Update, June 16, 2020: As "The Eyes of Texas" has been sung for 120 years, it’s worth considering both its present-day and historical contexts. Embracing the song’s meaning today should not stop us from seeing its complicated past, and acknowledging the many ways that people see the song.
In 1902, UT student Lewis Johnson played tuba for the Varsity Band, directed the University Chorus, and was the manager for just about every the musical performance on the campus. He was also a man on a quest. While college students in Massachusetts sang "Fair Harvard" and Princeton had its "Old Nassau," UT students had no song to call their own. In the early 1900s, the most popular tunes heard on the Forty Acres were "Love Nobody but You, Babe," and "The Hamburg Show," but these weren't truly Texan. While he wasn't a composer himself, Johnson was determined to create a song for the University of Texas.
Johnson contacted alumni known to have literary talent, hoping one would volunteer to write a UT song, but received only polite refusals. Not one to give up easily, Johnson turned to his fellow students, particularly band member John Lang Sinclair. Sinclair was an editor of the Cactus yearbook, a regular contributor to the University Literary Magazine, and was widely known as the "campus poet." Sinclair resisted at first, but Johnson continued to ask.
One evening in the spring of 1902, Johnson and Sinclair were returning from a comic opera performance in downtown Austin, when they stopped at Jacoby's Beer Garden, just south of the campus. The topic of a University song arose once again and, perhaps with the help of Mr. Jacoby's ales, Sinclair finally acquiesced to Johnson's requests. They went to Sinclair's room on the third of B. Hall (the first men's dorm), stayed up all night, and finished the verses for "Jolly Students of the 'Varsity."
Music (and inspiration) came from the nationally known song, "Jolly Students of America." Johnson contacted the composer in Detroit for permission to use the music, while Sinclair re-fashioned the words and extended the tune to six verses. The first two were:
Oh, the day was made for study, but the night for mirth and song; Let us all go down together, all you fellows come along. What's the use to grind and cram for ev'ry little term exam? If the Prof intends to bust me, let him bust me as I am!
For we are jolly students of the 'Varsity, the 'Varsity! We are a merry, merry crew. We'll show the chief of all policemen who we are Rah! Rah! Rah! Down on the Avenue.
And ev'ry day you find us in the classroom or the hall. You'll find us on the campus and we'll hear you when you call. We'll hear you when you call, but when night begins to fall, You'll seek in vain because we're not anywhere at all!
For we are jolly students of the 'Varsity, the 'Varsity! We are a merry, merry crew. And almost everyone who sees us says we are Rah! Rah! Rah! The best they ever knew.
"The Jolly Students" was introduced at a talent show in May, and was instantly popular with UT students. But Johnson felt the song still lacked a distinct Texas identity, and the following spring prodded Sinclair to try again.
In March 1903, while Johnson was in the University Post Office in the old Main Building, Sinclair arrived, grinned, handed Johnson a folded scrap of brown laundry paper, and left. On it, scribbled in pencil with scratched-out lines and corrections, was the first draft of a poem:
They watch above you all the day, The bright blue eyes of Texas. At midnight they're with you all the way, The sleepless eyes of Texas.
The Eyes of Texas are upon you, All the livelong day. The eyes of Texas are upon you, They're with you all the way. They watch you through the peaceful night, They watch you in the early dawn, When from the eastern skies the high light Tells that the night is gone.
Sing me a song of Texas, And Texas' myriad eyes Countless as the bright stars That fill the midnight skies.
Vandyke brown, vermillion, Sepia, Prussian blue, Ivory black and crimson lac, And eyes of every hue.
Before Johnson read the last line, he knew Sinclair had produced something for the University that would last long after their time as students had passed. Set to the tune "I've Been Working on the Railroad," Johnson and Sinclair prepared the song so it could be performed by the Varsity Quartet at its next show in May. As the work progressed, the two decided to make the song a joke on UT President William Prather, and Sinclair made some significant revisions to the words.
Prather, who became the University's president in 1899, had attended Washington College in Virginia (now Washington and Lee University), and often heard its president at the time - General Robert E. Lee - tell the students, "Remember, the eyes of the South are upon you." Prather particularly liked this phrase, and decided to end his inaugural speech as UT president with the words "the eyes of Texas are upon you."
The speech was so well received, Prather began to end all of his talks the same way. The students, of course, picked up on it immediately, and it became an ongoing campus joke to chant "Remember, the eyes of Texas are upon you!" at sporting events, concerts, and just about every social occasion. Prather took the good-natured kidding as it was intended. He knew that, at least, the students were listening to him.
A Varsity Minstrel Show was scheduled for Wednesday evening, May 12, 1903, in the Hancock Opera House on West Sixth Street, and was packed with music, dances, skits, and even a tumbling act. Proceeds from the show would pay for the University Track team to attend the All-South Track and Field Competition in Atlanta.
Leading off the show was an overture by the Varsity Band, followed by "Oh, The Lovely Girls," "Old Kentucky Home," and "The Castle on the Nile" performed by the University Chorus or student soloists. The fourth piece listed on the printed program was cryptically labeled a "Selection" by the Varsity Quartet.
With President Prather sitting in the audience, four students: Jim Kivlehen, Ralph Porter, Bill Smith and Jim Cannon, accompanied by John Sinclair on the banjo, took the stage and unleashed Sinclair's creation:
I once did know a President A way down South, in Texas. And, always, everywhere he went, He saw the Eyes of Texas.
The Eyes of Texas are upon you, All the livelong day. The Eyes of Texas are upon you, You cannot get away. Do not think you can escape them At night or early in the morn - The Eyes of Texas are upon you Til Gabriel blows his horn.
Sing me a song of Prexy, Of days long since gone by. Again I seek to greet him, And hear his kind reply. Smiles of gracious welcome Before my memory rise, Again I hear him say to me, "Remember Texas' Eyes."
Before the first verse was finished, the crowd was in an uproar. By the end of the song, the audience was pounding the floor and demanding so many encores that members of the quartet became hoarse and had to sing "We're Tired Out." The Varsity Band quickly learned the tune, and the following evening included "The Eyes of Texas" on its weekly Promenade Concert around the campus.
Prather, though, had the last laugh. Less than a month after the minstrel show, on June 10th, spring graduation ceremonies were held in the auditorium of Old Main. Prather made his farewell speech to the senior class, and turned the joke back on them. "And now, young ladies and gentlemen, in the words of your own poet, remember that the eyes of Texas are upon you." The seniors gave Prather a standing ovation, and the University of Texas had a song it could call its own.