Texas fans sing "The Eyes of Texas" before a Big 12 Conference football game at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]

Football

A history of ‘The Eyes of Texas’: Song performed at minstrel shows is now part of every-day UT life

Former UT president William Prather used the words from Robert E. Lee as a way to inspire UT students in the early 1900s

Posted June 12th, 2020

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“The Eyes of Texas” is nearly as old as the University of Texas itself. The school song was written in 1903 and is played before and after every UT sporting event.

But the song’s origins, lyrical tune and meaning has been a sore subject with minorities for years. On Friday, UT football players formally asked for “the replacement of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ with a new song without racist undertones.”

In a post on social media, players also called for “lifting the requirement of athletes to sing the song” after games.

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Edmund T. Gordon, associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at UT, said the song once performed in minstrel shows is now “part of the every-day experience at the University of Texas.”

“I think people are amazed that the past isn’t really so much the past,” Gordon said Friday. “It’s right there in front of us, but we just don’t know.”

Texas men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart, center right, listens to “The Eyes of Texas” with his team after a game against Iowa State in February. (Michael Thomas/The Associated Press)

Future UT President William Lambdin Prather, who was born in Tennessee but grew up near a plantation in Waco, was a law student at Washington and Lee University. He watched how university president Robert E. Lee, the old Confederate general during the Civil War, addressed the students.

“Lee, as president used to say to his assembled faculty and students, ‘The eyes of the South are upon you,’” Gordon said. “When Prather became president of the Univeristy of Texas, he began saying at the end of his talks to students and faculty that ‘The eyes of Texas are upon you.’

“Students, as students will do, decided to make fun of that and created a satirical song that have words that were appropriate to the University of Texas,” Gordon continued. “Those are the words of the song, and they put it to the tune of a well-known song, which was ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.’”

“Railroad” was believed to have first been known as “Levee Song,” published in 1894 by Princeton students. The song disparaged black laborers who worked in railroad and levee camps.

Texas softball players Mary Iakopo, Miranda Elish, Taylor Ellsworth and Colleen Sullivan observe the “Eyes of Texas” before a game against Wichita State at McCombs Field on Feb. 6. (Lola Gomez/American-Statesman)

“So its origins are either as a black work song or as a minstrel song, in other words folks in black face impersonating black folks,” Gordon said.

Throughout UT history, there has been little attempt at hiding the song’s origins. Cactus yearbook editor John Sinclair is credited with changing the “Railroad” lyrics to the UT version.

The song was first performed at the Hancock Opera House in Austin and became a hit. It was then performed by white singers in blackface at the Varsity minstrel show, which was a fundraiser for UT athletics in the early 1900s.

At some point, the song’s origins were forgotten and “The Eyes of Texas” became the school song. The university took trademark ownership of the phrase “The Eyes of Texas are upon you” in 1936, according to school records.

“The Eyes of Texas” was played at Prather’s funeral in 1905.

Texas players past and present sing “The Eyes of Texas” at the annual alumni baseball game. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

More than a century later, Texas athletes stand at attention on their field of play after every home game and sing “The Eyes.” At times, it can be a prideful, emotional moment, especially after big wins or crushing defeats.

Take the annual Texas-Oklahoma football battle, for example. UT fans love to stay for “The Eyes” after beating their chief rival at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. With the OU side empty, fans of all races shout “All the live long day!” in unison.

But that doesn’t change the song’s meaning and historical significance.

Throughout the years, several different groups has pushed the university to drop the song, all to no avail. No formal action has been taken by university administrators.

It’s unclear if any decision will be reached this time, either.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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