Anatomy Of A Song – A Texas Favorite

Something I saw while watching an old Gunsmoke rerun on TV inspired today’s edition of Anatomy of a Song. It surprised me at the time — not because I didn’t already know about it, but because those old Gunsmokes seldom ventured into subjects that didn’t really have a lot to do with the action on screen. They also didn’t often mention subjects that could be a little controversial, but they did offer up an occasional surprise.

This particular surprise occurred during a scene that featured some rambunctious, loud-mouthed Texas cowboys, one of whom kept insisting he wanted to hear someone sing his favorite song, “The roseYellow Rose Of Texas.” Finally an almost unnoticed character in the scene — an African-American man, a rarity for Gunsmoke — spoke up and said something like, ‘You know, that song is actually about one of my people.’

That was about it. The loud Texan just frowned and the scene played on in a different direction, so the whole thing was just a momentary distraction. But it reminded me of the story behind the song, one that most people then and now don’t really know. The song is said to have originated back in the 1830s, during the Texas War of Independence. It refers to a lady named Emily West (or sometimes Emily Morgan) who supposedly seduced General Antonio López de Santa Anna, President of Mexico and commander of the Mexican forces, which apparently distracted him so much that he lost the decisive battle of San Jacinto. In any case, Emily was a mulatto — in that era sometimes called a ‘high-yellow’ because of skin color — and that’s who is celebrated in the song.

Texans took the song with them when they later fought for the South in the Civil War, and it became a favorite for the entire Confederate Army, although the lyrics went through a lot of changes then and later. The modern version became so popular that Mitch Miller’s 1955 record became a chart-topper, knocking Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” from it perch as number one.

You can see how the lyrics evolved by looking at four variations of just one line. (You can hear a complete old version in the video at the bottom.)

She’s the sweetest rose of color this darky ever knew…

She’s the sweetest rose of color this soldier ever knew…

She’s the sweetest rose of color this fellow ever knew…

She’s the sweetest little rosebud, that Texas ever knew…

mmcdMitch Miller w/ Orch & Chorus – “Yellow Rose Of Texas”

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