Minstrel songs like “The Eyes of Texas” were once common on college football Saturdays in the South – The Undefeated

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If you flip (digitally) through the 1910 University of Kentucky Yearbook, you will come across a student play called The Illinois Game, a thinly veiled fictional account of Kentucky’s victory over the University of Illinois in the 1909 football season. In scene three, the Kentucky students send their team north to the Southern Depot in Lexington to the sound of a band performing “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here”, “Dixie” and “My Old Kentucky Home”. Unsurprisingly, given the era and the intersectional nature of the game, the last two songs were blackface minstrel numbers that articulated fantasies of white plantation on the pre-war south.

The history of the yearbook dates from the same time that “The Eyes of Texas” entered the University of Texas directory. In 1902, a University of Texas student associated the melody of a popular blackface minstrel song with a new text centered on Texas. UT students performed “The Eyes of Texas” at a college minstrel show in May 1903, and the song soon permeated the school’s institutional life, including its football culture.

Over a century later, the controversy over the origins of “The Eyes of Texas” has generated strong media blanket, a long report by the university and a civil rights complaint at the US Department of Education. Most of this debate targets the text of the song (is he quoting Robert E. Lee?) The historical context that minstrel songs were once common in the soundtrack of southern white college football, mirroring the mythology of the lost cause that animated the the adoption by the South of, and speech around, the sport. Although the University of Texas report says little about the tune “The Eyes of Texas,” it comes from a blackface minstrel number called “Levee Song” (later called “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”). First published in a 1894 Princeton Songbook in dialect (the linguistic equivalent of blackface makeup), the “Levee Song” may date from earlier periods of minstrel. By the turn of the 20th century, the black-faced minstrel permeated American popular culture, including university campuses across the country. A May 1907 quartet concert in Olsburg, Kansas, for example, featured “Levee Song”, “Possum Pie” and “Doan ‘Ye Cry Ma’ Honey”. A Franklin & Marshall College Glee Club concert in 1897 featured the “Levee Song” alongside “Three Little Darkies”.

September 2, 1900, Raleigh Post the editorial printed the song’s title in dialect (“Ah Been Wukkin ‘on de Levee”) and declared it “of African creation”: a “real” working song, an authentically black cultural product.

Fans sing Texas eyes before a game between the Texas Longhorns and the Rice Owls on September 3, 2011 at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas.

Erich Schlegel / Getty Images

The editorial highlights an insidious minstrel heritage: White Americans believed him to represent the music, dance, speech, movements and attitudes of true black people. It is impossible to know to what extent the “Levee song” reflected elements of “genuine” black work songs, the white delusions of these black cultural products. constrained by blanks, or a pastiche thereof. What is clear is that the song’s text reframed the grueling physical labor of blacks as recreational (“I worked on the seawall, just to pass the time‘), Making it a light entertainment topic for white consumption.

The minstrel songs, especially those composed by Stephen foster, had achieved middle-class respectability by the time they entered the football culture of southern white universities. The “respectable” minstrel songs centered on the narrative position of an imaginary “sentimental slave” and included two Foster songs used in the football culture of early Southern, predominantly white (PWI) institutions: “My Old Kentucky Home “and” Old Folks at Home “. Black and white artists performed these two songs in sketches and shows on the theme of plantations of the time, in minstrels and in other contexts. Their lyrics and performance contexts on the theme of plantations erased, obscured or reframed black labor, as did the “song of Levee”.

The University of Kentucky used “My Old Kentucky Home” as early as 1907, when its choir appeared in the Kentuckian phone book. In the early 1910s, the song was an integral part of the school’s football culture; the Kentucky Yearbook 1913 records that the defeated Wildcats have left the field to the beat of the song. According to the student publication The idea, the football team took the field in the 1910s highlighted by the song, and alumni and students sang it at banquets back home. Soon, Kentucky fans and opponents regarded “My Old Kentucky Home” as the college’s iconic football song.

A 1923 article in the student newspaper, Kentucky Core, praised his emotional power and the university fanfare for his strategic deployment of this “battle hymn” during the games. The article happily reported that the band’s performance of “My Old Kentucky Home” was rated by the American from Atlanta, who said the song “inspires men to do things they can’t do otherwise.” (The same Core article advertised a fundraiser for a group of minstrels.) 1924 Core Account of the Kentucky-Tennessee game named “My Old Kentucky Home” four times, praising its “moving strains” and the Tennessee group’s deferential performance of the song.

