Texas has an official state song, but no one really loves it. “Texas, Our Texas” is a song born of compulsion, not passion, pressed upon our freewheeling state like a stiff pair of dress shoes by the Texas Legislature way back in 1929. Since then, maybe you’ve sat politely through its brassy bloat at an elementary school recital or a Daughters of the Republic of Texas luncheon, but odds are you’ve never sought out the song on your own, nor caught yourself idly humming its dreary refrain.
The melody, composed by former Texas Christian University choir director William John Marsh, has all the cowboy swagger of a deacon on Sunday. The lyrics, from Greenville poet Gladys Yoakum, are equally prim, offering a liturgical hosanna to the virtues of patriotism, power, and not being ruled by tyrants. All told, it’s a bunch of turgid fluff that belongs in Disney World’s Hall of Presidents, or maybe North Korea. It took a formal act of the state to get Texans to even listen to “Texas, Our Texas,” which tells you everything about how catchy it is.
Texas has a lot of unofficial state songs, too: “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “The Eyes of Texas,” and even some tunes that don’t have a murkily racist, minstrel-show past, like “Waltz Across Texas” and “New San Antonio Rose.” Short of love, heartbreak, and women named Sally, perhaps no subject has inspired more songs than Texas. There are nearly enough to cover every single town. Were we looking to jettison “Texas, Our Texas” and adopt a new anthem, as some have suggested in these very pages, we’d certainly have plenty of others to choose from. But no matter what we picked, the truth is that our actual state song already is and would remain “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” just as it has been for eighty years now.
Putting an exact age on “Deep in the Heart of Texas” feels sort of strange; the fact that it’s not even a century old is even stranger. The song has become so deeply ingrained in our history and identity, you could have told me that Sam Houston sang it at his inauguration and I’d probably have believed you. Yet “Deep in the Heart of Texas” didn’t officially enter the pop canon until January 1942, when competing recordings by bandleaders Alvino Rey and Ted Weems (with vocals by Perry Como) first hit the Billboard charts. These were joined in quick succession by renditions of the song from Bing Crosby, Tommy Tucker, and the Merry Macs, all recorded and released within mere weeks of one another. In all, there were at least five versions of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” that took up residence on radio playlists that year, nearly all of them hits.
“Deep in the Heart of Texas” made it into the movies that year too. In March, Tioga’s own Gene Autry sang it on screen in Heart of the Rio Grande, then he did it again for May’s Stardust on the Sage. That August, Murvaul’s Tex Ritter performed it as the title song of the Johnny Mack Brown western Deep in the Heart of Texas. As odd as it may be to contemplate a time when “Deep in the Heart of Texas” was brand new, it’s even more incredible to consider just how quickly it became a standard. It instantly whetted some until-then-unidentified national appetite for songs about how big and awesome Texas is.
Perhaps no one was more surprised by the song’s overnight success than its two composers, the husband-and-wife team of Don Swander and June Hershey. Before his death in 1996, Swander claimed to have written more than three thousand songs, the bulk of which were for Hollywood westerns. By the time he and Hershey came up with “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” in late 1941, they’d already spent years mining a rich vein of “singing cowboy” clichés in songs such as “Two Gun Troubadour,” “The Cowboy and the Schoolmar’m,” and “Ridin’ Down the Trail to Albuquerque.” Swander was an Iowa-born, Washington-bred piano prodigy, while Hershey hailed from Los Angeles. The closest the duo ever came to the rustler’s life of saddlebags and six-shooters would have been through movies and pulp novels. Yet that mattered little to an audience weaned on the same. The western’s broad, mythic strokes, reliable and interchangeable, are what have made the genre so enduring, and Swander and Hershey knew just how to play them.
“Deep in the Heart of Texas” certainly traffics in all of those tropes. It’s really just a list of simple, see-and-say rhymes about the flora and fauna you might find along the trail—in Texas, sure, but also in our collective, Hollywood-fueled imagination. Coyotes and rabbits. Chicken hawks and cactus plants. Nothing about the song is particularly clever or singularly evocative; it assures us that “the oil wells are full of smells” in Texas, and it dares to rhyme “chaps” with “perhaps.” In an obituary for Swander, the Las Vegas Sun cites a 1982 interview in which he admits that he was actually “ashamed” of “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” saying, “I wrote a lot of songs that were better.” Swander dismisses it as a “two-chord song,” a sentiment that was echoed in one of the earliest reviews, from a 1942 issue of Time, which noted, “Its childishly simple but rollicking tune has only 30 notes; to fill out a 32-bar chorus, the melody has to be repeated.”
