taught them ‘The Eyes of Texas.’ I had to sing it to them six times, but they got it pretty well. We had a great time.”

The song was evidently passed along to other communities. Later the same year, a second U.S. pilot, this time from Texas, was downed over a different part of the Solomons. He was rescued by a group of islanders and fed yams and breadfruit, before a group of local children gathered around and – to his great surprise – serenaded him with “The Eyes”.

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After the committee’s report was released, several questions were raised. Let me try to answer some of them. This is meant to be informational; neither the Eyes of Texas Committee nor I want to tell people how they should feel about the song.

  • Why did the committee believe there was no “racist intent”?
  • After the report was released, a UT professor wrote what he claims is the “true” origin of the song. Was “The Eyes” created from scratch early in the morning of May 12, 1903, as simply a minstrel song for a minstrel show?

The answer to the last question is, emphatically, no. Let’s look at a chronicle of events using the resources seen by the committee, which includes the UT archives:

1902: Lewis Johnson dearly wanted UT to have its own college songs and convinced his friend and fellow student John Sinclair to collaborate on what became known as “We are the Jolly Students.” It used the music from a popular tune at the time – “The Jolly Students of America” – with Sinclair having re-written some of the lyrics. (This is important, as it set a pattern Sinclair would use for “The Eyes.”) Composed in 6/8 time, “The Jolly Students” was well-received and would probably have made a good beer drinking song, but it didn’t take off. Johnson wanted to try again and asked Sinclair for a new song.

February 18, 1903: Johnson authored an extended editorial titled “A College without a Song” for the Texan student newspaper. Part of it read: 

“There is no activity of college life that is so characteristic of its vivacity and spirit as singing its songs – songs that represent the whole gamut of its feelings, from the nonsensical jollities to its whole-souled reverence and devotion to the university itself. There is nothing that so completely serves as a bond of union to all within its walls, not even the treasured yells. It has been said that there is between the old graduates and the new students no bond of union like the college song. It is the one thing that can be carried with you, and at any and all times will bring up the dear memories of the alma mater.”

Possibly March, 1903: On campus, John Sinclair gave Johnson a scrap of brown laundry paper with the original version of “The Eyes of Texas,” already set to the tune “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” that is now on display at the alumni center. According to Johnson’s manuscript, where Johnson described himself as the “director” (the student manager of UT’s musical organizations) and Sinclair the “author”: 

“With the added responsibility and flushed with enthusiasm over the reception of “The Jolly Students” another conference was held by the director and the author at which time the latter was reminded that he had been there longer then the director and knew conditions fully as well and especially the needs of more college songs; that he was at liberty to select the tune to suit his fancy and to write the words likewise but was requested to confine his efforts to another type of song, preferably a patriotic hymn to the dear old alma mater.

“On many occasions after such request, the author was asked how his muse was coming along; how much courting of it he was doing and when he would hand in another composition. Weeks passed and one day he pulled from his pocket an irregularly shaped piece of yellow wrapping paper from a laundry bundle and handed it, with one of his cunning Scotch smiles, to the director without comment. When the latter read it over, another thrill came, and with the reply, ‘That will live and endure here long after you and are dead and forgotten.’ That prophetic forecast seems to have come true for that was the original manuscript of ‘The Eyes of Texas.’

“Copies were made for use in the Glee Club and put into rehearsal at once. It met an enthusiastic response from the Club members thereby giving it an auspicious start in the world.”

Johnson’s manuscript is partly confirmed by a letter from John Sinclair to Johnson found in the UT archives:

“In tribute to your perspicacity, I may say that I remember your predicting, as soon as you had given the words the once-over, that they would last as long as the University, and be there to represent us when you and I are gone.“ (Sinclair to Johnson, June 8 1925)

We don’t know when the “conference” between Johnson and Sinclair took place. A likely time would be near February 18, when the Texan editorial was published, as the issue would have been on Johnson’s mind. If so, that would mean Sinclair wrote the original version of “The Eyes” in mid-March. It could have been earlier or later, but it’s clear that the intent was to create a UT song in the spirit of Harvard’s “Fair Harvard.” The exchange took place between the two, not with others present, and there’s no mention of it being for a minstrel show.

April 1, 1903: A minstrel show was announced in the Texan, initially scheduled for May 1 as a fundraiser for the track team to compete in Atlanta. Of note here is that the newspaper emphasized the show would be a rare opportunity for the students to poke some fun at the faculty:

“One specialty will be jokes on members of the faculty and parodies on songs wherein incidental references might be made to some of them. As one of the northern college papers said recently, “a college minstrel show is the only occasion for the students to get even with the faculty. The faculty has its time the rest of the year; this is the student body’s time.”

