The Yellow Rose of Texas has to be one of the most famous “Texas” songs ever written. However, as I started reading about its history, I was shocked at how much I didn”t know about the song.
As many folks songs do, The Yellow Rose evolved over time. The first recorded lyrics appeared in Christy”s Plantation Melodies. No. 2, a songbook published in Philadelphia in 1853. Edwin P. Christy was the founder of a minstrel group that performed in the blackface entertainment style that was popular at that time. Performers would create parodies with lively dance numbers, songs, and woeful ballads. The Yellow Rose of Texas was a perfect fit for this genre, with a lovesick singer who refers to himself as a “darkey” longing to return to “a yellow girl,” a term used to describe a mulatto, or woman of mixed blood. Here are some of the original lyrics:
No other darkies know her, No darkey, only me;
She cried so when I left her That it
like to broke my heart,
And if I only find her, We never more will part.
Chorus: She”s the sweetest girl of colour That this darkey ever knew;
Her eyes are bright as diamonds, And sparkle like the dew.
You may talk about your Dearest Mae, And sing of Rosa Lee,
But the yellow Rose of Texas Beats the belles of Tennessee.
I had never heard these lyrics. They give a completely different meaning to
the song, don”t they? When the sheet music for the song was copyrighted in 1858, “yellow girl” was changed to “yellow rose” in the first verse and instead of the “sweetest girl of colour” in the chorus, it now read “sweetest rose of colour.”
The song became a huge hit, and by the time of the Civil War, it became a point of pride for the South and roused southern loyalties. Later in the century, the song’s notoriety led to its association with the yellow flowers, and in 1892, Governor James Hogg wore “the yellow rose of Texas” on the lapel of his coat during his successful reelection campaign.
It wasn”t until 1933 when Gene Autry recorded the song as a cowboy ballad that the lyrics we”re more familiar with came into being. They replaced “no other darkey knows her, no darkey only me” with “no other fellow knows her, nobody else but me.” The revised lyrics thus made the song racially neutral, and the “yellow rose” became symbolic of the attractive woman’s beauty, not her race.
As time went by, other lyrics transitioned as well. Eventually the first line of the chorus changed from “She”s the sweetest girl of colour…” to “She”s the sweetest little rosebud that Texas ever knew.” Dearest Mae is also sometimes swapped out with Clemintine. And instead of the yellow rose beating out the belles of Tennessee, she simply became “the only girl for me.” Wouldn”t want those Tennessee gals to get too riled, you know.
The tune changed as well. In 1955 Mitch Miller and his orchestra produced a new arrangement of the song to give it the sound of a Confederate marching song instead of a ballad. This version hit #1 on the charts and sold over a million copies. This is the version most people are familiar with today. Below is a 1955 performance of the song.
So, what do you think of when you hear The Yellow Rose of Texas?