If you flip (digitally) through the 1910 University of Kentucky yearbook, you will run across a student play titled The Illinois Game, a thinly-veiled fictional account of Kentucky’s victory over the University of Illinois in the 1909 football season. In scene three, Kentucky students send off their northbound team at Lexington’s Southern Depot to the sound of a band playing “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here,” “Dixie” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” Unsurprisingly, given the era and the intersectional nature of the game, the latter two songs were blackface minstrel numbers that articulated white plantation fantasies about the antebellum South.
The yearbook story dates from the same era when “The Eyes of Texas” entered the University of Texas’ repertoire. In 1902, a University of Texas student paired the melody of a popular blackface minstrel song with new, Texas-centric text. UT students introduced “The Eyes of Texas” at a May 1903 college minstrel show, and soon the song permeated the school’s institutional life, including its football culture.
More than a century later, controversy over the origins of “The Eyes of Texas” has generated robust media coverage, a lengthy report by the university and a civil rights complaint to the U.S. Department of Education. Most of this debate targets the song’s text (does it quote Robert E. Lee?) and its minstrel show debut (did students perform in blackface back then?). Absent from the discussion is the historical context that minstrel songs were once common in the soundtrack of white college football in the South, reflecting the Lost Cause mythology that animated the South’s adoption of, and discourse around, the sport. Although the University of Texas report says little about “The Eyes of Texas” tune, it came from a popular blackface minstrel number called the “Levee Song” (later called “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”). First published in an 1894 Princeton songbook in dialect (the linguistic equivalent of blackface makeup), the “Levee Song” may have dated to earlier periods of minstrelsy. By the turn of the 20th century, blackface minstrelsy permeated U.S. popular culture, including college campuses across the country. A May 1907 quartet concert in Olsburg, Kansas, for instance, featured the “Levee Song,” “Possum Pie” and “Doan’ Ye Cry Ma’ Honey.” An 1897 Franklin & Marshall College Glee Club concert programmed the “Levee Song” alongside “Three Little Darkies.”
A Sept. 2, 1900, Raleigh Post editorial printed the song’s title in dialect (“Ah Been Wukkin’ on de Levee”) and declared it “of African creation”: a “real” work song, an authentically Black cultural product.
The editorial highlights an insidious legacy of minstrelsy: White Americans believed that it represented the music, dance, speech, movements and attitudes of real Black people. It’s impossible to unspool how much the “Levee Song” reflected elements of “authentic” Black work songs, white delusions of such, Black cultural products coerced by white folks, or some pastiche thereof. What is clear is that the song’s text reframed grueling Black physical labor as recreational (“I’ve been working on the levee, just to pass the time away”), rendering it a subject of light entertainment for white consumption.
Minstrel songs, especially those composed by Stephen Foster, had attained middle-class respectability by the time they entered the football culture of white Southern universities. “Respectable” minstrel songs centered the narrative stance of an imagined “sentimental slave” and included two Foster songs used in early Southern, predominantly white institutions (PWIs) football culture: “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Old Folks at Home.” Both Black and white artists performed these two songs in plantation-themed sketches and shows of the period, in minstrels and other contexts. Their texts and plantation-themed performance contexts erased, obscured or reframed Black labor — just like the “Levee Song.”
The University of Kentucky used “My Old Kentucky Home” as early as 1907, when its chorus appeared in the Kentuckian yearbook. By the early 1910s, the song formed a key part of the school’s football culture; the 1913 Kentucky yearbook records that the defeated Wildcats exited the field to the song’s strains. According to the student publication The Idea, the football team took the field in the 1910s underscored by the song, and alumni and students sang it at homecoming banquets. Soon Kentucky fans and opponents regarded “My Old Kentucky Home” as the university’s signature football song.
A 1923 article in the student newspaper, Kentucky Kernel, praised its affective power and the university band for its strategic deployment of this “battle hymn” at games. The article gleefully reported that the band’s performance of “My Old Kentucky Home” was noted by the Atlanta American, which stated that the song “causes men to do things that they are not otherwise capable of doing.” (The same Kernel article advertised a minstrel show band fundraiser.) A 1924 Kernel account of the Kentucky-Tennessee game name-checked “My Old Kentucky Home” four times, lauding its “soul-stirring strains” and the Tennessee band’s deferential performance of the song.
