Ask Mr. Mudd: “Levee Song” and Princeton’s Minstrel Shows

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.

carminia_princetoniana_1894_cover_ac056_box_2_folder_5

Carmina Princetonia, 1894. Princeton Music Collection (AC056), Box 2.

“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. The 1894 Princeton version includes reference to both levees and railroads.

carmina_princetonia_1894_levee_song_ac056_box_2_folder_5

“Levee Song” from Carmina Princetonia, 1894. Princeton Music Collection (AC056), Box 2. Click to enlarge.

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.”

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“Miscellaneous Organizations” illustration from 1890 Bric-a-Brac. Note the “Princeton College Minstrels” flyer in the upper left.

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.”

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Minstrel show from “All in Favor,” 1948. Triangle Club Records (AC122), Box 73.

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 (video here). 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.

Sources:

Bric-a-Brac

Daily Princetonian

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Princeton Music Collection (AC056)

Reunion Books Collection (AC214)

Triangle Club Records (AC122)

 

See also:

van Rossum, Helene. “Triangle’s ‘All in Favor’, 1948-1949.”

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