Q. Dear Mr. Mudd,
Is it true that the University of Texas school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” has a Princeton University connection? Where did the song come from, and why don’t Princeton students sing it anymore?
A. “The Eyes of Texas” is set to a tune best known today as “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Both use a melody first published as “Levee Song” in the College of New Jersey (Princeton)’s songbook, Carmina Princetonia, in 1894. With the new lyrics as “The Eyes of Texas,” the song was first published in The University of Texas Community Songbook in 1918.
“Levee Song” was already well known by the time of its publication. The song itself may date back as early as the 1830s and 1840s, and it refers to the use of African American labor to construct levees across the South. As black labor shifted from building levees to building railroads, so too did the lyrics of the tune. (A mixture of primarily enslaved African Americans, alongside imprisoned and immigrant laborers, built these levees and railroads in the antebellum period, but racial prejudices regarding work persisted long after emancipation. In the late 19th century, free black laborers were still the primary workforce maintaining the railroad tracks.) The 1894 Princeton version includes reference to both levees and railroads.
Princeton’s Glee Club included “Southern Levee Song” in a series of concerts in 1892. Alumni seem to have had strong associations between their alma mater and this song. In 1900, Alexander McDowell Wilson, Class of 1897, wistfully recalled his time at Princeton: “With a lusty good will I could join you in singing once again the Levee Song.”
All three songs (“Levee Song,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” and “The Eyes of Texas”) have origins in minstrel shows. Princeton’s minstrel tradition may have begun in 1886, when students complained that they had no “outlet for our long pent-up humorous and jocular emotions.” A minstrel show would solve this problem, the Princetonian felt. “Such a performance would certainly be acceptable to any College audience; it will be especially acceptable here.” They noted that Princeton was late to become involved in minstrelsy, but that similar entertainment had been popular at rival institutions. “The enthusiastic reception which College audiences everywhere else have always given to their minstrel troupes, should encourage them to go ahead with their plan. They need have no fear about the support of the College.”
Though minstrel shows declined in popularity nationwide after the early twentieth century, they lived on at college campuses, including Princeton. For example, the Triangle Club’s 1949 production of “All in Favor” featured a full-scale minstrel show (see the blog and video). The “Levee Song,” as part of this tradition, remained a part of alumni nostalgia well into the mid-twentieth century. Given the changes in Princeton’s student population and its expressed hope to act in the service of humanity, entertainment like this no longer has a place on campus.
Princeton Music Collection (AC056)
Reunion Books Collection (AC214)
Triangle Club Records (AC122)
Kornweibel, Theodore, Jr. Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.