Maybe so. But as with those Western clichés, simpler is usually better, and the pleasure lies in the repetition. “Deep in the Heart of Texas” might only have two chords and thirty notes, but they’re the right chords and the right notes, pitched at such staccato frequency that they’ve already permanently lodged themselves in the brain by the second verse. By then you’ll be primed to sing along with the chorus, which requires only the musical talent of being very loud. And of course, there is the not-so-secret key to the song’s success: those hand claps, four boisterous quarter notes that evoke boot stomps on a saloon floor and remain attainable to even the most rhythm-deficient. It’s likely you’ve heard the story of how the BBC once banned Bing Crosby’s “Deep in the Heart of Texas” during the daylight hours of World War II, concerned that factory workers might be driven to abandon their tools to clap along. It was overly cautious, perhaps, but not entirely wrong. For most people, merely reading the words, “The stars at night/Are big and bright” will provoke the Pavlovian urge to slap your palms together, then slap the nearest back while you belt out the rest.
Its sense of sing-along camaraderie came at the right moment too. As Swander himself pointed out, the song’s fortunes were not so coincidentally tied to its debut during World War II, when rally songs were in high demand. Como’s version was recorded just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Those other 1942 renditions rolled out in the earliest months of mobilization, which imparted a more martial bent to the song’s jaunty hand claps as American troops used it to pump themselves up for battle. “It was World War II which made it a hit,” Swander told the Las Vegas Sun. “Those Texans go all over and raise hell. They wanted to hear the song.”
But of course, it wasn’t just Texans who loved the tune. Just like all those movie cowboys, “Deep in the Heart of Texas” cemented our state as a potent crucible of American myth. Soldiers who pictured themselves as the white-hat heroes, galloping boldly into the European and Pacific theaters, drew from the tune’s rootin’-tootin’ bravado. They pined nostalgically for the sagebrush and big prairie skies of home, even if they grew up in Brooklyn brownstones. “Deep in the Heart of Texas” evokes freedom, autonomy, and the simple joys of life in a way that is simultaneously galvanizing and comforting. Not bad for thirty little notes.
As with most things associated with both World War II and westerns, “Deep in the Heart of Texas” has ebbed and flowed in popularity since it debuted. It popped up in some period films from the late forties and fifties, appearing mostly as a way of establishing a movie’s wartime setting. It made a brief return to the Billboard charts in 1962, when Duane Eddy recorded an up-tempo, characteristically twangy version that blew out those two chords into a wild saxophone solo. Swander and Hershey’s composition has since joined the rare “million-air” club, denoting songs that have been broadcast more than a million times. But arguably the song’s biggest, most recent cultural moment came in 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, when Pee-wee Herman, challenged to “prove” he’s in Texas, shouts out the opening lines at a San Antonio bus station, spurring all the passersby to stop and join in.
It’s silly, but again, that’s not totally off the mark. Today “Deep in the Heart of Texas” is almost more ritual than actual song. It’s still played at nearly every major sporting event in the state, clap-clap-clap-clapped along to by fans of the University of Texas Longhorns, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Houston Astros alike. For decades, George Strait has used it as his walk-on music (which seems like kind of a cheat, if you ask me, but okay). Plenty of other musicians have covered it on record, or dutifully trotted it out while passing through here—such as Arcade Fire, led by Houston-raised Win Butler—with varying degrees of sincerity. Maybe it comes off a tad obvious in these airings, a little bit cloying and corny. But “Deep in the Heart of Texas” has endured not because it’s musically sophisticated or even particularly beautiful, but because it’s unifying. It brings us all together under its big, bright stars in a way that so few other state anthems can boast of, and certainly not “Texas, Our Texas.” Even after all this time, “Deep in the Heart of Texas” still feels like home.