A sign at the Grove to allow the Mississippi Rebels Band to play Dixie before a game against Memphis at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Mississippi.

Andy Altenburger / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The text of “My Old Kentucky Home” is full of sentimental agrarian references. Its putative narrator romanticizes bright sunshine and “ripe corn cobs” that, in real life, would have listed the backbreaking heat work of slaves allegedly portrayed by this same narrator. The chorus describes children rolling around on the cabin floor in a primitive and indifferent state, “cheerful, happy and bright”. In 1914 The idea speculated on the song’s composition in similar terms:

“[It was] written as a kind of musical memory of… the prosperous days “before the war”. One morning when the slaves were at work and the darkey [sic] children frolic in the neighborhoods, visitors [including Stephen Foster] were seated on a bench in front of the mansion. … The trained ear of the composer picked up the exquisite melody in the bird’s variations to the sweet music of the thrush and then and there… [Foster] scribbled the notes and scribbled several verses.

The wildly euphemistic language of this sort of narrative, Steven Knepper wrote, tended to “Darken and aestheticize” the reality of a southern economy based on physical labor stolen from movable slavery: white student writers at The idea describes slaves “at work” in “the prosperous ‘pre-war’ days” as carefree black children frolic. The narrative also connects song to nature via birdsong, framing race-based slavery as a normalized part of a bucolic social order – a mainstay of lost cause mythology.

“My Old Kentucky Home” also appears in early football sources from other Southern schools, including in a short and undated collection fight songs from the University of Florida. Here he appears alongside other minstrel songs such as “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”, “Dixie” and “Massa’s in from Cold, Cold Ground”. They all looked back, with racist terminology and open nostalgia, to the pre-war South. This songbook also included “Old Folks at Home” by Foster. Referring to the “Swanee River” (Bowdlerization by Foster of the Suwannee River in Florida), “Old Folks at Home” was written in 1851. It was part of the football culture of the University of Florida. well into the 20th century, performed in group arrangements and printed in sources such as this undated score. Like “My Old Kentucky Home”, the song’s text obscures the historic reality of the plantation as a site of forced black labor through nostalgia (“I still yearn for the old plantation”) that frames the world without. plantation as “sad and dreary.” “

Southern PWIs used a constellation of other minstrel songs in their early football culture, including “Moonlight on Dixie“,” Carry Me Back to Old Virginny “,” Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight “and, of course,” Dixie “. Like the Foster songs and the “Levee song,” many of these songs obscured or minimized the physical labor of blacks in the service of white plantation mythology. The hackneyed words of “Dixie”, for example, composed and voiced in the middle of the 19th century by a white actor in a minstrel show, talk about nostalgia for the “cotton country” where the past is remembered, handily hiding what “cotton” would have meant for enslaved black men. The common thread from “Levee Song” to “Dixie” is that the songs used in early PWI football culture masked the realities of black slave labor. It is no accident that they entered this culture just as the lost cause myth became a prevalent ideology among white Southerners.

At the end of the 20th century, minstrel songs began to disappear from the repertoire of Southern football (although neither hastily or evenly) as people slowly understood their disturbing nature. The University of Mississippi Marching Band, for example, did not stop playing “Dixie” until 2016. But “The Eyes of Texas” endures, because a long time ago, the students landed a minstrel tune. ‘a minstrel’s text. Can such a tune be rehabilitated, effectively separated from an early and powerful textual association? There are no straightforward answers, although there are some hard lines: no one would advocate saving the “Dixie” melody with new lyrics.

There are also other issues to consider, as expressed in the book by New York University music professor Matthew Morrison. Concept of “black sound”: The PWI have used blackface minstrel songs to build the pageantry of their million dollar football businesses while excluding black citizens from their faculties and students. Black men, however, were spectrally summoned in these songs, hardworking ghosts that brought to life the soundscape of college football.

This musical flow was a grotesque antecedent of the contemporary NCAA football structure, in which PWIs draw on the work of young black men. Borrowing songs from the minstrel in the early 20th century, the University of Texas was not alone among Southern schools, and as it prepares to join the Southeastern Conference, it fits in perfectly. in their historic terrain.

Nashville-based musicologist Carrie Allen Tipton writes and teaches about music, culture, and history, particularly of the southern United States. She’s writing a book on Southeastern Conference fight songs and teaching a music and sports class at Vanderbilt University.


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