The text of “My Old Kentucky Home” brims with sentimentalized agrarian references. Its putative narrator romanticizes bright sunshine and “ripe corn tops” that in real life would have indexed backbreaking work in the heat by the enslaved people purportedly represented by this same narrator. The chorus describes children rolling around cabin floors in a primitive, unbothered state, “merry, happy and bright.” In 1914, The Idea speculated about the song’s composition in similar terms:
“[It was] written as a sort of musical souvenir of … the prosperous days ‘before the war.’ One morning while the slaves were at work and the darkey [sic] children were romping in the quarters, the visitors [including Stephen Foster] were seated on a bench in front of the mansion. … The trained ear of the composer caught the exquisite melody in the bird’s variations of the sweet music of the thrush and then and there … [Foster] jotted down the notes and scribbled several verses.”
This kind of account’s wildly euphemistic language, Steven Knepper has written, tended to “obscure and aestheticize” the reality of a Southern economy built on the stolen physical labor of chattel slavery: The white student writers at The Idea described the slaves “at work” in “the prosperous days ‘before the war’ ” while carefree Black children romped. The account also links the song to nature via birdsong, framing race-based slavery as a normalized part of a bucolic social order — a pillar of Lost Cause mythology.
“My Old Kentucky Home” also shows up in early football sources from other Southern schools, including in a short, undated collection of University of Florida fight songs. Here it appears alongside other minstrel songs such as “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” “Dixie” and “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground.” They all looked back, with racist terminology and undisguised longing, to the antebellum South. This songbook also included Foster’s “Old Folks at Home.” Referencing the “Swanee River” (Foster’s bowdlerization of Florida’s Suwannee River), “Old Folks at Home” was written in 1851. It was part of the University of Florida’s football culture well into the 20th century, played in band arrangements and printed in sources such as this undated songsheet. Like “My Old Kentucky Home,” the song’s text obscures the historical reality of the plantation as a site of forced Black labor through nostalgia (“I’m still a-longing for the old plantation”) that frames the non-plantation world as “sad and dreary.”
Southern PWIs used a constellation of other minstrel songs in their early football culture, including “Moonlight on Dixie,” “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” and, of course, “Dixie.” Like the Foster songs and the “Levee Song,” many of these songs obscured or minimized Black physical labor in the service of white plantation mythology. The well-worn words to “Dixie,” for instance, composed and voiced in the mid-19th century by a white actor in a minstrel show, speak of longing for the “land of cotton” where the past is remembered, handily concealing what “cotton” would have meant for enslaved Black men. The common thread, from the “Levee Song” to “Dixie,” is that songs used in early PWI football culture masked the realities of enslaved Black labor. Not coincidentally, they entered this culture at the very time when the Lost Cause myth emerged as a widespread ideology among white Southerners.
Late in the 20th century, minstrel songs began to fade from the Southern football repertory (though neither hastily nor uniformly) as people slowly grasped their troubling nature. The University of Mississippi marching band, for instance, didn’t stop playing “Dixie” until 2016. But “The Eyes of Texas” endures, because long ago, students unhitched a minstrel tune from a minstrel text. Can such a tune be rehabilitated, effectively divorced from an early and potent textual association? There are no clear answers, although there are some hard lines: Nobody would advocate we salvage the melody of “Dixie” with a new text.
There are other stakes to consider, too, as articulated in New York University music professor Matthew Morrison’s “Blacksound” concept: PWIs used blackface minstrel songs to build the pageantry of their million-dollar football enterprises while excluding Black citizens from their faculties and student bodies. Black men, though, were summoned spectrally in these songs, laboring ghosts that animated the soundscape of college football.
This musical stream was a grotesque antecedent of the structure of contemporary NCAA football, in which PWIs rely on the labor of young Black men. In borrowing from minstrel songs in the early 20th century, the University of Texas was not alone among Southern schools, and, as it prepares to join the Southeastern Conference, it fits neatly in their historical terrain.