BACK WHEN I WAS A KID, there were five big state symbols. Everyone knew them; they didn’t change. They were: the state flower (bluebonnet), tree (pecan), bird (mockingbird), motto (“Friendship”), and song (“Texas, Our Texas”). But nowadays, state symbols are proliferating sneakily, like coat hangers in the closet or twist ties in the kitchen drawer. There are currently 41 officially sanctioned Texas symbols; in last spring’s legislative session we acquired not one but two state pastries—the sopaipilla and the strudel—as well as an official snack, tortilla chips and salsa. Other icon-come-latelys include the state vegetable (sweet onion), flying mammal (Mexican free-tailed bat), seashell (lightning whelk), and dinosaur (Carole Keeton Strayhorn … ha-ha. Actually, it’s the Pleurocoelus).
But all these silly emblems are just my subgripe. One of our most venerable icons is a mess, and—before we start piling up more state thises and state thats—I say let’s fix what’s broken. I am referring, of course, to “Texas, Our Texas.” As anyone of discernment and taste will agree, it is a sorry song. When is the last time you sang it—if, indeed, you ever have—and do you even remember the lyrics? Has anyone performed it at any function, public or private, since Preston Smith was governor? (I can imagine few things less likely today than a gymful of fans intoning “Texas, Our Texas” before tip-off; in fact, the last time I remember a crowd singing it was the high school graduation scene in The Last Picture Show .)
Never mind school finance and health care. Our legislators should get to work fixing our state song. I’ve disliked it ever since Mrs. Lane, the music teacher at Sam Houston Elementary in Pampa, banged it out on the piano for my fourth-grade class (“ Sing, boys and girls!”). The lyrics were taffy-sticky—”Boldest and grandest, withstanding ev’ry test/O empire wide and glorious, you stand supremely blest!”—and the melody had all the finesse of Trigger stomping out a warning to Roy. On top of everything else, I discovered that the word “boldest” had originally been “largest,” until Alaska’s 1959 admission to the Union necessitated a small but embarrassing repair job.
“Texas, Our Texas” was adopted by the Legislature in 1929, exactly 75 years ago. Why didn’t our politicos go with a classic, as Kentucky’s had a year earlier (Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”)? Seems like “The Yellow Rose of Texas” would have been a shoo-in. Instead, the bigwigs announced a statewide contest, and you-know-what prevailed. William J. Marsh, a professor at Texas Christian University, composed the melody and co-wrote the lyrics with fellow Fort Worth resident Gladys Yoakum Wright. Their combined effort won them $1,000 and the praise of march-meister John Philip Sousa. It promptly became the state’s most oft-sung song—except, perhaps, for UT’s “The Eyes of Texas.” Today most Aggies can probably sing “The Eyes of Texas”—not willingly, I grant you, but they probably can—whereas no A&M or UT loyalist is likely to know the complete correct lyrics to the first stanza of “Texas, Our Texas.” There are two additional stanzas, by the way. Both are consistently syrupy—in part because the “glorious Alamo” makes an appearance—as well as full of convoluted constructions (“Texas, dear Texas! From tyrant grip now free/Shines forth in splendor your star of destiny!”), which I find a tendency irksome.
The real shame of being stuck with “Texas, Our Texas” is that an empire with our wide and glorious musical heritage shouldn’t settle for pap. We have scores of excellent replacements out there just waiting for the nod, if only some brave legislator would back one that strikes a chord with the public and harmonizes with our history. I’d like to nominate “Waltz Across Texas,” Ernest Tubb’s most beautiful composition, and “Miles and Miles of Texas,” Asleep at the Wheel’s finest turn. Other front-runners might range from an oldie but goodie like “Deep in the Heart of Texas” to a newbie but goodie like Lyle Lovett’s “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas).” And there’s no need to limit ourselves to a single title: Tennessee, another musical realm of note, has six state songs, including “The Tennessee Waltz” and “Rocky Top.” But let’s focus first on quality, not quantity. For now, I just want to see “Texas, Our Texas” in my rearview mirror.