The idea of a minstrel show originated with Homer Curtiss, the director of men’s physical education at UT, as well as the track coach. Lewis Johnson, as the student manager for all of the campus musical organizations, was naturally included in the planning.

April 12 – 20, 1903: The Glee Club and Mandolin Club went on their third annual concert tour through North and Central Texas. Glee Club Director Dan Penick – who was also a classical languages professor and the University’s tennis coach – convinced his fellow faculty members to allow the groups to miss a week of class.

During the tour, John Sinclair missed the train twice – once allegedly because he was talking to a young lady – and had to purchase his own ticket aboard a freight train to catch up. The Texan had some fun with Sinclair’s mishaps (Texan, April 29, 1903):

“There was a young man named Sinclair, who paid for his own railroad fare. Twice left at the station, causing great trepidation; hereafter he’ll always be there.”

An important note here is that the Glee Club’s concert program included either “The Levee Song” or “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Newspaper sources mention both titles. Since the Glee Club was rehearsing for the concert tour all spring, this is likely why Sinclair was recently familiar with the music when he composed “The Eyes.”

April 29, 1903: A second Texan article about the upcoming minstrel show reiterated the theme of poking fun at the faculty:

“All students will enjoy the occasion immensely. This is the only time they get even with the Faculty; local hits and jokes on all the professors will be leading features of the evening.”

The article also stated that the date of the show would be announced soon.

May 5, 1903: The earliest mention of the minstrel show date as May 12 in the Austin Statesman. The date must have been decided as early as May 4, which left only about a week to get everything ready.

Early May, 1903: Several events happen here, and we have evidence to help us piece it together. 

  •  The program: Unlike today, when a concert program can be designed and hundreds of copies printed in an afternoon, a minimum of several days would have been required in 1903. A copy of the minstrel show program is in the UT archives, and the first part of the show is listed as: 

Overture . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ‘Varsity Band

Opening Chorus . . . . . . .  “Oh, the Lovely Girls”

Chorus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . “Old Kentucky Home”

Song “The Castle on the Nile”  . . . . . Mr. Harris

Selection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ‘Varsity Quartette

We know from the post-show newspaper reviews that the “selection” by the quartet was “The Eyes of Texas.” This tells us that when the program went to be designed and printed, the ‘Varsity Quartette didn’t yet know what song they would sing. “The Eyes” hadn’t yet been included in the show.

And, as an aside, the term ” ‘varsity ” with an apostrophe is simply a contraction of the word “university.” Think of university -> ‘versity -> ‘varsity. In 1900s Texas, a student attending the “College” was understood to be at the A&M College of Texas, while someone enrolled at “‘Varsity” was at the University in Austin.

  • The show deadline: There would have been a deadline to finalize the content of the show so that full run-through rehearsals could be held. Some of the cast members had multiple parts and the stage crew at the Hancock Opera House needed to become familiar with the performance. The Austin Statesman mentioned on May 12 there had been a week of rehearsals and at least one full run-through.

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, but its lyrics – comparing “eyes of every hue” to stars in the Texas nighttime sky – wasn’t in line with the well-advertised theme of the show to poke fun at the faculty. Sinclair revised the lyrics to be specifically about President Prather, a “Prather Parody” version.

Some of the better-known versions on the origin of the song have come from then Dean of Engineering Thomas “T. U.” Taylor and Fannie Prather, President Prather’s daughter, who authored an article for the Dallas Morning in 1926. Both claim the song was written entirely the night before the minstrel show. But neither were actually present, and we also have a letter from Lewis Johnson to Dan Penick dated December 7, 1928 in the UT archives:

“You have read dear old T.U.’s long write up of [“The Eyes”], Fannie Prather’s page in the Dallas News etc. and know that none of them have been able to give the authentic history of its conception and birth.”

  • Horace Whaling letter: Once the lyrics were revised into the “Prather Parody” version, Sinclair brought a handwritten copy to fellow UT student and friend Horace Whaling, Jr., who had been editor of the Texan in the 1902 spring term. Sinclair sought Whaling’s feedback on the song and then left the copy with his friend. Whaling kept the sheet for almost half a century, mailing it to the University Libraries in 1950, along with an explanatory letter that Sinclair had visited Whaling at his student residence on Lavaca Street. The lyrics and the letter are now in the Texas Composers Letter File in the UT archives at the Briscoe Center.

