Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Story of the Yellow Rose of Texas

Lately I have been trying to learn more about the pop culture of the mid-nineteenth century-minstrelsy. Recently reading Sarah Meer's Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s, has touched off a multitude of questions that now plague my thoughts. That's the curse (or blessing-depending on who you look at it) of loving history.

I first became interested in minstrelsy a few years back when I was doing Civil War reenacting. I bought a CD by the 2nd South Carolina String Band that had a number of songs by Stephen Foster, Dan Emmet, and other minstrel writers of the 1840s-1860s on it. Inside the liner notes it had a brief history of each song. Since then I have purchased a few more of their CDs, and I highly recommend their recordings.

One of songs that the 2nd South Carolina covers on their latest CD, Dulcem Melodies, and that has an interesting story is the Yellow Rose of Texas. Although it was published by "J.K" Frith, Pond & Co. in 1858, the true author is unknown and most certainly the song was written earlier than the published date.

The story is based in the era of the Texas Revolution of 1836, in which Texas was attempting to claim its independence from Mexico. According to the legend there was a beautiful young mixed race (thus the "yellow" adjective) woman named Emily West who had migrated to Texas in 1835 and was indentured on the plantation of James Morgan in New Washington, Texas. When Mexican general Santa Anna arrived in New Washington he was so captivated by West that he had her captured and brought along with the army. The legend is not real clear but apparently Santa Anna was so smitten, seduced, or distracted (or all three) by West that he did not prepare his troops properly, and during the day's siesta, on April 21, 1836, the Mexican army was badly defeated at the Battle of San Jacinto. Morgan was reportedly so appreciative of West's help in winning Texas its independence that he released her from her indenture.

Here are the words to the minstrel song:

There's a yellow Rose of Texas that I am going to see
No other darkie knows her, no darkie only me
She cried so when I left her, it nearly broke my heart
And if I ever find her we never more will part.
(Chorus) She's the sweetest Rose of color this darkie ever knew
Her eyes are bright as diamonds, they sparkle like the dew
You may talk about your May most dear and sing of Rosa Lee
but the yellow Rose of Texas beats the belles of Tennessee.
Where the Rio Grand is flowing and the starry skies are bright
She walks along the river in the quiet summer night
She thinks if I remember, when we parted long ago
I promised to come back again and not to leave her so.
Oh! now I'm going to find her, for my heart is full of woe
And we'll sing the song together, that we sung so long ago
We'll play the banjo gaily and we'll sing the songs of yore
And the yellow Rose of Texas will be mine forever more.
During the Civil War the song became a favorite marching tune for Confederate soldiers. After General John Bell Hood's disastrous Tennessee campaign in November and December 1864 ended with the virtual destruction of the Army of Tennessee at the battles of Franklin and Nashville, those veterans added their own verse:

Oh my feet are torn and bloody and my heart is full of woe
I'm going back to Georgia to find my Uncle Joe [Johnston]
You may talk about your Beauregard and sing of General Lee
But the gallant Hood of Texas, he played hell in Tennessee.

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