A close inspection of the lyrics shows that one line is different than what was actually sung at the minstrel show. The chorus begins with the now-familiar “The eyes of Texas are upon you, all the live long day,” but continues with, “However hard you try (dog-gone you!) you cannot get away.” There were first and final drafts of the “Prather Parody” version.

  •  The May 11 newspaper ad: An ad for the show appeared in the Austin Statesman on the morning of May 11 that announced “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” would be sung. The ad would have been ordered no later than May 10. And so, we know the “Prather Parody” version of “The Eyes” was in the show by May 10. Sinclair may have also visited Whaling on the same day.
  • Contest of Colleges” Baseball Game: A baseball game between the University of Texas and Southwestern University was scheduled for the afternoon of May 11. A sizable contingent UT students planned to make the trip to Georgetown, as did the Glee Club and Mandolin Club, who were set to perform a concert on the Southwestern campus that evening. At the last moment, heavy rains cancelled the contest.

The Austin newspaper reported that there was a full rehearsal of the minstrel show on the night of May 11, but had the weather been clear, the Glee Club – including the quartet – the Mandolin Club, and Lewis Johnson as a soloist, would all have been in Georgetown. Since no one knew the baseball game would be rained out, it’s likely there was a full run-through May 10 (thought to be the last), and then an unexpected opportunity for an additional rehearsal May 11.

May 12, 1903: The Austin Statesman morning newspaper claimed that the students were ready for the show, and explained:

“The jokes and grinds are all original and local, and hit off well known people in town and in the University. This is the only chance the students have to take a rap at the faculty, and it is said they have made the most of it.”

“The rehearsals have been going on all the past week, and all the details have been watched so that the entire performance goes off smooth and without a hitch. At the rehearsal last night Mr. Walker and the opera house staff pronounced the performance the finest thing of its kind ever given in Austin.“

May 12, 1903: “The Eyes of Texas” debuted in a minstrel show at the Hancock Theater downtown. Coach Homer Curtiss and the track team actually left before the show was over to board the train for Atlanta as the track meet was that Saturday.

January-February 1936: On page 31 of the Eyes of Texas Report, as UT student Ed Nunnally corresponded with John Sinclair in order to obtain a copyright on “The Eyes,” Sinclair sent Nunnally additional lyrics he hadn’t shared before. They were meant to replace the second verse because what was sung at the 1903 show was “to be of too limited interest for general use.” –  

“For though we may wander, here our hearts remain; Texas bids us welcome, when we come again. Still in kind remembrance we hold the days of yore, and those to come we pledge anew to Texas, evermore.”

While the original version of “The Eyes” had been revised into the “Prather Parody” for the minstrel show, Sinclair still considered the song as something for the University in the long term, and crafted a verse that didn’t simply make fun of the president. As we know today, only the chorus became popular, and there was never a need to replace the second verse.

In all, we know of four versions of lyrics to “The Eyes of Texas. (Click on the image above for a larger version.)

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Given the evidence from newspaper reports, the Lewis Johnson manuscript, and documents found in the University archives, the committee found that the song was initially intended to be a “patriotic hymn to the dear old alma mater.” An opportunity to perform it came with the minstrel show, but the lyrics needed to be revised to fit the show’s underlying theme of having fun with the faculty. Sinclair, concerned the song might forever be thought as a joke on President Prather, penned what he believed to be a more appropriate verse for the song’s original purpose.

Today, we would certainly never approve of the venue – the minstrel show – in which “The Eyes” was first performed, but the committee saw a difference between the setting and what Johnson and Sinclair intended with the song.

I’ll try to answer more questions about the report in a second part to this post. Jim

5 thoughts on “A Few Words from an “Eyes of Texas” Committee Member

  1. Jim……you’re fantastic. Thank you for serving on the committee. When I first heard of the committee I was so hopeful that President Hartzell would include you. Your knowledge regarding our University is beyond compare. Hook ’em, Bill Haehnel

  2. Jim, thank you for putting the facts on the table. It should be clear to anyone capable of rational thought that you are correct in your conclusion that “The Eyes” does not have racist roots. It’s worse than merely unfortunate that some people today feel free to invent or twist facts to cast that shadow on perfectly honorable persons, institutions, customs, and cultural icons. It’s good to hear from you again.

    John Clark

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